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January 22, 2006
Horses for courses; it used to be said of England's policy of selecting bowlers for pitches like Headingley in particular at one time. Neil Mallender, now an umpire, came, wrecked Pakistan at Leeds in 1992 and swiftly disappeared. It hasn't happened in recent memory on Pakistani pitches - if ever. But if we are to go by Bob Woolmer's comments about the inclusion of Abdul Razzaq for this match, then we may have a bona fide case for it on a beige pitch at Iqbal Stadium that batsmen may not be able to trust implicitly.
Razzaq's case is obviously different; he hasn't been drafted in unheard or unheralded and in his time, has been a skilled bowler on a variety of surfaces. But his inclusion ahead of Rana Naved-ul-Hasan surprised many, mostly because, by replacing a specialist opening bowler with an all-round first-change against a line-up that smote over four hundred runs and lost a solitary wicket in the previous Test, the move seemed defensive. It was explained by the team eventually that the duplicity of bounce in the track might be better exploited by Razzaq's medium-pace of nippy cut-backs rather than Rana's swinging industry.
Virender Sehwag's dismissal, driving in two minds to false length and bounce three balls into Razzaq's first over immediately strengthened the credentials of this argument. A bustling seven-over spell subsequently contained enough promise to suggest it might yet prove a successful ploy. His line hovered around off-stump, his length veered usefully; occasionally balls broke in, staying lower than normal and generally eliciting enough oohs and aahs to keep everyone entertained. Should the selection be lauded? Tomorrow will reveal more for in this Test, he comes as a frontline bowler expected to provide frontline results.
As a group, Pakistan's bowling remained equally committed and entertaining on a pitch which still sells runs, plenty and quick. Mohammad Asif's second unveiling already has more promise in it than did his first against Australia at Sydney last year. Pleasingly, Sehwag was well-handled and a little more bounce might even have done for Rahul Dravid early on. It is said of him that he is among the most improved of Pakistan's bubbling group of pacemen over the last year, having sped past the portfolios presented by Umar Gul, Mohammad Khalil and Mohammad Irshad among others and 11 neat overs added credence to the claim.
As an aside, that they managed to stop Sehwag is triumph enough for initially, all portents looked gloomy. The first two balls of the innings went for boundaries and when he was dropped at slip in Shoaib Akhtar's second over, a chance that came harder of the bat's edge than it did from the bowler's hand, déjà vu reared. There has been much talk in Pakistan of how to stop Sehwag. As a strategy, catching the chances he offers often enough might not be such a bad one. Imran Farhat's drop wasn't in the end costly but consider this: in eight Test matches now against Sehwag, Pakistan have contrived to drop him more than ten times, showing no bias between chances simple or difficult. Usually, as at Multan, Mohali and even Lahore - when he was dropped on 125 and 199 - he has taken a heavy toll. He has pillaged from them over thousand runs but conceivably, it could be half the amount.
Of late, pillage has been the preserve of Pakistan's batsmen. Twelve more runs this afternoon would have meant a third successive 600-plus total and even accounting for the placidity of the tracks, the feat is not a mean one. Over the last year, almost every batsmen, of top, middle and lower residence, has contributed and regularly. So rich and plentiful has the run getting been that it is difficult to decide which feats are more impressive; Afridi's three Test hundreds all at more than a run-a-ball, Yousuf and Younis's twinned emerging solidity, Akmal's centuries, Inzamam's omnipresence or even Shoaib's sudden love for batting's defensive disciplines. For batting, Pakistanis are suddenly spoilt for choice, a rare occasion the likes of which we haven't seen since the seventies.
Plays of the Day from second ODI between South Africa and Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth
Plays of the Day from the third ODI between India and West Indies, in Kanpur