Pakistan v South Africa, 2nd ODI, Lahore October 20, 2007

Pakistan triumph despite imperfect performance



Though not at his elegant best, Mohammad Yousuf managed to hold Pakistan's innings together © AFP

In years to come, trying to explain how Pakistan won this match will take some serious doing. It says much about cricket, indeed sport, that South Africa won the first match with as close to the perfect game as possible and Pakistan won two days later with a game far closer to imperfect than perfect.

Cast a glance if you please at the mess. The common contention after their innings was that they fell a fair few runs short of setting a decent target. Shoaib Malik, the captain, thought 265 was not a winning total, but a defendable one. The openers contributed nothing and three batsmen got out just when they shouldn't have.

Even Mohammad Yousuf's hundred was a mixed affair: necessary as it was, it wasn't quite cut from the same, elegant cloth you might expect. Having reached fifty, under pressure, with barely a bead of sweat wasted, he became a different beast thereafter. Only two boundaries came in his next fifty and his timing deserted him. More importantly, as partners fell around him, the situation demanded Yousuf yanking it; he couldn't though to be fair, he wasn't allowed to.

"The wicket was slow and the old ball was difficult to hit," Yousuf said later. "It wasn't difficult to hit on this pitch, but just to find gaps." Yet, ultimately he was the difference and his return to Pakistan's middle order after a longish break, part enforced, part voluntary, has been as soothing a balm to the departure of Inzamam-ul-Haq as Pakistan could want.

Though Yousuf disagreed with his captain on what was a winning total - he thought 240 - both would agree that Pakistan went about defending it in the worst possible manner. Umar Gul set the pattern in the very first over, bowling Graeme Smith off a second-ball no-ball.

That extra was the first of 20, which included 14 wides and, with the new regulations now, an unforgivable four no-balls. They fluffed a couple of run-outs but went to the greatest lengths to discredit the dictum that catches win matches: they dropped five and still won. Smith, including his non-dismissal, became 4/9th of a cat, offering three further chances in a real struggle of an innings.

Malik downplayed the significance of these blips. "Anyone can drop catches. We are working hard on our fielding and will continue to do so." The truth is, however, that not every side does drop them or certainly not as many as Pakistan did today. And the problem is that it happens to Pakistan more often than other sides.

In fact, Shoaib Malik might even afford himself a smile: if you can win when playing like this, imagine what you can do when you play well

Given all this, Pakistan still got some key things right. Gul shed hisTwenty20 role and opened the bowling, becoming an attacking threat as opposed to a first-change run-saver. Rao Iftikhar Anjum with a softer ball felt much better than with the new ball; mixing off-cutters with good, honest fast-medium fare, he bowled wonderfully well for career-best figures. They also brought in another specialist bowler and Abdur Rehman's tight ten-over spell, spanning the middle and end of the innings, was crucial. Rightly, Malik credited the win to his bowlers. "Even despite the catches, they kept going and did so well."

Serendipity also got involved. In the absence of an official vice-captain - Salman Butt being a non-playing one - Younis Khan stood in as captain for 31 overs after Malik went off with cramps. And as he made a habit of doing when Inzamam was captain, he immediately made the incumbent look inactive and positively ponderous as soon as he took over, directing, cheering and hustling away.

Mischievously, Malik was asked what he thought of Younis' leadership. "We don't worry about who is captain. We are like a family where everyone is captain. He was very good and I made sure I thanked him for it." Many will still wonder, though, just what could have been.

There was, in the end, a strange symmetry with the first match. The margin of defeat was similar. There was also a late rally from South Africa though they were never really in the chase after their start. But the win was achieved in entirely different fashion and Pakistan won't mind how they come. In fact, Malik might even afford himself a smile: if you can win when playing like this, imagine what you can do when you play well.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo