Pakistan v South Africa, 4th ODI, Multan October 26, 2007

Call in the pinch-hitter

Shaun Pollock suits the role of the pinch-hitter, technically competent enough to bat at various tempos and in different situations. With that in mind, it wasn't such a surprise to see him coming in one down here



Why hasn't Shaun Pollock batted up the order more often? © Getty Images

Mickey Arthur said before this match he had a plan to counter the middle-over tangle South Africa have found themselves in twice against Pakistan's spinners. It turned out to be one of the oldest modern-day ODI tactics: call in the pinch-hitter.

For intangible reasons, the use of the pinch-hitter - a lower-order batsman sent up the order - has faded in recent years. Maybe it was just a passing mid-90s fad, as opposed to a full-blown trend. Maybe the definition of a pinch-hitter has become more fluid: aren't players nowadays expected to be multi-dimensional anyway? The game has quickened up, sides are loaded with big-hitting proper batsmen, and perhaps the pinch-hitter is now expected to be a proper batsman and not just some fluke chancer.

Irfan Pathan was a recent, prolonged example of the tactic, though some might argue he has become a better batsman than bowler by the end of it. But in its time, for shock value, the promotion of a lower-order batsman to capitalise on a good start, or provide impetus to a faltering one, was often priceless. Who can forget Chetan Sharma's only hundred, against England, or Bob Woolmer's use of the sensational Lance Klusener up the order or little Romesh Kaluwitharana's 1996 madness?

Some players, allrounders particularly, are ideal for the job. Chris Cairns and Ian Harvey were good enough batsmen to occasionally pull it off. Even Abdul Razzaq did it well enough, but Pakistan's traditional problems with opening often forced him, like Imran Khan during the 1992 World Cup, to become as much a pinch-blocker at as an aggressor.

Shaun Pollock suits the role too, technically competent enough to bat at various tempos and in different situations. With that in mind, it wasn't such a surprise to see him coming in one down here. To learn, however, that it was only the fourth time he had done it in his entire career was a considerably greater one. And the other three occasions were hardly serious attempts to sway a match. Why he hasn't been used in the role more often, especially based on the evidence of this innings, is difficult to fathom.

South Africa's starts have been good during this series but it is their middle order that has pottered about against Shahid Afridi and Abdur Rehman, not scoring enough runs and eventually losing their wickets. Pollock came in just as spin did, another good start already banked.

"Today we made some decisions and I am very grateful they came off," explained Graeme Smith later. "As captain you're happy that those gambles come off. Shaun came in and played superbly. Earlier in the year he got a hundred, which was great to see, and he's been craving the opportunity to get up the order, especially in these conditions. Today, with his experience, and Albie Morkel at the end of the innings, it allows us to do it. It was a superb knock."

That Pollock wasn't going to go the way of his middle-order men became immediately clear, and the manner in which he did it - a delicious, late cut off the last ball of the over for a boundary - set up the blueprint for the rest of his innings. This was no slog, for Pollock is no slogger.

Most of his subsequent strokeplay was composed of proper cricket shots; lofted drives straight down the ground, inside out drives over extra cover, solid pulls, and one near-perfect sweep. Among current batsmen Pollock's bat-swing is perhaps the one that comes closest to Brian Lara's in terms of beauty. At its top, before it swoops down for contact, it could be the swing of a golfer, coiled yet languid. His long arms also provide a useful, rubbery whip to his shots. The feet, and those long graceful strides in particular, were well employed to nullify the spin, not only reducing its threat, but turning it into a weakness for Pakistan.

Perhaps only the bat swing of Brian Lara compares to Pollock's in terms of beauty. At its top, before it swoops down for contact, it could be the swing of a golfer, coiled yet languid. His long arms also provide a useful rubbery whip to his shots

Eighty-four balls were enough to make you wonder why he is so much more acclaimed as a bowler. Alternatively, it tells you just how good a bowler he actually is, as a fantastic opening spell earlier in the day also made perfectly clear. But a batting average of 26 in nearly 300 matches, only one hundred, and now 13 fifties, does scant justice to a rare gift. This was his highest ODI score in South African colours, his solitary hundred coming for the Africa XI earlier this year.

"I enjoyed it today," Pollock said. "Graeme and Herschelle [Gibbs] got us off to a flier and my aim was to take advantage of the Powerplays. I enjoyed it, but there are some fantastic cricketers up there who normally do the job."

Those lower down are no less fantastic.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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