South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day January 11, 2007

Pulling up short

Younis Khan pulled this one safely © AFP

To pull or not to pull? It is one of the more intriguing questions batsmen face. By choosing to take on the short ball, the intent is admirably purposeful. Never the shy, retiring type, Viv Richards said of the hook, a first cousin of the pull, "The fast bowler is testing your courage and your speed of reaction and you are trying to hit him either to, or over the boundary. You are telling the bully with the ball that you are not scared of anything he can send down at you."

It's a fair point, for batsmen would much rather be accused of being compulsive hookers or pullers than being known for shuffling away to square leg when confronted by a short ball. Richards also likened hooking to riding a "roller coaster of risk," and it is that risk which was rammed home to Pakistan today.

Pakistan weren't blown away by a short-ball barrage, as many had feared they might be. But they were hustled out by a judicious use of it. Three batsmen fell playing poor pulls, two of whom had been at the crease long enough to know better.

Yasir Hameed and Younis Khan are not the two Y's who normally put on big third-wicket partnerships for Pakistan but they had batted serenely enough to disentangle their side from a tricky position. As always, Younis let everyone know he was there; he clapped his own partner, nodded at bowlers who beat him, cheerily acknowledged fielders who athletically cut off his strokes and acknowledged his own shots, too.

Hameed it was who appeared changed. It's been 18 months since he last played a Test for Pakistan and longer since he was a regular. Not all of it was his own fault, for he was once dropped the match after scoring two fifties as opener in a Sydney Test. He had faults sure, chasing outside off with a relentlessness not seen since Smokey followed the Bandit. Gone was the urgency, the joie de vivre of his early years, replaced instead by an unsmiling grimness. If his shots weren't so pretty, you'd be tempted to call him a grinder. But the timing remains, evidenced in a drive or two and a ridiculously good flicked six over square leg.

Both knocks ended badly, as did Faisal Iqbal's short stay immediately after, the three taking Richards advice gleefully, though not perhaps balancing it with that element of risk the great man pointed out as an afterthought.

Mind you, the wickets weren't pure freebies; they were just reward for the hosts. South Africa lacked a little fizz, perhaps understandably hungover from the monumental effort required to beat India. Nobody could blame them for that Test ended less than a week ago and by the time this one ends, it will be their fourth in a month.

Bob Woolmer rightly complained about 'nonsensical' schedules which allow sides little time to acclimatize but South Africa might also back up the grievance in a different context: there just isn't enough time for fast bowlers to rest. Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini bowled over a hundred overs each in the series against India and Andre Nel would have done comfortably had he played the last Test. Allan Donald advocating resting one or two key bowlers at some stage is increasingly sounding like sound, sagely advice.

Yet, as you would expect of bowlers as wholehearted as this trio, they collectively muscled through the day, bowling 56 overs between them. Ntini hustled, Nel bristled and Pollock plotted, to lesser degrees than you might expect admittedly, but they eventually turned what could have been a long, flat day into a surprisingly profitable one. Run-rates never got out of hand, even during the afternoon session when no wickets fell, the fielding rarely lagged and the day ended just about in even balance.

Pakistan, though, might rue not finding a balance between the bravado Viv Richards trumpeted and what another decent bat once suggested. Swaying out of the way, David Gower once wrote, avoiding the short ball can often "be more disconcerting to the bowler than attacking commit the bowler to a growing sense of frustration, a loss of temper or control, or a change of tactics, which must work to your advantage."

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo