South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Test, Centurion, 4th day January 14, 2007

A funny old tail

No sunshine for Shaun Pollock as Rana Naved makes hay © AFP

There cannot be many more entertaining sights in cricket than a prolonged bash from the tail. It has to be a proper biffing though, none of this fandangled, modern-day tailend pretension to batsmanship. Jason Gillespie dead batting his way to a double hundred and a Test average of nearly 19 is fine and commendable, but a little dull, truth be told. Multi-dimension is an admirable pursuit but so too is chartered accountancy.

What everyone wants is occasional comedy from men who shouldn't be able to bat, the type which emerged in Pakistan's second innings when Kamran Akmal played an ill-advised sweep to Paul Harris. The shot left Pakistan with no recognised batsmen, at 199 for 7, a bare lead of 95.

The last three wickets more than doubled that lead, adding 103 fantastic runs between them. Some of them were actually respectably made too, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Shahid Nazir mixing crunching pulls with the odd cut and drive. Even Danish Kaneria, a true heir to Courtney Walsh, said hello to Makhaya Ntini with a straight slap over his head. The rest were made from slapstick, a technique only the likes of Walsh, Glenn McGrath and Muttiah Muralitharan have really been able to master. Steve Harmison, with his reverse sweeps, might eventually be able to.

Bats remain horizontal mostly for them, their shots destined to always be called swipes, mows, heaves. One of Naved-ul-Hasan's first shots was a fault rather than a dot, ending as it did a tennis serve to a Shaun Pollock bouncer. Sometimes, as with Nazir, there is backing away, slyly disguised as a clearing of the left leg to clear the infield. Often the backing away becomes an awkward duck, before the batsman falls over.

The comedy can be contagious. Catches that would normally be pouched are somehow dropped as Pollock discovered when Nazir ungainly lifted a pull to mid-on. Simple run-outs are fluffed, as Harris discovered. Granted the slogging was baseball-like but was he really attempting an ambitious double play before deciding that neither end was worth a shy, even with both batsmen mid-pitch? It affects the umpires too, otherwise would Billy Doctrove have missed an outside edge? Actually...

It's the bowlers though who go completely bonkers. What do they do? Take the new ball? Bowl full, bowl short? Mix it up? Or just wait? Having bowled so well for most of the day and completely shackled Pakistan's top-order, South Africa's pacemen lost the plot against the tail, leaking 103 runs in just about 17 overs. Until then, 96 had been eked from 45 overs. They tried short-pitched intimidation, a slower ball or two (not enough though), some good-length stuff a proper batsman might respect. They should've tried yorkers. Or just become spinners. It took Harris two balls to end the fun after he came back.

This kind of tomfoolery can have serious effects. Often, it deflates the fielding side while simultaneously pumping up their opponents. It can be a little momentum nudge to the scales of match, especially one as tight as this, much like a wicket near the end of the day does. And we've had both here. It can also show up their more illustrious top-order: 'Why were you having such a difficult time of it?' they can justifiably ask Inzamam-ul-Haq, Faisal Iqbal and Younis Khan.

Sometimes it proves nothing more than a little harmless giggle, the result of the match impervious to its attractions. It may turn out that way in this match, for despite Pakistan's tailend resistance, you would think Jacques Kallis, Ashwell Prince and the rest capable of getting 130 runs between them.

One thing is certain: if the rain stays away it is unlikely to end as did previous contests between the two sides where the tail has featured significantly. Test cricket's highest ninth- and tenth-wicket stands came within five months of each either as 1997 became 1998. Azhar Mahmood and Mushtaq Ahmed put on 151 for the last wicket in Rawalpindi, before Mark Boucher and Pat Symcox returned the favour in Johannesburg, putting on a mammoth 195, two Tests which ultimately ended as draws.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo