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Wahab v Watson, the fury and the folly

"Are you holding a bat?"

When Shane Watson stalks in from the slips to lean in and spit those words at Wahab Riaz, does he know? Does he have any bloody idea, what he is really doing to Wahab, and 90 minutes later, to himself?

Australia had, at one stage, spoken in team meetings about easing off Kevin Pietersen verbally. "It fires him up," was Brett Lee's reasoning. They had not had this meeting about Wahab. When Mitchell Starc beats his edge with an outswinging yorker in the 39th over, the bowler slithers forward. He tells the batsman: "It's the white thing, you have to hit it." Wahab, already cranky at another middle-order meltdown from his team-mates, follows Starc down the pitch. He seethes at the bowler, complains to the umpires.

Next over, James Faulkner throws Wahab a stare. Brad Haddin, running close to the stumps to collect a return throw, sticks his own verbal shiv in Wahab's side. Watson's sledge is only one of many, but it's Watson's sledge Wahab remembers. Before the end of the night, Watson would know best of all, this is not a man worth ruffling; that Wahab's blood boils when you turn up the heat.

Eighteen overs and an innings break later, it is Wahab with the white thing in his hands. Third ball, he rushes David Warner into an uppercut, which settles in the palms of third man Rahat Ali. Tenth ball, Michael Clarke arches his creaking back and fends the white thing to Sohaib Maqsood at short leg.

The first ball to Watson would have flattened the batsman's grille. He dips beneath it with only a little discomfort, but for Wahab, ducking is tantamount to submission. He gets in Watson's face, claps him sarcastically. The next ball is 150kph, Watson dare not play.

The next over is even more intense. Wahab is an inferno. The white thing is a meteor. Watson goes through series of evasive full-body spasms. His back and limbs are aping the shape of half the alphabet, but his mouth can form no words now. In the stands, 35,516 people all smell leather, voices hoarse, fidgeting, pumping fists from the edge of their seats. In the slips, Haris Sohail's face contorts at the climax of each delivery, sometimes with glee, other times with desperation. On occasion his eyes are filled with fear. Is he afraid for Watson?

Steven Smith, who is bending space-time to appear in a parallel universe from his partner, routinely takes a single early in the overs that follow and coolly observes the combat from the best vantage point in the world. Does he feel the heat pouring off Wahab? Is he enjoying the view?

All through the match, the cricket had not failed to be interesting. This spell is transcendental. Of the tens of thousands in the ground, there is only one protagonist, and one victim, but the cricket so good, all are drawn in. Wahab's anger is felt as keenly as Watson's timidity. So bent is Wahab on embarrassing Watson, he taunts him after every ball.

In one over, he does it so many times, it's as if Wahab rides a conveyor belt from the bowling crease into Watson's personal space. In the crowd, nothing of their exchange is heard, but its details are intimately understood. The Adelaide Oval playing surface covers acres of land. The stands themselves are vast and high. But in those moments, it's as if the whole stadium exists in the burning space between these two men.

"When I was batting Watson just came up to me and said, 'Are you holding a bat?' And that was going through my mind," Wahab later said. "I let him know that even he is having the bat, but he couldn't touch the ball. I know that nowadays, he's not good on the short ball. It was a plan of myself that we discussed in the team meeting."

Eventually, Watson is defeated. Having ducked, arched and hopped, he is eventually humiliated into playing a hook shot off the first ball of Wahab's fifth over. Australian crowds so often scream insults at foreign fielders lining up high catches, but in the seconds this top-edged ball hung in the air, the wind's rustling through the trees at the Cathedral End was heard in perfect silence. When Rahat spilt the simple chance, 35,000 yelped - more in relief than frustration. A sheepish Watson is avoiding gazes at the non-striker's end. A disbelieving Wahab is keeled over, mid pitch.

In the limp finish, an hour later, Australia cruise to the semi-final with six wickets in hand and 97 balls remaining. On the scoreboard, Wahab's figures read 9-0-54-2. Watson has 64 not out from 66. Few will remember in years to come, the ins and outs; that Pakistan had been bowled out for 213.

But few will forget the theatre, and the unbridled, oscillating emotion of this spell. Tattooed into their nerves will be the night a fast bowler filled a stadium with his fury; the half-hour their collective pulses raced in sync with a batsman's heart.