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Players and ploys!
by Sreelata Yellamrazu
Jan 13, 2007
The adage goes- catches win matches. But there is another ingredient that plays a decisive role in the outcome of the match. Master moves and strategies certainly make a fight of the most insipid of battles. There were a few on show during Pakistan’s first Test against South Africa in Centurion.

Many complain Shaun Pollock has lost considerable pace. But that is only when South Africa has not effected an early breakthrough and the pressure of conceding too many runs is mounting. And when does that happen? While Pollock has been hailed as the man of series during the length of the duration of India’s stay in South Africa, Makhaya Ntini has sometimes been described as being out of form.

It is a strange reading because South Africa may have failed to pick up wickets. For Ntini's bowling to be termed a pedestrian attack is quite ludicrous. Look at the way Ntini came back into the wicket-taking picture against South Africa.

The crushing blow that damaged Pakistan's first innings in the ongoing test was almost entirely due to Ntini's fired up bowling. He did end up with a five wicket haul. A man who runs miles after the third day’s play of almost every Test match must have oodles of resilience to be kept down by what is commonly termed a loss of form.

Speaking of loss of form and not about Graeme Smith, South Africa has had to rethink the role of one key player. On his day, he can be the most destructive and yet the most seductive of beautiful strikers of the cricket ball. His ability to stand still and punch the ball into the desired gap with force and purpose of plunder is terrifying exciting. Yet Herschelle Gibbs has been a shade of his past brilliance. As pressure mounted on him to step down, South Africa did exactly what India did to Sehwag. Only Gibbs grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Batting in the middle order as opposed to his role as a prolific opener, Gibbs fought his way to form and fortitude during the series against India.

Ashwell Prince has been enigmatic all through the summer and his sixth Test century came as no surprise. That is not to say it carried any less weight. It was mightily important for South Africa’s cause and in the context of the record 213 partnership with Gibbs. But Gibbs created a sixth in a line of record that he would not be particularly proud of. But as things stand at present, would Gibbs be dejected he got out for the sixth time in the nineties or would he rue it, too much? A bit of both perhaps.

It is an entirely different matter that Mohammad Asif struck with a five wicket haul of his own and tellingly so for Pakistan to virtually derail South Africa’s top order, including skipper Graeme Smith and the powerhouse that is Jacques Kallis. Pakistan has played some priceless moves. It may have had to sacrifice a pawn or two along the way. But it did not lose sight of the objective. And this is where other teams will watch mutely as Pakistan picks up the pieces and goes from strength to strength.

In a move that is bound to go down in history as seemingly innocuous and deceptively so would be playing Mohammad Asif while holding Shoaib Akhtar back. What is the prime ingredient when a controversy is on the cards? It is holding the bigger card back. Pakistan may have deprived themselves of Akhtar’s services in the short run but it is a move that is likely to reward them with his overwhelming presence at the world cup.

Ultimately what would be the team goal, or rather the goal of any team for that matter, coming into 2007? It would have to be winning the World Cup by a long stretch. Would Pakistan risk losing a series in South Africa to have Akhtar in the Caribbean? Absolutely! What team wouldn’t? Let us rephrase that. What smart thinking team wouldn’t? This is not about underhand tactics. This is about stretching the boundaries of the law without over stretching on the boundaries of the game. Should Pakistan be praised or condemned? That is as individualistic a decision as will ever be made.

But here is where the punch line lies? Asif has been brought back under the claim of innocence and waywardness of youth. But Pakistan is playing a deceptive game where one blink, and the move is completely shrouded. Recent records will show that Asif has been consistent as Pakistan’s spearhead and bringing a rare sense of incisiveness in a bowling line up that has seen quite a few fast bowlers. Consider Umar Gul, Shahid Nazir or even Rana Naved ul-Hassan and chances are Asif would get the nod ahead of any of these any other day of the year.

So if opposition teams are living in the fallacy that they are essentially avoiding facing the deadlier bowler through Pakistan’s absurd flaws in recent months, they are more than likely to lose the match purely on the strength of Asif’s ability to take responsibility for the bulk of Pakistan’s strike bowler workload. Pakistan being absurd? Not at all.

Coming back to the context of the match, the match was set up perfectly and the 104 run lead was just the impetus the match required. The Test was in serious danger of going into a lull with neither team wanting to take a risk too many trying to push the opposition into committing an error. That the weather only played a critically intervening role leaves South Africa twiddling their thumbs in fervent anticipation for a second Test in succession. But for the cricket viewer, it only makes matters more interesting. How often has that been said of the rain? Not too many times in the past, and hopefully not too many times in the future.

Many events around the world have hoodwinked us into believing the unthinkable and the improbable. Irrespective of the ultimate outcome of the match, does not Pakistan’s move look deceptively benign in comparison? That will all change when Asif has the ball in his hand. Prince and Ntini would walk into any contemporary dream team and there is a danger doubting the ability of either one of these players. Wouldn’t India dearly like to say that of Virender Sehwag? Some moves materialize, others misfire.

 
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