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June 16, 1999

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Pakistan turn it on, en route to finals

Prem Panicker

If there was one area of concern for Pakistan, ahead of the semifinal against New Zealand, it lay in a batting that, especially at the top, had a brittle look to it.

Talk of peaking, then, at the right time -- today, the batting came good in brilliant style, to power the side to a one-sided, 9 wicket win against New Zealand, being touted as the fancied outsiders of this competition. And what is more, Pakistan won -- with plenty in hand -- while chasing. And that should be just the confidence-booster the side needs going into the final of the World Cup, for what it means is that the side will now go in with confidence, whether batting first or chasing.

At the start, the Kiwis seemed to be getting everything going their way. A flat batting track at Old Trafford (interestingly, as the games move into the final stages, the tracks are becoming increasingly batting friendly -- mainly because the matches are being played at the Test venues, and the groundstaff there are more able to produce tracks to order than their peers at some of the outlying venues) was just the kind of surface on which Stephen Fleming, winning the toss, was happy to bat first on. The job on hand was to put a lot of runs on the board, and then try and squeeze the Pakistan batting a bit, and see if it would buckle.

241 at the end of 50 seemed a lot -- but only because we assess that against the kind of scores that have been notched up during the league games. Here, though, the pitch was baked flat, the sun was out to an almost sub-continental degree, and the ask was for 275 or more on the tins.

If the Kiwis didn't even get close, the credit goes entirely to Shoaib Akthar. Right at the outset, be produced a snorter to take the inner edge of Nathan Astle's bat, onto the stumps. On a batting track, it was always going to be Akthar's greater pace -- if he could sustain it -- that would make the difference, and on the day, he delivered, with style and panache.

I thought the Kiwis erred in sending Craig McMillan -- who with his complete lack of back foot play, is a patsy for pace -- ahead of the in form Roger Twose. Akthar turned him inside out time and again, and Akram completed the formalities when he had him pushing, away from his body while his feet slumbered, to find Moin Khan off the edge.

Mathew Horne had a shaky start, but seemed to be settling into some kind of form when Abdur Razzaq -- whose efforts with the ball, like that of Azhar Mahmood, it is impossible to overpraise -- produced a dream yorker. The ball started outside off, slower in pace than normal, swung in impossible late and went through the gate, leaving the batsman looking rather foolish as the timber rattled behind him. These yorkers, which the likes of Razzaq, Akthar and Akram appear to be able to produce at will, and which in actual fact speak of much sweat and toil in the nets, are the real reason why Pakistan's attack has looked the most lethal in this tournament, and today, they were firing on all cylinders.

Stephen Fleming, who has had a rather ordinary World Cup so far, and Roger Twose, who has had an outstanding one, then stitched together a fine partnership of 94 for the 4th wicket, off just 114 balls. Taking singles where possible, playing the bigger hit when the bowlers occasionally erred in length and line, the two not only hauled the Kiwis out of the jail they were in at 38/2 in the 11th, and 58/3 in the 16th, but also began putting up a platform for a challenging score.

The 34th over swung the game right back in Pakistan's favour. Akthar had been brought in, in the 32nd, to try and take out a wicket or two. In the 34th, Akthar watched in frustration as first Inzamam, on the square leg fence, then Saqlain at mid-off, let balls go through between their legs. The second misfield produced a roar of anguish -- followed by the proverbial ball out of hell, as Akthar roared in, unleashed a screaming yorker that homed it at Fleming's toes, forcing the batsman to take his feet out of the way and watch his leg stump go flying. Akthar had internalised his frustration and fury, and come up with the fast bowler's dream delivery -- an incredible cricketing moment, that.

From then on, it was all downhill. Pakistan kept producing odd bursts of brilliance at just the right times. Roger Twose and Chris Cairns appeared to be settling down to another good partnership, when Twose cut hard at Razzaq. The batsman all but raised his bat, anticipating the cheers for his 50 -- when, incredibly, Ijaz Ahmed flew to his right at point to pick off the impossible catch.

Then it was Akthar's turn again. Another yorker, but this time with the added spice of a brilliantly disguised step down in pace. Having kept it around the 90 mark, Akthar suddenly slowed one down to 74mph, running his fingers over the seam to produce a yorker-length off break that had Harris playing all round it, to see it pitch off and middle and take out the leg stump.

Adam Parore had played a brilliant cameo the other day, against India. If he was looking to reprise that performance, today wasn't to be the day for it -- Akram, who wasn't quite at his best with the ball today, bowled him a slower one on leg stump that the charging batsman misread completely, and managed only to edge onto his off stump.

Chris Cairns played a good, though lonely, hand at the end, but the bottomline was that none of the Kiwi batsmen -- and Horne, Fleming, Twose and Cairns all got good starts -- managed to come up with the big one. And New Zealand, though 241 to the good at the end of their innings, seemed to have squandered a good chance to shut Pakistan out of the game.

With an eye to the final, one worrying aspect for Pakistan would be the continued indiscipline of the bowlers. 47 extras (including 17 wides and 12 no balls) is no joke, give away that kind of runs to either South Africa or Australia (not forgetting the extra overs) and you have as good as lost the game. This is one area where the Pakistan side need to tighten up in the heck of a hurry.

Another point I didn't quite get was Akram's bowling changes, in part. Though his use of Shoaib was brilliant, it seemed a bit strange that Afridi, who looked completely innocuous, got five overs at over five per over while the tight, and effective, Razzaq and Azhar Mahmood both ended up having bowled less than their full quota.

What New Zealand needed when they came out to defend was quick wickets. What they got was mayhem. Dion Nash, throughout this tournament, has been brittle with the no ball -- today he was an unmitigated disaster, bowling wide on the off, or angling in to the batsmen's pads, and letting off the pressure Allott maintained at the other end. In fact, so loose was Nash that the contagion spread to Allott as well. 8 boundaries came in the first 9 overs, and Pakistan were well and truly away.

From there on, there was only one side in the contest. New Zealand relies heavily on the likes of Larsen, Astle and Harris (when they bowl, they don't show the speed gun, probably because it is not calibrated to calculate speeds below 10mph, and I am only half kidding here) backed by tight fielding to put pressure on batting sides and take wickets. But to do that, the opening bowlers need to have fired out a couple early on -- and once Allott and Nash, followed by the mediocre-seeming Cairns, failed to do that, the economy of the three dibbly-dobblers was to no avail.

Anwar and Wasti batted in contrasting styles. The former, fresh from his century in the previous game, started off with a bang, driving fours at will through the off side field. Once the slower bowlers came on, it seemed as if he did a rethink, and decided that he was going to have an extended net out there. Thus, he played with exemplary patience, concentrating on working the singles around, guiding his younger partner during the latter's rare moments of recklessness, and playing with a determination that bodes ill for his next opponent.

Wasti was the reverse. A touch hesitant in the early overs, and relying overly on defense, he opened out once the slower bowlers came on the scene, using the power in arms and shoulders to repeatedly smash them square on both sides of the track when the likes of Astle, Harris and Larsen erred even marginally in length.

The two, after a few false starts, also adjusted well in running between wickets, getting to know each other's calling patterns and running the singles very smoothly -- and this, more than anything else, meant that in the middle overs, when the slower bowlers were keeping a tight rein on things, Pakistan was under no pressure since runs were still coming steadily through singles.

The 194 they put up for the first wicket, before Wasti threw away a chance to notch his maiden one day hundred with a needless heave at Cairns, is Pakistan's highest in the World Cup. And more importantly, the two appear to have forged a combination that could, if allowed to settle, replace the Sohail-Anwar combo and give Pakistan that much needed solidity at the top of the order.

The story of New Zealand's bowling is best left unsaid. Nash and Cairns have never impressed during this tournament, never given the impression that they can rip through batting lineups. Allott was the only one who looked capable of that -- but today, the bowler, who had earlier in the tournament held his nerve against the best batting attacks, appeared to lose it. Perhaps the big stage awed him, perhaps there was no assistance in the pitch (though the latter reason is not quite sound, since he produced a series of dream deliveries to Ijaz at the fag end of the innings). Whatever, Allott was off the boil today -- and that meant that New Zealand was attempting to go up against an elephant with a catapult.

That kind of match up produces only one possible result -- the Kiwis, into their fourth semifinal, were left trampled as Pakistan marched into the finals in barnstorming fashion. This semifinal was a mis-match -- but with Pakistan in this mood, one thing's for sure, the final will be one hell of a cracker.


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