Like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, the Pakistan cricket team’s behaviour is impossible to predict. Against England and Sri Lanka, they were horrid, especially with the bat, but against the Netherlands they were good. Today, at The Oval against fancied New Zealand, they were very good indeed. Barring another unimaginable Irish upset, it’s safe to say that Pakistani fans can start looking at semi-final tickets.
This was as clinical a performance as anyone could have hoped for. And it should have surprised no one that the catalyst for it was a rebel. Abdul Razzaq hasn’t played for Pakistan since throwing in his lot with the Indian Cricket League and it was only injuries to Sohail Tanvir and Yasir Arafat that saw him being called up after he had torn up his ICL contract. A decade ago, Razzaq was a young star as Pakistan went all the way to a World Cup final against Australia. These days, he bowls about 10km/hr slower, but his cleverness was a big factor in a superb bowling performance after Mohammad Aamer had started the innings poorly. Razzaq had Brendon McCullum caught at point off his fourth delivery and he bowled a maiden on his way to figures of 2 for 17.
With an experienced hand ensuring that the new ball wasn’t wasted, Umar Gul was in his element with the older ball. New Zealand’s middle and lower order had no answer whatsoever to wicked reverse-swung yorkers as they went from 73 for 4 to 99 all out. Gul’s contribution was 5 for 6 from three overs, and he was twice on a hat-trick. In faraway Kolkata, some would no doubt have wondered how much different the Knight Riders’ IPL campaign might have been if one of the world’s best T20 bowlers had been involved.
Statistically, it was the best spell ever in a T20 international, and it gave Pakistan much leeway in the net run-rate stakes in a group that might not be as straightforward as some people think. But for some slipshod batting – horrid, to go back to the poem – the margin of victory should have been even more emphatic.
You could have said the same for South Africa earlier in the day. With Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Herschelle Gibbs batting as though they were having a net, a total in excess of 200 seemed possible. But Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor bowled superbly in the final stages to keep the vaunted middle order in check. A target of 184 might have been surpassed had Chris Gayle and a couple of others got going. But apart from an exceptional innings from Lendl Simmons [77 from 50 balls], only two West Indians got to double figures, and neither went past 20. Like the girl with the curl, West Indies too deal in extremes.
Credit to South Africa though. Dale Steyn was fast and accurate and Roelof van der Merwe is a bruiser trapped in a spin bowler’s body. And they have a star in the making in Wayne Parnell. One of the best performers at the Under-19 World Cup last year, Parnell has made the transition to senior level without too many hitches, and today he finished with 4 for 13. The semi-finals loom large now, and the main challenge for the South Africans will be to avoid the mental glitches that have stymied them in big tournaments ever since they returned from isolation. The quality of their players and the form-guide both make them big favourites, but things are seldom so simple in a World Cup. Just ask Pakistan, who go from 0 to 60, and from 60 to 0 so rapidly that it can make the head spin.