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January 9, 1999


India Down Under

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Akhtar back -- and so is Pakistan

Prem Panicker

Bowler banned. Huge uproar. Head of the global governing body overrules the concerned committee, lifts ban. Bowler flown back, reaches ground 10 minutes after play has begun. Gets ball in hand, takes two wickets in two balls, and starts a slide that ends in a superb back-from-the-brink win for his team.

Naaah! That kind of script wouldn't fly, no way. Or would it? Ask Shoaib Akhtar.

While the game was going on, someone on chat asked what the Indians were doing. Were they at the ground, watching, or back in their hotel rooms, doing whatever? Given the events, I for sure hope they were watching -- especially the Indian tailenders. Too often, when the top folds, the lower order seems to just give it up.

Pakistan, in the first session, were down and out when Waqar Younis, not exactly famed for his batting prowess, came out to join Saqlain Mushtaq. The two stitched together, with calm defense and commonsense hitting, a partnership of 57 runs (including an amazing 18 off McGrath's final over) that took Pakistan to 184/9 at the end of the allotted 50 overs -- and guess how much they won by?

Abdul Razzaq with four wickets took the Man of the Match, but for me the turning point was that partnership, which took Pak from 127/8 in the 43rd over, to a more defensible 184, giving the bowlers something to work with.

The track at the Gabba was a standard ODI pitch, some lift and bounce for pacemen, some turn for spin and for batsmen with the skill to play their shots, a nice even come-on to the bat as well.

Pakistan won the toss and opted to bat first -- and you have to wonder just how much the fact that at that point, Akhtar hadn't yet reached the ground had to do with that decision. In any case, it seemed like a continuation of recent reverses against Australia A and then Queensland, as the top order crumbled in a display of rank bad batting.

Mohammad Wasim was first to go, with Adam Dale bowling one on a full length, Wasim pushing down the wrong line, foxed by Dale's deceptive pace and trapped bang in front. His partner, Saeed Anwar, played a patchy innings with a lot of pushes and prods and one fine drive through the covers. Overall, against tight line and length bowling by the Dale-McGrath opening combo, Anwar looked very edgy, and fell when McGrath angled one across him, lifting a touch, the batsman pushed away from his body, feathered the edge and Gilchrist pouched the first of four. That was a class piece of bowling, McGrath working on the batsman bowling that line around off, getting him forward and then holding one back just that inch or so shorter, making the difference.

The silly season was now officially open. Abdul Razzaq, after a 39-ball innings of 9 runs that had you, at times, wanting to check his vital signs, did what he shouldn't have done if he really was intent on anchoring -- to a short ball, straight and wide of off from Andrew Symonds, Razzaq slashed, and touched it through to the keeper.

Symonds must have figured that cricket was an easy game, around this point. Because what does Ijaz do? To another one, outside off and going through straight without doing anything much in particular, he has a swipe and Gilchrist pouches number three. And again, in an action replay, this time Yousuf Youhanna the villain of the piece, slashing at the very first ball he faced, a wide one outside off, and touching it through to the keeper to have Pakistan down at 34/5 inside the 19th over.

The combative Moin Khan, and the phlegmatic Inzamam, began stitching together a partnership of sorts, but again, a bad piece of batsmanship saw Inzamam pushing his pad at Warne's first delivery -- a flipper, bowled bang on middle stump. There was some discussion at the time of the fact that Inzamam was well forward -- which seems to lose sight of the basic definition of LBW. The ball struck in line, it wasn't bouncing (the strike was below the knee roll), it was going through straight and there was no way it could have failed to hit middle and off.

That brought Akram out to join Warne, and some sense and sensibility was on view for the first time. Both batsmen went for Warne, rocking back to cut and pull or driving when Warne pitched up, while being watchful to Brett Lee at the other end. Interestingly, with the bouncer being taken out of the equation, Lee showed great skill in the way he varied the pace of his deliveries, bowling lovely slower ones every so often to catch the batsmen off guard.

Moin's wicket seemed to fall against the run of play. Off the fourth ball of the 34th over, he got nicely under a flighted ball from Warne and with deceptive ease, wafted it over the boundary at long off, taking on the fielder there and clearing him with ease. The next ball, on line of off, had Moin sweeping, hitting too hard and in the process, playing too early, to get the top edge for Mark Waugh, anticipating brilliantly at backward square leg, to make a very difficult overhead catch look a ridiculously easy snaffle.

Akram, going almost a run a ball at that point, throttled back and was seemingly intent on batting out the overs from then on. And then -- as so many batsmen had done till that point -- the Pakistan captain threw it away, pushing at a ball outside off, playing it towards the cover region and taking off for a single. Ricky Ponting, brilliant on the field all day, raced in, gathered the ball, and flung the stumps down at the end of a headlong run with the Pak skipper not even in the frame.

And then came the partnership that turned the match. Saqlain, hitting brilliantly square on both sides of the wicket, and Younis batting with a very straight bat, countered the skills of Lee, McGrath and Symonds at the death. What was noticeable about the way they batted was the assurance with whcih they went for the shots -- clean crisp pick-up, nice flourish going into the shots and no sign of hesitation in the execution. Often, the shots were in the air, but hit with enough power to clear the fielders and split gaps in the field. Between them, they hit 6 fours and a surprising six (in the final over, when Younis set himself on his hind legs, and thumped a flat-batted shot at a McGrath delivery, lashing it from outside off, over the straight field) -- and more importantly, ensured that Pak batted out the full quota of overs and ended with some runs on the board to defend.

Akram opted to share the new ball with Younis, rather than give it to Akhtar. And Younis, with a point or three to prove -- you have to remember that he was dropped from the ODI squad and reacted with a bitter outburst against Akram -- bowled under top pace, but swung and seamed the ball around in a manner reminiscent of his form of old. Both Aussie openers were tested, and Mark Waugh, in the middle of a bad patch, succumbed when Younis swung one in on a full length, the batsman waved at it in the parody of a flick off the pads, missed the line and was trapped bang in front.

Ricky Ponting, upped from the number six berth in Tests to number three here, began as if he was having a light hearted net. There were crashing cover drives off front foot and back and once, when Akhtar tested him with a short one, a perfectly executed pull that had the ball screaming over midwicket and to the fence. At the other end, Gilchrist, tentative at the start, seemed to be finding a second wind, and the game appeared to be running away from Pakistan. Interestingly, both Akram and Younis were getting the ball to do everything but talk. Then they asked for a change, seemingly unhappy with the shape of the ball -- and once the replacement ball was taken, it was as if they were playing a different game. No swing, very little seam, and the batsmen took full toll with some crashing strokeplay.

Abdul Razzaq got the breakthrough when he made one lift off a length outside off. Razzaq is very deceptive in pace, capable of going around the 140k mark without noticeable effort, and this was one of the quicker balls, lifting off a length and Gilchrist, shaping to drive on the up, could only touch it through to the keeper.

From then on, Akhtar took over. The Australian crowd greeted him with a huge roar of approval when he first came on to bowl -- an act that prompted Akhtar to wave in acknowledgement and which, I thought, deserved full marks for sportsmanship. Starting off well within himself, Akhtar worked up to top pace by his third over and soon had Ponting, till then ominously fluent, hopping a bit. The first ball of the 16th over lifted off a length, Ponting pushed at it, the regulation edge flew to where third slip should have been, and sailed along for four to third man. The next ball was even quicker, Ponting shaped to hit it square but the pace beat the shot -- the bat wasn't fully into the shot when the ball got there to take the edge, Mohammad Wasim at slip doing very well to hold as it came flying at him at the rate of knots.

If that was dramatic, the next ball was sensational. Steve Waugh was greeted with an inswinging yorker that pitched a very full length, and thudded into the pads before the bat was fully down in defence, to go out LBW first ball, and suddenly, the bottom had dropped out of the Australian batting with those two quick strikes, reducing Australia to 72/4 into the 16th over.

Damien Martyn saw off the hat-trick ball, but never looked at ease in a brief tenure that ended when he flat-batted a ball just outside off, from Razzaq, down the throat of Ijaz Ahmed at point. That was off the last ball of the 19th over. Off the first ball of the 21st, Razzaq, who all along had been bowling with commendable discipline, had Andrew Symonds launching into a drive without moving his feet -- a replica, almost, of the dismissals of Razzaq, Ijaz and Youhanna -- for Wasim to be back in business in the slips, this time holding it low down in front of him.

Shane Warne, with a torn rib muscle, dropped down the order. Brett Lee came out in his place and Razzaq promptly took him out with a ball that pitched off and seamed in -- a variation from the leg cutters he had been bowling all along -- to go through the gate and crash into middle stump.

Adam Dale is no mug with the bat, and here he played a calm, composed innings, keeping his end going, taking the singles and helping to chip runs away from the target in a ten over fightback that saw the Aussies add 33 to the total before Akhtar, brought back on, took him out with a superb change of pace, a slow off spinner coming at Dale out of the blue, the batsman spotting it too late and managing only to check an attempted drive for the ball to lob to cover for a comfortable catch.

Warne -- with Symonds doing the running for him -- limped out to the middle and by dint of staying putn inside his crease and waiting for the last moment before putting bat to ball, survived for 5 overs and 20 runs before Younis bowled one around off, seaming in just a touch. Warne, looking to steer the single to third man, mishit as the ball came in at him, and found Ijaz at point.

Glenn McGrath has this bet going, we are told, that he will one day crack the 50-run glass ceiling. His mates would gladly have payed a fortune to have him do it today -- but on the evidence, Michael Bevan didn't think he could. Thus Bevan, who while the procession was turning into a rout at one end had been batting with calm assurance at the other, took to farming the strike, turning down singles despite having them served up on a platter. Having done that for five balls, he then pushed out on the off side off the sixth and took off, attempting to keep strike. The throw in from cover was underarm and soft, but Moin did brilliantly to run in, gather it and get enough of a glove onto the base of the stumps to dislodge the bail before McGrath could get home, and that, for the day, was that.

Pakistan had registered a brilliant, back from the brink win, and in the process upped the ante for the remainder of the series. Throughout their stint in the field, the team stayed focussed and committed -- two qualities missing from their play during the earlier Test series -- and suddenly, at least in the field, they looked an entirely different, and a far more formidable, side. One thing's for sure -- they have the firepower with the ball, and if the top order can chip in with some solid contributions, they could be the side to beat here, as they were during the World Cup.

In passing, a word on the Akhtar affair -- I wish somewhere in that flood of emails that pour in here everyday, someone would give me a logical explanation of what's been happening.

There is, we are told, an ICC committee on chucking and other matters relating to bowling. If we hadn't been told that, we would never have known, would we? Earlier in the week, Ranjan Madugalle in his last act as match referee, takes on himself the onus of watching, in tandem with the on-field umpires for the third Test, some tapes and clearning Brett Lee's action. Now don't get me wrong -- I am not suggesting that Lee's action has a problem, neither I, nor my colleagues in the media, are in any case the right people to be making such an assessment. That is what the committee is for -- but then, someone apparently omitted to tell Madugalle of its existence.

And now Jagmohan Dalmiya -- president, no less, of the ICC -- goes one better. 9 members of the chucking committee had viewed the available evidence and decided there was a case for Akhtar being taken out of the game temporarily, while he rectified some perceived fault in his action.

The way it was done, the timing, the inordinate delay in coming out with the decision, did not reflect well on that particular committee. But Dalmiya's action was if anything worse. On his own, he 'reviews' the evidence -- which evidence would that be, by the way? Who sent him the tapes the chucking committee had viewed, and when? Have courier services suddenly improved out of all recognition? Am I the only one who thinks there is something dodgy about the time lag, or lack thereof, between the Pakistan board's protest and Dalmiya's decision?

The fact that he takes it on himself to undercut a committee created by a body of which he is the head, raises other questions. What considerations prompted his intervention? Surely it was not concern for the game -- when Rajesh Chauhan and later, Harbajan Singh, were called for chucking, the only response Dalmiya came up with was that it was a matter for the chucking committee, and that he as ICC president could not interfere.

Did he stop being ICC chief, between then and now? Or did someone amend the constitution and include a clause to the effect that the ICC chairman -- who, to his credit, is oblivious of which end of the ball is up (if he has played any cricket at all, it comes as news to us) -- could now pronounce the final verdict on such matters, over-ruling his own committee in the process?

Insult was added to gratuitous injury by Dalmiya's rationalisation. The problem ball, he says, is the Akhtar bouncer. Which, he adds, wouldn't be bowled in ODIs. So there was, he says, no problem in clearing Akhtar for the ODIs. Oh really? Makes you wonder if Dalmiya was watching when Akhtar let one snorter go at Gilchrist, another at Ponting. Those were bouncers, both were no-balled for height. Will Dalmiya now rule that those deliveries were fairly bowled? Because if he does, then what he is saying in effect is that there is no problem, period, with Akhtar's bowling. And where does that leave the ICC committee, then?

No, the given explanation just won't wash. And that makes you wonder -- could there be commercial considerations involved? Could the sponsors (no, I don't mean Carlton and United) have had something to say about this? Akhtar belongs to the Mark Mascarenhas stable -- did that fact influence the decision, in any way?

These are questions that merit answers. Attempting to sweep the entire issue under the carpet, as the ICC is now doing (the chucking committee's silence on the Dalmiya ruling has been pretty deafening, hasn't it?) is counter-productive. The interests of the game would be best served if all concerned come clean, and in the process produce a final ruling on the entire Akhtars issue.

Then again, the ICC hierarchy hasn't in recent times given any indication that the interests of the game are its prime concern -- why should it be any different now?


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