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June 11, 1999

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Pak make the semis in style

Prem Panicker

A Saqlain Mushtaq hat-trick to scythe away the Zimbabwean tail -- Olonga, Huckle and Mbwangwa in that order -- put the finishing touches on a blistering performance with bat and ball that saw Pakistan end its three-game losing streak, with a 148-run win that saw the side power into the semifinals of the World Cup.

Zimbabwe, with two defeats and a fortuitous let off, thanks to rain, against New Zealand will in all probability join Pakistan in the last four. And that in turn ensures that come Sunday, South Africa will be going flat out to defeat Australia in the final Super Six encounter, because doing so means the Proteans top the table, and that means they face Zimbabwe in the semifinals, and that -- with due respect to the Zimbabweans -- means that South Africa are effectively sure of a place in the final.

From an Indian point of view, the World Cup challenge is effectively over. Even if India defeats New Zealand tomorrow and Australia lose to South Africa the day after, it only means that the two teams will be tied on points -- and Australia will go through thanks to the fact that Australia defeated India in the first of the Super Six games.

To get to the game itself, it began and pretty much ended at the toss. Zimbabwe's only hope was to win the toss, bat first, put something in excess of 220 and hope that a notoriously brittle Pakistan's top order would crack under steady bowling and Zimbabwe's trademark electric fielding.

The script though went totally haywire right from the first frame. Akram won the toss and gleefully took first strike. 'Another practise game, Wasim?', Ravi Shastri asked him, in a sarcastic reminder of the Pak skipper's comment ahead of the India game. 'No, we are playing for our place in the semis,' said Akram, dead serious. And the agenda was set.

Heath Streak had a nightmare first spell -- his wides and no balls were bad enough, but the bigger problem was that he couldn't stick to one side of the wicket in his line and thus kept gifting four-balls to Anwar in particular. And Zimbabwe's normally safe fielding let them down right at the outset, skipper Campbell putting down a dolly at slip as Mbwangwa found Anwar's outer edge with a nice away-seamer.

Anwar was 20 at that time, batting with the kind of nervy aggression that is akin to whistling as you walk past a graveyard. It was like, 'Hey, I am not afraid -- or, in this instance, I am not struggling for runs, who me?, no way!', and throwing his bat at just about anything within reach.

Once he was reprieved, he seemed to find a second wind. There was more signs of nerves (Andy Flower fluffed a catch down the leg side off Andy Huckle, and a tougher one off Grant Flower, while a couple of mishits fell just out of reach of the fielders) but he also began getting more shots off the middle. The century he got today is not one he would probably want to rate among his best -- but it was apparent that the longer he stayed, the more his confidence was coming back, and that could mean that one of Pakistan's recent problems (before this game, Pakistan was yet to record a 50-run opening stand) is on the way to solving itself.

On the same theme, the promotion of Wasti to the top of the order and the demotion of Afridi to the middle order meant that finally, Pakistan had shuffled its cards into something approaching the right order. Youhanna into this lineup in place of the patently off-form Ijaz Ahmed could be the final tinkering before the machine is really put to the test in the death games coming up.

Wasti is not one of those players you want to play to watch -- but when it comes to gritting it out there in the middle, the lad takes seconds from none, as he showed on the day. He shrugged off the play-and-miss episodes, hung in there, let Anwar do the bulk of the hard work and only when the message came out that the accelerator needed stepping on did he start throwing his bat around.

Ijaz Ahmed disappointed yet again -- this time with as ridiculous a run out as you want to see, pushing one straight to midwicket and taking off like someone had set his tail alight, seemingly oblivious to Anwar's reluctance to participate in the suicide attempt.

Inzamam, who had a horror of an innings against India the other day, seemed a touch under par today as well, and that begs the question, how much did his injured hand have to do with the way he played? His grip on the bat handle was noticeably wobbly, and it showed too in the manner of his dismissal. Inzy is the kind of guy who, when hitting out, likes to get a good businesslike grip on the handle, and thump with every ounce of body and shoulder in the shot. Here, he danced down and waved, without any conviction, at one from Strang but, as happens when your grip on the bat is tenuous, ended up hitting all over it. Inzamam being Inzamam, even a stumping is never free from its comic elements -- Andy Flower, having a horrendous day behind the sticks, muffed the simple take, broke the bails without the ball in his gloves, and Inzy, with all the time in the world to regain ground, simply shrugged his shoulders and walked off the plate, giving the keeper time to spare to grab the ball off the turf and uproot a stump to finish the game in style.

Wasim Akram upped himself in the order, to strike some big ones, but ended up taking one full on his pads in front of the wicket and quitting the crease earlier than he probably planned. Moin then came in and brought his usual bustle to the crease, and in partnership with Shahid Afridi, produced some electric running between wickets that saw the Zimbabwe fielding -- not having one of its best days in any case -- wilting visibly with every seemingly tight single converted into an easy brace.

Afridi in the middle made perfect sense. When the field is up, he seems to think it is mandatory to try and lash every ball in sight, out of sight. When the field is spread, better sense prevails -- when the ball is in the slot he thumps them as hard as anyone, but when it is not, he proves quite adept at working the ball around, racing between the wickets like lightning and generally upsetting the length and line of bowlers of all persuasions.

With Anwar and Wasti providing the platform and Moin and Afridi the late push, Pakistan shrugged off a little middle order fright, where they lost five wickets between the 36th and the 45th overs for 48 runs, and powered to 271 in the allotted 50.

That was pretty much out of the park for Zimbabwe. On top of it all, the side was docked one over for slow bowling rates. And it deserved it all -- you don't bowl 20 wides and 3 no balls without paying for it.

The way they bowled, the only assumption you could make was that the side is not mentally tough enough to handle the big occasion. Going in there with nothing to lose, as it did against South Africa and India, Zimbabwe lives up to its reputation as dangerous floaters -- but when it goes in wanting to win, self-belief flies out the window and the mistakes mount. They talk of the white Duke's ball as the reason for all these wides -- but what did the ball have to do with Guy Whittall's medium pace (3 wides) or the spin of Huckle, Flower and Strang, who conceeded another four wides between them?

There was maybe a glimmer of a hope that if the openers could see through the Akthar-Akram blitz, things would fall into place with the bat. But Akthar, who against India the other day seemed completely off colour, hit the straps here with a blistering first spell, starting with the first ball which rang Johnson's helmet kicking off a length, and including a yorker that shot through Grant Flower before the batsman had even begun the process of bringing his bat down off the backlift.

That dismissal seemed to knock out what little steam remained in the Zimbabwean ranks. Goodwin fell mistiming a needless pull to put midwicket in the picture, Andy Flower continued his poor run of form by playing all round an Abdur Razzaq delivery to find his timber in disarray, and Alistair Campbell produced a shocker when he got under a ball of fullish length and hit it straight up in the air to his opposite number at mid on. The captain went at 50 (for four) in the 16th over, and the game went with him.

Zimbabwe -- presumably banking on winning the toss and batting first -- had filled its ranks with bowlers "who can bat a bit", and with Whittall coming in at 6 followed by the bowling tail, the end was inevitable long before Saqlain came on to finish the job off with two wrong 'uns that got Olonga and Huckle stumped off successive deliveries as both batsmen unwisely attempted the charge, and then produced the arm ball to get Mbwangwa trapped in front to complete the hat-trick (only the second in World Cups, following Chetan Sharma's three 'bowled' dismissals against New Zealand) and finish off the innings.

In all the chaos, only one man stood out. Neil Johnson, to give him a name. Exhausted by his efforts of the other day against Australia that saw him on the field for the full 100 overs (apparently, in the process, he picked up assorted aches and pains in the groin, back, calves and other areas of the anatomy), he took a break from the bowling crease today (and with him went the bite Zimbabwe needed at the top of the bowling) but with the bat, he played another gritty, hang-tough knock that marks him out as a man among the boys in this squad.

For Pakistan with the ball, it was a thoroughly competent performance. Now that Akthar is over his sulks, he is back to terrorising the heck out of opposing batsmen. Azhar Mahmood and Abdur Razzaq, who in my book are the real key to Pakistan's solidity with the ball, took out five wickets between them. And Saqlain, after two initial overs of that flattish stuff he has been dishing out of late, got back to tossing the ball up. Today is the first time in this tournament he has bowled those arm balls, and the ones going away from the right hander -- and look at the result.

The most important consequence of this game, though, lies in the fact that Pakistan have shaken off the gloom of those three defeats on the trot. And that makes them the team to beat in what remains of this competition.

And Zimbabwe? For rivals, they remain the team to meet.


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