It was always on the cards that spin would play a crucial, if not decisive, part in the opening Super Eights Group 2 match of the ICC World Twenty20 2012, and so it panned out on Friday evening.
This was no raging turner with the ball spinning square or breaking the surface, but the ball did grip the pitch and make it difficult for strokes to be played without any inhibition. Until Umar Gul happened.
From all indications, Pakistan had the upper hand, especially after South Africa, opting to bat first, mustered just 133 for 6. But if Pakistan had expected a walk in the park, they were in for a rude shock, eventually just scrambling over the line in the last over.
Umar Akmal’s composure with nine needed off the last over shone through as Pakistan sewed up a nervy two-wicket win, stuttering to 136 for 8 with two deliveries left.
There was no indication of the spectacular collapse to follow when Mohammad Hafeez and Imran Nazir put on 24 for the first wicket, but when Dale Steyn effected the breakthrough by having Nazir caught behind off a slower bouncer, it triggered off an extraordinary chain of events.
From 24 without loss, Pakistan suddenly found themselves at 76 for 7 through a combination of incisive spin bowling from Robin Peterson and some extremely ordinary shot selection. It was as if the target was 180, not 134, as one batsman after another tested the length of the boundary, and fell well short, either holing out in the deep or missing the ball altogether to be stumped.
Pakistan looked down for the count when Gul, who bowled only two overs earlier in the day, arrived in a blaze of glory. Pakistan needed 58 at that stage with 33 deliveries left. Akmal, well set but extremely frustrated at the procession at the other end, watched from the best seat in the stadium as Gul launched into a flurry of fours and sixes, sending South Africa scurrying for cover.
From the hunter, South Africa had suddenly become the hunted. AB de Villiers, who had helped his team reach a competitive score in JP Duminy’s company, was completely helpless in staunching the run flow as Gul kept hammering away on his way to his highest Twenty20 International score, a sparkling 17-ball 32 which dominated a 49-run (28-ball) stand with the younger Akmal.
Pakistan began poorly in the field, with Kamran Akmal missing a straightforward stumping off Raza Hasan in the day’s first over to reprieve Hashim Amla. Shoaib Malik then let slip an Amla back-foot punch through his legs at cover, but when he held on to a catch at the same position off the next ball to help Yasir Arafat effect the breakthrough, Pakistan was all over South Africa.
Suddenly, their intensity went up, the fielding began to look razor sharp and the bowling, marshalled astutely by Hafeez and with his spin comrades chipping in nicely, kept South Africa on a tight leash. Raza was brilliant with his left-arm spin, darting the ball in, giving the batsmen no room and forcing them to hang back in the crease, while Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi were both as parsimonious as ever. Hafeez himself picked up two crucial wickets.
South Africa batted in one dimension, unable to shed the shackles imposed by the Pakistani spinners. Undone by the slowness of the pitch, one batsman after another fell playing too early. At 28 for three after six overs, they had made their third-lowest score ever in the Power Plays, and de Villiers sold himself and his team short by holding himself back until No. 6 when he perhaps should have walked out ahead of Farhaan Behardien at No. 5.
Behardien did help stabilise the innings alongside Duminy, but didn’t really possess either the enterprise or the energy to take the fight to the spinners. Duminy and Behardien put on 38 at run a ball for the fourth wicket to consolidate, but by the time de Villiers, easily South Africa’s form batsman of the tournament, came in to bat, only 7.3 overs were left.
De Villiers immediately got down to business, jogging Duminy out of his stupor as well. By then headed nowhere, the innings found fresh impetus as South Africa put Pakistan under serious pressure, not just with frenetic strokeplay but also frenzied running between the wickets. Hafeez still stuck to his spinners almost until the very end – Gul didn’t come on until the 18th over and was promptly put away over the mid-wicket fence first ball – though he didn’t bowl Hasan out.
Duminy, battling serious heat and extreme humidity, played a little gem and helped de Villiers add 44 for the fifth wicket in just 29 deliveries to give his bowlers something to bowl at. On another day, given the conditions and the fragility of the Pakistan batting, it might have been enough. But with Gul deciding to turn batting hero, South Africa found themselves just short.