Monday, April 27, 2009

All-round Clarke ensures series lead

Michael Clarke's return to form couldn't have come at a better moment.

Pakistan's propensity to self-destruct cost them the lead in this series in dramatic manner, a batting collapse against spin handing Australia an improbable win. Michael Clarke, the Australian captain, turned in a superb all-round performance with a gritty 66 in the face of some penetrative spin bowling before picking up 3 for 15 amid Pakistan's middle-order chaos. His spin partners, Nathan Hauritz and Andrew Symonds, helped defend a below-par score of 198 as Pakistan fell short by 27 runs.

Spinners have been making headlines in the IPL in South Africa and the story today wasn't any different in the northern hemisphere. Pakistan's own spin trio strangled the runs and picked up three wickets and, by the time their openers Salman Butt and Ahmed Shehzad added 95, the hosts looked set for a series lead. That's when spin worked its magic again.

The cycle-stand collapse - in which shoddy shot selection played no small part - had strong statistical parallels with Australia's in Dubai during the first ODI. Back then, Australia slipped from 95 for 1 to 122 for 9. Today, Pakistan's collapse started at 95 and ended 76 runs later.

The game had drifted from Australia during the first 22 overs of the chase with Pakistan comfortably placed in terms of the required rate and wickets in hand. Only a lapse in concentration from the batsmen could have resulted in a breakthrough and exactly that caused Butt's downfall when he poked Hauritz to Clarke at first slip. The bowler had caused a few flutters in his previous over when he beat the left-hander and the fielders may have sensed that something was about to give. The next ball stopped on Younis Khan, who chipped it to a diving Andrew Symonds at midwicket and Australia had two in two. Misbah-ul-Haq negotiated the hat-trick ball and, in the next over, hit Symonds for a straight six. That prompted the captain to bring himself on and his move paid immediate dividends, Misbah holing out to long-on off the very first ball. The next delivery was an arm ball that Shehzad failed to read and was bowled. Once again, two off two.

That brought together Malik and Afridi, and there was a period of relative calm for Pakistan, though not without the odd scare - including an appeal for a stumping when the third umpire pressed the button for the red light by mistake. One sensed, though, that Afridi wouldn't last too long - and sure enough, determined to break the shackles with a big hit, he advanced down the track and edged to slip. Pakistan had lost half their side in the space of 28 runs and the Australians, having smelt blood, didn't need a second invitation to move in for the kill.

The rest of the wickets were a blur. A miscommunication between Kamran Akmal and Malik, over a single that was there for the taking, summed up the utter confusion. Two balls later, Akmal chipped Bracken to mid-on and he too was history. Yasir Arafat went for a slog and was bowled, Tanvir pulled and top-edged before Umar Gul threw his bat and was bowled Stuart Clark, bringing the match to an end

The drama overshadowed Australia's own struggles with the bat, and Clarke's return to form couldn't have come at a better moment. He was the spinners' bunny in South Africa and in the first ODI but today the fluency returned. He walked in after James Hopes' run-out - off a direct hit by Younis - and eased off the blocks with some crisply timed shots and soft punches down the ground off the seamers. He added 46 for the third wicket with Haddin to help Australia after the loss of two quick wickets.

His effort against the spinners was more impressive given that the ball was gripping and turning and Afridi was varying his pace and slipping in the odd googly. While he attacked the batsmen and looked to pick up wickets, the others - Malik and Saeed Ajmal - teased with flight and cramped the batsmen for room and in general kept it simple.

Clarke wasn't afraid to use his feet but Afridi cleverly dropped the ball short and forced him to defend. He hit the odd wide delivery to the boundary and began to push the singles with a lot more ease in the company of Callum Ferguson, who managed to rotate the strike with Clarke in a 54-run stand, though it included a 10-over spell without a boundary.

Clarke broke the spell with a cover-driven boundary off Ajmal and, in the 38th over, Australia took the batting Powerplay. Clarke pulled Afridi to square leg but the bowler had his revenge when he fired one short, quick and forced the batsman to check his shot. He ended up chipping it tamely to Afridi and was gone - but not before a match-winning 66.