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Cricket: Saqlain upstages pacemen

SO SPEED is not everything, not when you have someone with the skill and guile of Saqlain Mushtaq in your team. He wrapped things up early and in style with a hat-trick - only the second in World Cup history.

Pakistan may have one of the fastest attacks in the world, but it was Saqlain's off-spin which put Zimbabwe out of their misery. It was his second one-day international hat-trick, remarkably, his first in Peshawar in 1996 was also against Zimbabwe. Yesterday's though was more important.

"I am more than delighted," said Saqlain afterwards. "I did not know I am the first Pakistani to take a hat-trick in the World Cup. Allah has helped me today." India's Chetan Sharma had the honour of being the first to do the hat-trick in the World Cup, against New Zealand in Nagpur in the 1987-88 tournament.

Saqlain is young enough at 22 to repeat the feat in the next tournament. He had Henry Olonga and Adam Huckle stumped by Moin Khan and Mpumelelo Mbangwa was lbw to one that carried straight on.

Until that fateful 41st over speed had been of the essence. It seemed to lie at the heart of everything that took place at The Oval yesterday. Firstly there was the way the Pakistan batsmen set about the Zimbabwe bowlers. They took off with almost indecent haste; their going rate for much of their innings was five an over and at one stage there was a feeling that they could have stepped up the tempo as the Zimbabwe attack began to dance to a Pakistani tune.

Then there was the rate at which Pakistan lost their wickets. Now that was indecently hasty. They disappeared into the Bedser stand dressing room in rapid succession as Zimbabwe briefly moved into the frame.

But the deciding speed factor was the pace of the respective attacks. The contrast between them could not have been more stark. Pakistan's slowest bowler is Saqlain, who ranges from 52 to 58mph according to the FedEx Speedster contraption. But Saqlain, as he proved, does not need speed.

It is accepted that Shoaib Akhtar is the fastest. He was clocked at 95mph at Trent Bridge and yesterday peaked at 94. Pundits expect him to become the first 100mph bowler, some of his victims probably think he has already become a founder member of the ton-up club, and not a coffee bar or motorbike in sight.

Zimbabwe's hottest bowler yesterday was Olonga at 86mph, Heath Streak did manage 83 and Guy Whittall an impressive 80, but they could not call upon another of their faster bowlers, Neil Johnson who is carrying a thigh strain. For their part Pakistan had three other bowlers in the 80s, Wasim Akram (87), Abdur Razzaq (86) and Azhar Mahmood (85). No contest.

Using the speed gun is not an exact science, but it is probably the best it can get. The problem is that when a bowler is known to be fast then deliveries look quicker than perhaps they are, matching expectation rather than reality.

The speed gun did not come into use until the Super Sixes, but it has thrown up the unexpected. South Africa's Allan Donald has been outgunned not just by Shoaib, but also by India's Javagal Srinath.

But if batsmen worry only about pace that will cost them dear, as Zimbabwe discovered at The Oval. While all eyes were on Shoaib it was Abdur who did the damage, replacing Shoaib after three overs and whipping out three Zimbabweans in 18 balls. Then of course there was Saqlain, lurking quietly, biding his time then seizing his opportunity in dramatic fashion.