Cricket: World Cup - Saeed raises the standard for Pakistan

Pakistan claim semi-final berth with irresistible spin and opener's return to form: Pakistan 271-9 Zimbabwe 123 Pakistan win by 148 runs
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE not many sides who combat adversity with all-out attack but, of the ones that do, Pakistan are undoubtedly the most exciting. Hapless and disorganised one minute, they can come together like a Stockhausen symphony; a whole seemingly at odds with its parts. Sometimes, as Saeed Anwar proved with his 16th one-day century and Saqlain Mushtaq showed with a belated hat-trick, all it takes are a few weighty contributions for the combustible mix to be stabilised. The same cannot be said of their supporters, though, and as the umpire Steve Bucknor raised his finger against Zimbabwe's last man to secure Saqlain's hat-trick, the Oval was engulfed by hordes of fans delirious at their side having made the semi- finals.

Saeed's hundred, if a tad overdue, could not have come at a better time and his team-mates can thank him, along with one or two of the bowlers, for a berth with South Africa in the semi-finals. Before this win three successive defeats had caused their self-belief to plummet, this win will have seen it soar once more. Zimbabwe are a limited side who may yet qualify, a situation that will be decided on run-rate should New Zealand beat India today.

Chasing 272 to win, Zimbabwe never got close as all but Neil Johnson were exposed by Pakistan's bowling prowess. Johnson, who scored 52 before falling to a dubious lbw decision, has had a fine tournament all-round. Unable to bowl yesterday, on account of a damaged foot and thigh, he has, nevertheless, taken 12 wickets and scored 367 runs at an average of 52.4, an aggregate second only to Rahul Dravid.

Off the mark with a boundary, Johnson got an early wake-up call when his first ball from Shoaib Akhtar clanged off his helmet. It should have been called a no ball. Once he was out, in the 29th over, even Zimbabwe's hopes of maintaining a decent run-rate disappeared.

Saeed, the holder of the highest ever one-day score of 194, has been slow to ignite. Having once suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome, an ailment that caused him to miss 18 months of cricket in 1996-97, he is no doubt careful not to rush into anything these days. Apparently it came on after eating pizza in Australia, so last night's celebrations would probably not have included anything promising a crispy crust or extra toppings.

In hindsight, Zimbabwe would probably have kept their skipper Alistair Campbell supplied with whatever he wanted had he managed to cling on to the chance Saeed offered when on only 20. After his cameo against India, he began friskily after Wasim Akram had won the toss and batted. A left- hander, whose wristy timing disguises a hefty weight of shot, he whipped Mpumelelo Mbangwa for six over mid-wicket in only the second over. It was a sumptuous shot which umpire Bucknor reduced to four on account of the BBC's inability to produce a revealing replay.

Swinging the ball both ways, Mbangwa drew Saeed into a wild slash outside off-stump, the ensuing edge travelling high and hard to Campbell's right at slip. It was a tough catch, but with their best bowler missing it needed to be taken. As if to taunt his opponents, Saeed offered another eight runs later, though this time Paul Strang's efforts, chasing back and diving as the batsman miscued over extra-cover, deserved applause rather than criticism.

After that, Saeed was simply sublime, a master whose bat was an extension of his imagination. Feathered cuts were mixed with fine glides and powerful drives as Zimbabwe's grasp of Pythagoras was put to the test. Setting a field became an exercise in futility and, had Pakistan not had their usual brace of silly run-outs, Zimbabwe ought to have been staring at 300-plus.

Apart from Wajahatullah Wasti, whose flat pull for six and brace of fours from an over by Guy Whittall, matched Saeed's early assault, it was Shahid Afridi who played the best cameo. Demoted from his pinch-hitting role as opener, Shahid hit the ball with frightening power. One of his sixes - there were only two but then The Oval is a big ground - travelled for 100 yards over cover point, the highest point of its shallow arc no more than 40 feet off the ground.

If that shot did not knock the stuffing out of Zimbabwe, the three wickets in 18 balls by Abdur Razzaq to remove their middle-order surely did. At 50 for 4, not even Johnson could save their blushes and Pakistan, happy in the knowledge that they will probably qualify in second or third place, toyed with their quarry. If it looked cruel, Zimbabwe's lack of depth has flattered to deceive and going much further in this World Cup would give meritocracy a bad name.