September 30, 2009

Is the stage being set for Pakistan to claim Champions Trophy?


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

After watching the farcical results during the past few days everybody is left wondering if the stage is being set for Pakistan to run away with the Champions Trophy.

It’s quite extraordinary that South Africa and Sri Lanka, the two strongest outfits in Group B, have crashed and the semifinal sports have been secured by England and New Zealand, neither of them stood any chance of doing it at the start of the tournament.

The qualification of England and New Zealand into the semifinals, at the expense of hosts South Africa and Sri Lanka, means a soft target for Pakistan in the knockout stage of the competition having lost its charm considerably due to the unexpected results.

England had given a very good account of themselves in their first couple of games, against the fancied duo of Sri Lanka and South Africa, but their pathetic performance against New Zealand in their last league game suggested them of being incapable and unsuited for the big contests.

Pakistan are on a roll here. The washout game between Australia and India let them proceed to the semifinals without worrying for the outcome of their final league fixture. Such kind of luxury is hardly ever available in a tournament as keenly contested as the Champions Trophy where the teams are generally evenly matched.

Now Pakistan can afford to experiment and do whatever they desire in their last league outing against Australia. They should be in a very relaxed frame of mind and it might not be easy for Ricky Ponting and his men to call the shots despite looking stronger on paper.

Pakistan’s chances of winning the trophy have further been boosted by the ouster of South Africa and Sri Lanka. There’s likelihood of another potentially champion team, India, following suit.

With the trio of South Africa, India and Sri Lanka out of their way, Pakistan have every reason to feel more comfortable as far as their future in this particular tournament is concerned.

Neither England nor New Zealand appear to be having the depth or the character to come to terms with a Pakistan side playing as freely as now. New Zealand, in particular, has had horrible record against Pakistan over the years and they should consider themselves dead and buried if they are pitted against them in the semifinals or the final.

England might present a stronger challenge to Pakistan because, unlike New Zealand, they don’t have anything like mental block. The New Zealanders have passed the impressed of being scared of the ‘word’ Pakistan because they have come up with below-par performance against them more often than not.

It could help Pakistan’s cause immensely if they are defeated by Australia in their last league encounter because this would enable them to book a date with New Zealand in the semifinals. In other words Pakistan’s place in the final will be guaranteed the moment they finish runners-up in Group A, behind Australia.

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September 29, 2009

Washout hurts India, takes Pakistan into semifinals


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Just the other day one of the most respected names in the banking circles, in a one-to-one chat, shared his gut feeling that Pakistan might win the ongoing Champions Trophy in South Africa.

When enquired about the reason of this thought coming to his mind he very candidly pointed out that the way things were falling in place for them there’s a great possibility of the trophy coming their way.

That discussion had taken place earlier in the day in Karachi on September 28, quite a few hours before the start of the Australia-India tie at the Super Sport Park in Centurion.

Little did I know, at least, that Pakistan would be progressing to the semifinals of the event without worrying for the outcome of their last league fixture against Australia! How could have anyone predicted a washout game when none of the previous matches had been affected by rain.

It was a do-or-die situation for India and the composition of their team suggested that they were not taking any chances. They had packed their side with five specialist bowlers, having dropped the struggling Yousuf Pathan.

The spin bowling department was reinforced with the induction of ‘leggie’ Amit Mishra who was right on the money from the first ball he bowled. He could have been even more lethal if a catch was not dropped off his bowling in the slips quite early in his spell. Harbhajan Singh was retained on past reputation because he deserved to be axed or rested after his below-par performance against Pakistan which cost India the game.

The tale of horror continued for the Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni because his fastest bowler, Ishant Sharma, looked completely out of sorts in the crunch game. Just as you can’t set a field for bad bowling obviously you can’t be prepared for your premier speedster to lose his way so dramatically.

Dhoni must have been a concerned man as nearly every Australian batsman was occupying the crease and doing the business fearlessly. India could have pulled it back in the final overs but still they would have been chasing something close to 300 if not more, had the rains not disrupted the game.

On the other hand if the rains had stopped after a couple of hours, India could have been set a target on DL method in which the asking rate would have been higher but the number of overs would have been considerably reduced.

I can never recall the rains having come to India’s rescue and as it had happened in the past on numerous occasions the match could not resume much to the dismay of their supporters.

The only beneficiary of the washout game between Australia and India was Pakistan who acquired complete peace of mind by going into the semifinals. The situation could have been tense for Pakistan if India defeated Australia in which case they would have been required to perform well in their last league outing against Australia.

India are not out of the tournament yet theoretically but the chances of them moving ahead in the prevailing circumstances are remote.

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September 28, 2009

Strauss outsmarts Smith in mind games


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

What a funny game cricket is! How quickly the experts could be proved wrong and how amazingly the events go exactly in the opposite direction to the one envisaged.

England, besides the weakened West Indies, were considered as the rank outsiders and hosts South Africa were installed as the hot-favourites for the title when the ICC Champions Trophy 2009 got underway on September 22.

In less than a week’s time the underdogs England have become the first team in the competition to qualify for the semifinals and the fancied South Africa earn the dubious distinction of being the first outfit to crash out of the mega event.

The manner in which England have played their first couple of games, having trounced first Sri Lanka and then South Africa in totally different conditions, no credit could be taken away from Andrew Strauss and his boys for coming good against all odds.

I don’t think anyone expected England to bounce back so strongly after the drubbing they received at the hands of Australia in the ODI series at home earlier this month. The turnaround has been nothing short of sensational and they are now only a couple of wins away from capturing the crown.

Strauss has turned out to be an inspirational leader who has provided the much needed confidence and self-belief to his teammates who were obviously demoralized after having lost six matches on a trot to an Australian team that wasn’t as good as the results reflected.

The mental toughness of the England skipper deserves special mention. He may not look all that a dashing character in the field but he’s one man who is there in the game with his heart and soul.

Strauss is not known for bullying the opponents or doing anything that could bring the gentlemen’s game to disrepute. On the contrary he’s cool, calm and composed. This, however, doesn’t mean him to be taken for granted as the South African captain Graeme Smith discovered at the Super Sport Park in Centurion on September 27.

Smith was leading the run-chase and he was middling nearly every ball. The contest was alive as the asking rate was still in single digit and the home side had wickets in hand when the last 10 overs of the innings began, five of which were to be used for the batting powerplay.

Having hammered the England bowlers all over the park from the first ball of the innings, Smith showed signs of having cramps around the time he got to his century. He desired the services of a runner to conserve his energy for the final onslaught. He got the treatment at the ground and A B de Villiers came along to run for his fatigued captain.

The on-field umpires had no issue in allowing Smith a runner but they went by the book and sought the consent of the fielding captain. Strauss was very much alive to the situation and he was in no mood to give a lifeline to his opposite number. I think he made a perfectly right decision of turning down the request not once but two times.

Cricket is a tough game and it should be played the same way. If Smith was fit enough to flay the bowlers why should he have been provided the luxury of not running his singles and doubles. South Africa’s hopes of staying in the competition vanished the moment Smith was snapped fittingly by Owais Shah, who was guilty of dropping him earlier in his innings.

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September 27, 2009

India missing Sehwag, Yuvraj


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

India’s 54-run defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Pakistan at the Super Sport Park in Centurion on September 26 brought to the fore the big hole in their team caused by the injuries to Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh.

Sehwag and Yuvraj are not only the master blasters who blow away the opposition in the blink of an eye but they bring in the balance that enriches the side to the extent of being unbeatable.

Both Sehwag and Yuvraj are two wonderfully gifted all-rounder cricketers whose mere presence in the park makes a world of difference. Without them India are not the team that could be expected to do wonders or even live to their big reputation now.

Under the circumstances it seems highly unlikely that India would be able to lift their game and make it to the semifinals of the Champions Trophy. Their fate, in the present scenario, might not be much different to the one in the ICC Twenty20 in England earlier this year.

India, on paper, are still a better side than Australia and the West Indies, whom they have to combat in the remaining two league matches. It remains to be seen how Mahendra Singh Dhoni meets the challenge.

Life is already getting tough for Dhoni. Often found as cool as a cucumber he was certainly in a spot of bother not only in the field but also off it. He must have realized, although he might not admit it, that a game against Pakistan takes its toll and there are moments when you run short of ideas.

It was not Dhoni’s cup of tea to have remarked: "At times I felt I was three bowlers short. There were times I didn't know whom to go to or what fields to set. Wherever I put a fielder, the ball went elsewhere." It was not his usual answer to a simple query if he missed a fifth bowler.

Dhoni must be wondering how things went horribly wrong when he had the match in control by picking up three wickets inside the first 15 overs. How can he be blamed for pressing the part-timers into service at a stage when Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Yousuf were not prepared to take on the bowlers?

It was the failure of the premier spinner, Harbhajan Singh, to have severely hurt the plans. The vastly experienced off-spinner didn’t oblige his skipper with a wicket or two and in fact compounded problems by spraying the ball in various directions.

Shoaib and Yousuf played risk-free cricket with complete peace of mind. They knew that they were actually stealing the game by piling up the runs. Their double century fourth wicket stand ensured a mammoth total for Pakistan.

When India batted, chasing 303 in 50 overs, they kept the contest alive by maintaining healthy run-rate from the outset. Strangely though, some suicidal instincts saw them lose wickets against the run of play. They were bowled out inside 45 overs. In fact 31 deliveries were still to be bowled when their last wicket fell.

Although 54 runs separated the two sides in the end, the contest was much closer and India were guilty of giving it away after being in the driving seat which was of course not an unusual sight in their games against Pakistan in particular.

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September 25, 2009

South Africa get a much needed lifeline


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Much to the relief of the organizers and the thousands of their die-hard supporters, the South African team has got a lifeline in the ongoing ICC Champions Trophy 2009 by overpowering New Zealand by five wickets in their clash at the Super Sport Park in Centurion on September 24.

There were moments during the game when one felt that South Africa would be falling apart once more as they had done in the previous ICC tournaments at home. One was getting reminded of the match between the same two opponents in the 2003 World Cup when a combination of factors had helped New Zealand stun the hosts.

New Zealand once more needed to bring about an upset to prevail over South Africa because there was hardly any comparison between the two teams. The South Africans stood head and shoulders above the Black Caps in every department of the game but they had to prove it in the park to stay in the reckoning after the humiliating loss at the hands of Sri Lanka the other night.

As somebody quite rightly pointed out, both South Africa as well as New Zealand have had the tendency of being engaged in shocking results. South Africa have usually been at the receiving end while New Zealand have generally been the beneficiaries in the tales of unexpected.

No matter how superior the South Africans were on paper, they must have been under immense pressure when they took the field in Centurion. They had to prevent the New Zealanders from posting a kind of total that would have kept the contest open.

The brilliant bowling by Wayne Parnell and Roelof van der Merwe allowed the hosts in accomplishing their task of limiting the Black Caps who were threatening to put runs on the board. Dale Steyn also chipped in with useful wickets much to the delight of skipper Graeme Smith who was obviously not in a mood to give anything away in a do-or-die game for his team.

New Zealand lacked quality batsmen who could go the distance in a 50-over game. Their inexperienced batters may be getting away with it in the Twenty20 games but it was a different ball game lasting full 50 overs, an area where they were found wanting once more.

There were times when New Zealand looked in a position to amass a total in the region of 250 after Ross Taylor had done the hard work. But not unexpectedly their last seven wickets tumbled for 51 runs and they were bowled out for 214. Parnell was their wrecker-in-chief with a five-wicket haul.

The target of 215 was unlikely to test the South Africans even though New Zealand had some quality as well as variety in their bowling. It could have been an interesting battle, had the target been over 250.

Daniel Vettori, as he always does, refused to give up and the fall of wickets at regular intervals allowed him to keep his boys motivated. Jacques Kallis batted imperiously before edging Shane Bond while Hashim Amla played the anchor role admirably.

The innings of the day, however, was played by AB de Villiers whose glorious unbeaten half century helped the hosts in reaching the target quite comfortably in the end.

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September 24, 2009

‘Makeshift’ West Indies show more fighting grit than predecessors


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

In the final count it didn’t really matter which West Indian team was taking on Pakistan in the first Group B match of the ICC Champions Trophy 2009 at the New Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on September 23.

I don’t think the outcome would have been much different even if Chris Gayle and company were there in place of the ‘depleted’ West Indian side that took the field. We have seen on numerous occasions in the recent past when the West Indies had squandered the opportunity of beating Pakistan after being in the driving seat for the better part of the match.

The individual brilliance of Gayles, Sarwans, Chanderpauls and Bravos could turn the tide against any other opposition with Pakistan being the sole exception. In fact even the great West Indian sides of the 1970s as well as the 1980s had encountered untold problems while coming to terms with Pakistan.

The inexperienced West Indian side showed more fighting grit than their predecessors and they might have even won the game on some other day with the same kind of performance, had the rub of the green gone their way.

The West Indians did a wonderful job by posting a total of 133 after the top-order had self-destructed while facing some accurate and hostile bowling on a track where the ball was bouncing much more than on any ground in the Caribbean these days.

The resilience and self-belief of the lower-order was exemplary. The manner in which the likes of Nikita Miller, Darren Sammy and Tino Best applied themselves should have been an object lesson to not only their colleagues in the dressing room but also to their more illustrious contemporaries watching the action from the comfort of their homes in the various islands of the Caribbean.

Pakistan were always expected to struggle even while chasing the target of 134 in 50 because their batsmen are more comfortable compiling runs on easy-paced tracks offering little or no assistance to the fast bowlers.

It was going to be a different ball game at the Wanderers and Gavin Tonge’s superb spell with the new ball showed once more how vulnerable was Pakistan’s batting in difficult conditions. It was anybody’s game when Pakistan’s top half was back in the hut with 76 runs on the board and as many as 58 still needed.

Pakistan are also known for producing new heroes in every other game. Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi, least expected to come off in the pressure-cooker situation, did the job by adding 58 for the sixth wicket. In the context of the game it looked quite extraordinary but they somehow put the runs on the board and there was no close finish as was being anticipated.

One thing that looked the most perplexing was the decision of the West Indian captain, Floyd Reifer, to bat after winning the toss. Not sure what exactly was in his mind or that of his team management but he allowed Pakistan a lifeline by not exposing their batsmen to the tougher conditions earlier in the day.

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September 23, 2009

Hosting jinx haunts South Africa yet again


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

History repeated itself at the Super Sport Park in Centurion on September 22 as the hosts South Africa crashed to defeat in the opening match of the ICC Champions Trophy 2009. They were surprised by the Sri Lankans, who never looked back after the whirlwind century from Tillekeratne Dilshan.

The top ranked ODI side of the world, South Africa, entered the competition as the firm favourites. Now they face the prospects of an early elimination on their own soil yet again in not too dissimilar fashion as the ICC World Cup 2003 and the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in 2007.

South Africa have had this knack of choking at certain levels. They have often run out of steam in the semifinals of various ICC tournaments but more alarmingly they have fared even worse in their own backyard.

Judging by their current form and the balance of their side I was quite confident that they would leisurely walk through to the semifinals with neither of their opponents in league matches, Sri Lanka, England or New Zealand, possessing the strength to take them to task. I had anticipated them getting knocked out in the semifinals at the hands of Australia or India.

But the events of the opening day have created doubts even if they would reach the knockout stage of the competition. The home advantage has turned out to be the big disadvantage to them and they have to do something extraordinary to come back in the reckoning.

Since they are playing in their own country where they have a pathetic record in the ICC tournaments one can’t really back them regrouping all that quickly. All they need is a couple of bad hours in the park and they would be out of the event much to the disappointment of their fans.

Graeme Smith would do his country a great service if he could convince his boys to take the games against England and New Zealand as just another One-day International, forgetting they were playing in the Champions Trophy.

Smith must be wondering how he lost the plot against Sri Lanka, who were bulldozed by Pakistan in the warm-up tie leading to the big event. His decision to bowl first after winning the toss was a bold one but it didn’t pay off. They needed to take more than a wicket when the ball was still hard and new.

Dilshan and skipper Kumar Sangakkara laid a platform from where they never going to lose. The match could have gone only one way once the Sri Lankans had amassed 319 runs in 50 overs. Dilshan’s 92-ball 106 was indeed a terrific effort against the high quality bowlers.

Smith and Jacques Kallis delighted the home fans with their stroke-play but as expected the arrival of the spinners shattered their stumps as well as hopes. The mystery spinner, Ajantha Mendis, foxed the well-set Smith first ball before scalping Kallis and J P Duminy on successive balls.

Sri Lanka had the match in complete control when the rains came and they were the deserved winners even though it was DL method in the end that was used to settle the issue.

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September 19, 2009

Pakistan’s wake-up call for favourites


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Just the other day I had pointed out that Pakistan can never ever be written off irrespective of their weakness or the strength of their rivals on paper. They have been the most unpredictable side all along in every team sport, generally having shown disrespect to conventional thinking.

Pakistan’s performance in the warm-up games leading to the ICC World Twenty20 in England earlier this year never really suggested that they would go on to collect the trophy a fortnight later.

Now Pakistan have got off to a flying start in South Africa, having trounced Sri Lanka in the warm-up tie at the Willowmoore Park in Benoni on September 18. They whacked their opponents by a staggering margin of 108 runs in the day-nighter.

Not many people would have expected Pakistan going on the rampage against a strong Sri Lankan outfit. But again it was a case of history repeating itself. Sri Lanka, more often than not, have come up with their worst performances while playing against Pakistan.

Makeshift opener Kamran Akmal came good hitting 82 off 78 balls with his brother Umar also had fun with the Sri Lankan bowlers while blasting 67 off 51 balls. Shahid Afridi came down the order but caused enough damage to take the Pakistan total past 300.

Sri Lanka certainly had the batting resources to challenge the big score but they were laid low by a man called Rana Naved-ul-Hasan took five wickets. All the big guns of their batting flopped like their champion bowlers.

Be at home or even at a neutral venue the Sri Lankans have crashed in similar fashion against Pakistan. Not only that but Sri Lanka have also helped Pakistan’s cause immensely on numerous occasions by blasting other teams heavily in the same group.

Well Pakistan and Sri Lanka have not been grouped together this time round. Pakistan’s massive win over Sri Lanka in the warm-up game, however, could serve warning bells to Australia and India, two of the three pre-tournament favourites, who have been drawn in their group.

In the event of Pakistan making it to the last four either Australia or India will have to miss out. The West Indies, with their depleted outfit, could not be expected to spring surprises a la Pakistan.

Talking about the West Indies they had to face the music at the hands of South Africa in their warm-up encounter. There was absolutely no element of surprise in watching the home batsmen dominate the inexperienced bowlers. South Africa posted a total of 388 for four with skipper Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and J P Duminy having enthralled the audience.

The only cause of concern for the hosts was an abdominal strain to Herschelle Gibbs when he took evasive action to avoid a straight drive from Smith. Gibbs had to retire hurt and he will be needed to have a scan to determine the extent of the injury.

I don’t think New Zealand’s defeat at the hands of the Warriors in Pretoria can be classified as a shocker. The Black Caps possess an inexperienced batting that’s unlikely to score heavily. They have a potent bowling attack but in one-day cricket you need to put runs on the board too.

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September 18, 2009

South Africa, India start as favourites


by Syed Khalid Mahmood

The ICC Champions Trophy 2009 is round the corner. There have been plenty of One-day Internationals (ODIs) leading to the second most prestigious event in the sport after the World Cup that’s held after every four years.

With so much action on the eve of the tournament it’s not at all a tall order to assess which teams are more likely to lay their hands on the trophy. If the recent form in ODIs is the sole criterion then Australia and India appear to be the firm favourites for the crown.

But if all the factors are taken into account then South Africa have to be regarded as the front runners. The top ranked ODI side in world cricket as of today, they will obviously gain huge advantage of playing at home.

The Champions Trophy 2009 is being played under a new format and only the top eight teams of the world are contesting it. They have been divided equally in two groups. Defending champions Australia are drawn with India, Pakistan and the West Indies in Group A while the hosts South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and England constitute Group B.

The weakened West Indian team is unlikely to come good in the challenging environment of South Africa where the ball would seam and bounce. Unless their authorities work out some formula to reinforce their squad with the seasoned campaigners at the eleventh hour, the West Indies could be the punching bag with every rival fancying their chances of improving their run-rate.

Even if the West Indies were playing to their full strength they would have been least expected to qualify for the semifinals from the group of death. They would have struggled even against Pakistan.

Talking of Pakistan they can never be written off even if they are being represented by second or third strings. They would remain a threat to any fancied team. They are not ranked all that highly at the moment but they can screw anyone on their day. They have every chance of causing an upset or two and displace Australia or India from the semifinal line-up.

The contest is much more open in Group B where South Africa are the standout team but there’s very little to choose between the trio of Sri Lanka, England and New Zealand. None of these three outfits is expected to bag the trophy.

In the prevailing scenario the Champions Trophy 2009 is more likely to be a three-horse race between South Africa, Australia and India. One of these three teams should win the tournament if the miracles don’t happen.

Besides the rankings and ratings these are the three teams who have the firepower and depth to dominate others. South Africa and India, in my opinion, possess stronger ODI outfits compared to Australia, who have proved simply too much for the struggling England side. The Australians have been experimenting continuously after losing their legendary cricketers and it remains to be seen if they will be able to cope with the pressures.

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September 17, 2009

Sohail Tanvir, Ahmed Shahzad banned for bringing game to disrepute


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

What a pity that the quartet of Sohail Tanvir, Ahmed Shahzad, Javed Qadir and Nadeem Shaikh had to be banned indefinitely from playing in the cricket tournaments at the Karachi Gymkhana for having brought the game to disrepute.

The technical committee of the 24th PPL Trophy Karachi Gymkhana Ramazan Festival Twenty20 Cricket Tournament 2009, headed by Iqbal Umar, found them guilty of having violated the code of conduct while playing the quarter-final tie for A O Clinic Cricket Club against Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) on September 13.

“The umpires, Riazuddin and Junaid Ghafoor, had complained in writing to the technical committee that Sohail Tanvir, Ahmed Shahzad, Javed Qadir and Nadeem Shaikh were engaged in verbal abuse, suspected ball tampering and defying decisions. The technical committee, in view of the umpiring report, has banned all the four cricketers from future tournaments at Karachi Gymkhana,” a statement issued by the organizing committee read.

It’s very sad indeed that Sohail Tanvir and Ahmed Shahzad, who have played international cricket for the country in the recent past and they are still in contention for a place in the national squad, displayed so much immaturity while appearing in a local tournament of Karachi.

Sohail Tanvir and Ahmed Shahzad, who had come from Lahore, didn’t make any friends by behaving so rudely and unprofessionally in the cricket field. They showed disrespect to two international umpires, contending their decisions like schoolboys.

I am not if they were aware of the fact that the Karachi Gymkhana happens to be one of oldest institutions of the country and its members have been known for going by the book.

Sohail Tanvir and Ahmed Shahzad, in particular, were being blamed for the chaos with the others like Nadeem Shaikh and Javed Qadeer getting the cue from them. It was very unfortunate that the incidents of indiscipline took place in the presence of Dr Syed Mohammad Ali Shah, whose A O Clinic Cricket Club has played in all the 24 editions of the tournament so far.

Dr Shah, who is also a member of the Governing Body of the Pakistan Cricket Baird (PCB), besides being the President of the Karachi City Cricket Association (KCCA), should take a note of the ugly behaviour of players of his own team.

The technical committee of the Karachi Gymkhana obviously can impose a ban on the cricketers found guilty in their own tournaments. Now the ball is in the court of the PCB to conduct an enquiry and take appropriate action to prevent such incidents in future.

Dr Shah, who was present at the ground for the better part of the ill-tempered match, can set an example by having those cricketers punished who challenged the authority of the umpires and tried to influence them.

Both Sohail Tanvir and Ahmed Shahzad are young cricketers. They are expected to make a comeback in the national squad in not too distant future. But they need to be more stable mentally and they must learn to accept the decisions of the umpires.

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September 16, 2009

Dravid does make the difference


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Although it was Sachin Tendulkar who stole the limelight by scoring heaps of runs the contribution of Rahul Dravid in India annexing the recently concluded Compaq Cup in Sri Lanka was no less insignificant.

Already short of both the world-class openers, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, India desperately needed depth and resilience in their batting to dominate their rivals. The young guns had been found wanting when exposed to challenging conditions and the selectors had made the right move of going back to the basics.

While Tendulkar’s presence ensured unmatched class on top of the order, the comeback of Dravid provided the much needed strength and character to an otherwise enterprising batting line-up.

When you have the master blasters like Yuvraj Singh, Manhedra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Yousuf Pathan to follow there is greater need for a solid platform to let them fire to their heart’s content.

This is exactly what happened in Colombo recently. Dravid didn’t score many in the outing against New Zealand but he spent a lot of time at crease to blunt the Black Caps attack. Dhoni and Raina did the rest with their characteristic positive stroke-play. It could have been a different story to relate if India lost early wickets even though the target wasn’t all that big.

India had already cruised into the final, having become the top ranked ODI side in the world in the process, when they came out to take on hosts Sri Lanka in their league match. Set a daunting task, the Indians were in the game until Dravid was at the crease. With his departure the Indian hopes were dashed.

With the makeshift opener Dinesh Karthik having looked out of sorts in the league matches, Dhoni made the bold move of sending Dravid in as the opening partner with Tendulkar. It turned out to be a master stroke as both the seasoned campaigners provided a perfect start that eventually won them the game as well as the trophy.

Dravid is a team man to the core and he is one man who is always more than willing to meet the challenge. He could not have desired a better comeback gift than the Compaq Trophy that was gleefully collected by skipper Dhoni.
Talking of Dhoni let us give him the credit for having laid the red carpet for Dravid, who was returning to the ODI side after quite sometime.

“Dravid is the most stable and technically sound. He is a kind of batsman who would look to take his innings till the end. He will support the middle-order and help the flashy players play their game.” Dhoni was quoted as saying before going to toss in the opening game.

"Dravid is the ideal No. 3, especially in such conditions and during the evening when the ball swings and seams, so definitely he we will bat at that position," Dhoni complimented.

Dravid has made the captain proud once more. India would need him at his best in the upcoming Champions Trophy in South Africa where his ability to come good in conditions difficult for batting could again lay the platform for the stroke-makers to make hay in the death overs.

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September 15, 2009

India regroup, survive anxious moments to claim trophy


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

India, more than any country, have had to earn their win. It’s very uncommon to watch them register a triumph without hiccups. Irrespective of their own strength and the weakness of their opponents they have had to struggle many times against the run of play.

Who would have expected Sri Lanka to frighten India in the final of the Compaq Cup at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on September 14 after the latter had posted a massive total of 319?

No matter how big target they are defending and how difficult the conditions for batting are, the Indians can never be expected to take things for granted. The unlikeliest of events take place against them. They very nearly got rolled over by an inexperienced Sri Lankan middle-order.

Sri Lanka did hold the psychological advantage entering the final, after having blown away India in the league meeting less than 48 hours ago, but there was only team that looked like to dominate once the target of 320 was set under floodlights.

The Sri Lankans not only embarrassed the Indians but at times forced them on to the defensive. All credit to Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team for battling all odds to finally conjure up a win that should have been theirs without so much of drama.

Isn’t it quite extraordinary that the Sri Lankan batsmen, who have remained generally inconsistent against other teams, get pumped up while taking on the Indians? Probably they fancy their chances of getting away with it while confronting India.

No matter how strong, balanced and potent the Indians may me they look vulnerable when least expected. With a little bit of more luck they could have also lost the final despite being so well placed for most of the time.

Sachin Tendulkar played one of his greatest innings in international career. Harbhajan Singh delivered one of the finest spells under pressure. Yet India were not assured of a victory until the last Sri Lankan wicket fell.

India did the basics right and were rewarded for their endurance. The move to elevate Rahul Dravid as opener instead of the out of form Dinesh Karthik paid dividends. It was such a wonderful sight watching Dravid and Tendulkar bat together. They laid the strong foundation that was so vital for posting an imposing total.

Dhoni took the responsibility of milking the bowling in the company of Tendulkar and the run rate was not allowed to dip. The Indians could have eyed a total in the region of 350 after being so well placed at the end of 30 overs.

Dhoni, however, was not prepared to take the risk of giving it away after the great start. He didn’t open up until the batting powerplay was taken when the ball was changed. Unfortunately he was snapped before he could blast the bowlers. Yuvraj Singh took his time while Tendulkar also remained cautious even after his hundred. They exploded far too late and the Indians were happy to get to 319 in the end.

The Indians might have thought that anything in the excess of 300 was safe, given the history of the ground. But what they had ignored that the majority of the miracles come about at their expense. They barely survived another one that night.

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September 12, 2009

India on top of the tree


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

The manner in which India played against New Zealand in their opening match of the tri series for the Compaq Cup at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on September 11 there was hardly any element of doubt in them being the number one ODI team of the world at the moment.

I do agree with the Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni that the rankings and ratings are bound to improve when you are on the winning spree. He deserves the credit for having extracted something close to their best from his teammates during the past couple of seasons and India have finally moved on top of the tree as far as the ICC rankings for the One-day Internationals are concerned.

The emphatic victory over New Zealand under floodlights in conditions that were not typical of what one finds in the sub-continent was a near-perfect start for Dhoni and his boys after two months layoff from international cricket.

It would have only been perfect if India had cruised to victory without hiccups while chasing a modest target of 156. They did romp home quite leisurely in the end after being guilty of opening up in the game by losing three wickets in quick succession.

New Zealand must have fancied their chances of claiming an unlikely victory when the trio of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh was sent back in the dressing room within flash of an eye. Mind you they are three of the top batsmen in the game and it’s not often that they follow each other so quickly.

India certainly were in a spot of bother when their fourth wicket fell with more than 70 still needed for victory. Daniel Vettori was living up to the reputation of India-killer and the match had become wide open against the run of play.

Dhoni, as he has done frequently, kept his cool and curbed his attacking natural instincts to construct his innings. Suresh Raina, demoted in the batting order following his failures earlier this year, survived a few anxious moments before opening up.

Dhoni and Raina were happy to see Vettori off. It’s incredible that the Indian batsmen are supposed to be the most proficient in tackling the spinners but time and again they also prove to be the most vulnerable against slow bowling.

Dhoni did concede in the post match presentation ceremony that things could have been more difficult if New Zealand had another quality spinner in their ranks.

Vettori probably didn’t know exactly how much the Indians could suffer at the hands of the spinners, irrespective of their class and guile. He would have been better off accommodating another spinner in place of one of the fast bowlers.

Talking of the fast bowlers, the Indian trio of Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma and Rudra Pratap Singh was right on money and there were no escape routes for the Black Caps. The pressure was sustained by the spin duo of Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh who sent New Zealand crashing to 155 all out.

The target of 156 was unlikely to test the supremely confident Indian batters. Sachin Tendulkar’s stroke-play delighted the spectators while Rahul Dravid got the opportunity of spending some time in the middle.

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September 11, 2009

Ehsan Mani outbursts may not help in mending fences between BCCI, PCB


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Ehsan Mani, a former President of the International Cricket Council (ICC), has re-started blaming the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) at a time when the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is trying to mend fences with the neighbours.

I fail to comprehend what service the former ICC President is doing to the Pakistan cricket with this blame game. He has accused the BCCI of trying to isolate Pakistan from the cricketing world and held it responsible for turning down the proposition of holding Pakistan's share of the 2011 World Cup matches at neutral venues.

A few months ago he had held India responsible for having engineered a split in the Asian bloc to deprive Pakistan of hosting rights for the 2011 World Cup following the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore. He was of the opinion that the BCCI was doing so in the fear of losing the tournament altogether.

As a former chief of the controlling body of the game Ehsan Mani should have refrained from using the kind of language he did out in the open.
"I can say this with conviction that no board is today able to stand up to the Indian board in the ICC. Unfortunately, it is all about making money these days and the Indians dominate," he was quoted as saying.

Did he disclose any secret or was it breaking news of sorts? It was neither because everyone knows that India happens to be the biggest market and the bulk of the revenue for cricket is generated from there. Obviously the BCCI has greater significance in the ICC because of the financial reasons.

The BCCI or that matter the ICC could not be blamed for the excessive commercialization of the sport. Cricket has become an industry and its administrators are keen to market it as a very strong brand.

Ehsan Mani has had the feeling that the BCCI was instrumental in depriving Pakistan from staging their matches even at neutral venues.

"I know for a fact that this was decided, but India turned it down at the cricket committee meeting and since Saleem Altaf was representing Pakistan in Ijaz Butt's absence things went wrong somewhere. India then insisted that the matches should only be held in the South Asian region,” Ehsan Mani said.

"In a calculated manner, India is trying to isolate Pakistan from international cricket. No board is willing to support us and we have no inputs coming from other boards. No one including the ICC is willing to answer the most important question: what happens if relations don't improve between India and Pakistan. Will Pakistan get permission to play its matches in India?” he questioned.

"Given the existing relations between the two countries, any untoward incident can trigger off more problems. Then is the ICC willing to organize the World Cup without Pakistan?" he asked.

Ehsan Mani has every right to voice his concerns but he should also keep into account the nature of his outburst and its implications. May be he thinks that Pakistan’s cause will be helped in some way with this kind of attitude.

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September 10, 2009

Adil Rashid’s shocking exclusion costing England dearly


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Adil Rashid must be wondering what else he had to do in order to retain a place in the playing eleven. He had turned out to be England’s best player in the first One-day International against Australia at The Oval but he was dropped in the very next game and was not selected in the third tie either.

Adil was the pick of the England bowlers in the opening game, having conceded only 37 runs in 10 overs as Australia piled up a score of 260. In fact he was the only home bowler to have completed his quota of overs.

Then going in at number eight, he clobbered an unbeaten 31 off 23 deliveries to take England within a stroke to victory. It was the kind of all-round performance that must have done his confidence a world of good.

He was chiefly responsible for having taken England so close to victory after the top-order batsmen had failed to do the job. He was the man who brought the home side back in the reckoning when they had looked dead and buried.

The England skipper, Andrew Strauss, had reposed great confidence in the 21-year-old Adil and the young leg-spinner rose to the occasion against an Australian side looking to settle scores after conceding the Ashes.

It remained unclear however what prompted a change of mind on part of the England team management, particularly Strauss. How could have they even thought of dropping Adil from the line-up for the very next game remains a mystery.

Two wrongs don’t make one right. If they had erred by not playing Adil in the second game, which they lost by a bigger margin than the first one, they should have recalled him for the third game which they didn’t. There was further humiliation in store for the home side now facing the prospect of losing the seven-match series in the very next game.

In fact people have already started talking in terms of a possible whitewash in the ODI series. It would be a shame for England if they lose it so heavily against an Australian side that’s not the best in the business either.

"We haven't played well enough, clearly, but I don't think it's for lack of trying. We have had three poor batting performances, and the first two were very winnable at the halfway mark, but as a batting unit we just haven't fired. We have got to be honest with ourselves and have a look at it, in terms of how we can improve. In one-day cricket, you can't go into your shell and grind it out, you've got to play with enough confidence to put a competitive score on the board, but at the same time make good decisions," the England captain said after losing the third game.

Strauss admitted that his inability to finish off things was creating problems for his side. "When you're batting well, you have to make hay but I haven't done that, and that's frustrating. Every time you pull on an England shirt you've got a chance to go on and achieve something, and I am as culpable as anyone," he conceded.

England, handicapped by the absence of Kevin Pietersen, need Strauss to fire if they have to stage a comeback in the series. Strauss also has to ensure that England do have sufficient attacking bowlers in their line-up and Adil Rashid is someone he cannot afford to ignore anymore.

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September 9, 2009

Wasim Bari faces the challenge of lifetime


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has finally put someone in the right place.. Ijaz Butt had acquired the services of quite a few ‘greats’ after taking over the leadership of the Board last year but he was found wanting in posting them at the right places leading to controversies and bitterness.

The appointment of Wasim Bari, a former Pakistan captain and of the greatest-ever wicketkeepers the world has seen, as the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the PCB can be described as one of the rare good moves by the Board in the recent past.

The PCB, not surprisingly, was in the news for the wrong reasons with the policies of Ijaz Butt backfiring more often than not. It has come as a pleasant surprise to have someone like Wasim Bari as the COO.

Wasim Bari thoroughly deserved the slot by virtue of his qualification, experience and expertise. He had been a part of the senior management of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) for quite sometime having worked alongside people like Arif Ali Khan Abbasi, Tariq Kirmani and Zaffar Ahmed Khan.

He has always believed in and advocated for professional management. Even when he was serving as the chairman of the national selection committee, he desired the PCB to be run on corporate lines like Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket.

Now he has been elevated to the position which he richly deserved. I think he’s the perfect choice for the post of COO. That’s one part of the story.

The other part begins with his appointment as the COO. Will he be able to deliver? Will he be allowed to adhere to the principles of professional management? Or will he prefer to work quietly and turn a blind eye to the follies to be committed by his superiors.

Wasim Bari is an ice-cool gentleman who can work for very long hours. He is not afraid of the workload. But he could be tested when pressurized to sign or verify ‘fishy’ matters. Skill and temperament are his forte. Let us see how he handles Ijaz Butt who has been criticized for having made the PCB a one-man show.

Obviously it can’t be expected of Wasim Bari to challenge or over-rule the decisions of Ijaz Butt. They have certainly developed a level of understanding already. The issues could be different now since Wasim Bari is now the COO, not the Director Human Resources.

The critics of Wasim Bari condemn him as a ‘yes man’ of the bosses. They may be partially right to the extent that he’s a soft person who doesn’t like to quarrel. But one should not question his integrity.

I don’t think anybody will dispute of him possessing the nerves of steel. Selection is a thankless job where you are subjected to the harshest of criticism for the faults of others. He remained the chief selector for quite sometime, coped with the pressures bravely and gave the results.

He, however, faces the challenge of his lifetime now. It’s a much tougher assignment than being the chief selector or Director HR of the PCB.

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September 8, 2009

IPL forces New Zealand to shorten Australian series?


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

It’s becoming increasingly clear now that the Indian Premier League (IPL) has attained the highest priority for the administrators of the game world over. Every cricket board seems to have made a point of late not to schedule many international games at a time when the IPL is planned to be held.

Although New Zealand Cricket have given another excuse but there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that it’s the IPL that actually prompted them to shorten Australia’s tour to their country in the coming season.

Australia's tour to New Zealand in 2009-10 features two Twenty20 Internationals in late February to be followed by a five-match ODI series for the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy and two Tests.

Originally three Tests were scheduled to be held during the tour but the itinerary released by the New Zealand authorities the other one mentioned only two Tests to be held in Wellington and Hamilton starting on March 19 and 27 respectively.

It was quite a shocker because it will be the first time in 20 years that New Zealand would be hosting Australia for a series of less than three Tests. It would keep the top guns of Australia and New Zealand players engaged until March 31 and they would then be free for the IPL.

The IPL 3 will be getting underway in India on March 12 and will continue till April 25. The decision to scrap the third and final Test between New Zealand and Australia would allow the players of both teams around 10 more days in the IPL.

"Playing Test cricket in New Zealand after the cessation of daylight saving and deep into the second week of April is not realistic. Therefore our only option has been to limit the series to two Tests," Justin Vaughan, the Chief Executive of New Zealand Cricket, explained.

Isn’t it a strange argument because New Zealand had played host to a Test match against India during the month of April only this year. In fact a Test match was added to tour upon the request of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), who denied more action for their team following the cancellation of the tour of Pakistan.

Well the New Zealand Cricket need to find some other reason to justify their decision to cut short the Test series against Australia.

Obviously the New Zealand Cricket is not the only board in the world that has made a move to accommodate the IPL. They could not have done this without the blessings of the more powerful Cricket Australia. Both the boards must have been in agreement to have two Tests instead of the planned three.

Anyways there is plenty of cricketing activities to be held in New Zealand in the coming season as they would now be hosting Pakistan instead of touring the country. Pakistan would now be playing their three ‘home’ Tests against New Zealand in New Zealand. Between the tours of Pakistan and Australia, New Zealand would also be playing host to Bangladesh.

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September 7, 2009

Australia double lead without ever looking convincing


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

What a pity that Australia have been allowed to run into a 2-0 lead in the seven-match series of One-day Internationals by England, who appear the more balanced as well as versatile side in comparison to their traditional rivals.

The present Australian outfit is a mere shadow of the great one-day sides they used to field until the recent past. There are more bits and pieces cricketers in their eleven now than the specialists.

England have themselves to blame for having squandered the opportunity in both the games. They had the Australians on the mat for quite sometime but their own batting fared pathetically and the advantage was surrendered.

In both the matches the Aussies barely managed par score, batting first. With the hosts having packed their side with one-day all-rounders, they were the ones who appeared the favourites to seal the fate of the match at the start of their chase on both the occasions. Surprisingly, however, they lost their way in both the games and even the depth in their batting could not cover for the follies of their top batters.

The Australians also had their share of problems in the batting department but they somehow made up by the late flourish in both the encounters. Callum Ferguson was chiefly responsible for keeping them afloat after the unconvincing performance of their established batsmen.

Australia faced the danger of being bowled out for a low total, even after Ferguson’s half-century in the second match at Lord’s. They had barely crossed 200 when their eighth wicket fell and England had all cards in their pocket with James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom bowling splendidly in the death overs.

It was Mitchell Johnson, of all people, who rescued Australia with a flurry of big hits that yielded runs at brisk pace and all of a sudden England had to chase down a target of 250 instead of 210 or 215.

Left-handed Johnson's late assault actually revived Australia. He swung his bat at everything to score an unbeaten 43 off 23 balls. He was helped by some ordinary fielding as well, adding 41 off the last four overs and a bit with Nathan Hauritz. England’s wicketkeeper Matt Prior was guilty of letting go two boundaries that should have been stopped.

England, however, regained control with a solid opening partnership between skipper Andrew Strauss and the enigmatic Ravi Bopara. The Australians, at that stage, were running out of options as a cakewalk victory for the hosts looked more likely than anything else.

But England collapsed in the unlikeliest of circumstances. They were on top of the game when the self-destruction began. Michael Clarke must have heaved a sigh of relief watching the England batsman commit the kind of mistakes that would have embarrassed even the schoolboys.

Paul Collingwood fought a lone battle in the end but he was let down by his partners at the other end. The asking rate was very much manageable and the powerplay overs were at their disposal. But England didn’t have wickets to cash in and they eventually lost the match by 39 runs.

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September 5, 2009

Return of Bond propels New Zealand


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Three wickets for 18 runs off four overs. These are the figures that would surely make every bowler proud in any form of the game. The analysis will be considered even better if it’s achieved in a limited overs contest. These would obviously be recognized as exceptional figures in the shortest version of the sport.

In that context the bowling performance of New Zealand’s spearhead Shane Bond, making a return to international cricket, was better than the best as he powered his team to a magnificent 22-run win over Sri Lanka in the second Twenty20 International at R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on September 4.

Although Jesse Ryder ran away with the Man of the Match award, for his half century as well as outstanding fielding, it was the superlative spell of fast bowling from Bond that sealed the fate of the game as well as the series.

New Zealand, having sneaked a narrow victory in the previous game, had done well to reach a total of 171 but the target could never have been considered out of reach of the Sri Lankans on a pitch where slower bowlers were more likely to do the business.

With Bond back to take the new ball the bowling attack of New Zealand gained more potency and purpose. It’s always a huge advantage to have a quality fast bowler attack with the shining ball rather than having an ordinary mortal spraying in different directions with the intent on containment.

There is no better way of controlling the rate of scoring than take wickets. That is exactly what New Zealand are more likely to do when they have someone like Bond having the ball in his hand.

I think it was Bond more than anyone else who made the difference. He dismissed the dangerous Tillekaratne Dilshan in the very first over to open the floodgates. Kyle Mills, who shared the new ball with him, was also lifted and he responded with two quick wickets to deny the hosts the kind of flying start they needed to be ahead to chase down a target of 172.

Mahela Jaywardene and Kumar Sangakkara revived Sri Lanka with an enterprising fourth wicket partnership but the New Zealanders knew they always had a chance when they broke through.

Daniel Vettori looked a more confident leader, after the nightmarish two-Test series in which his team was blanked. He deserved the credit for having kept the motivated after the debacle and his inspirational captaincy was instrumental in bringing about the turnaround.

New Zealand, who lost the Test series 0-2, have won the Twenty20 series 2-0. They have lifted their game considerably and their rejuvenated outfit would be a threat to both Sri Lanka as well as India in the upcoming series of One-day Internationals.

New Zealand, who looked pedestrian in the Test matches due to the lack of firepower in their bowling attack, have come to life of late. Bond has helped their cause immensely, providing Vettori a much-needed attacking option.

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September 3, 2009

Bridge legend Masud Saleem passes away


By Syed Khalid Mahmood

Bridge legend Masud Saleem has passed away, after a protracted illness, in Karachi. He was 69. He was a diabetic patient for the last many years and both his legs had to be amputated due to gangrene.

He died on August 31 and was buried at the Chiniotis graveyard in North Nazimaad the same afternoon. He has left behind a widow, two sons and two daughters for mourning besides a large circle of friends, admirers and duplicate bridge players, holding him in high esteem.

He was the first partner of Zia Mahmood, and a key member of Pakistan’s bridge team that made history in 1981 by entering the finals of the World Bridge Championship in its maiden appearance in Bermuda Bowl.

Masud was born on May 1, 1940 in Chiniot. He first appeared on the bridge horizon in 1962 as the organizer of a tournament at St. John’s Club. It’s a matter of history that this was the largest participated bridge tournament in Pakistan with 62 teams.

He won first tournament of Karachi Club in 1971 for Zaman IV, playing as a partner of Nishat Abedi and Waheed Bux Quadri. He won five Zonal Championships for Pakistan besides innumerable ranking bridge tournaments. He won national championships as many as seven times.

For almost three decades, his outstanding achievements for Pakistan in the bridge arena, both at home and abroad have had no parallel in the history of sport in Pakistan.

Right from 1978, when Pakistan first burst upon the international bridge scene, as runners-up in the Far East Bridge Federation Championship despite the handicap of two walkovers to Taiwan, Masud’s prolific abilities led to a string of staggering bridge victories to Pakistan.

Having finished runners-up, in the very first appearance by Pakistan, in the Bermuda Bowl World Championship held in 1981, Masud was rated as the most gifted bridge player in world with a remarkable in born natural talent that led him to be distinction of having won the most laurels for his country in bridge.

His artistry in handling problems of bidding, play and defence was legendary for, as he combined his natural ability of card handling with his profound knowledge of the game backed by a phenomenal memory.

“Masud was foremost a friend and a special one. In all the 40 years of our friendship I do not recall a harsh word or a mean gesture from him,” Khurshid Hadi, President Emiretus, Pakistan Bridge Federation (PBF), observed.

“Even the most intense discussion on bridge was usually conducted in short mainly inaudible bursts followed by a shrug of the shoulders as if to say ‘I said what I had to now its up to you to agree or not.’ Masud was a wonderfully gifted player,” he added.

“His last years have been full of difficulties which he shouldered with dignity. It will not only be the bridge world that will miss an outstanding player but the world will miss an exceptional man,” Khurshid Hadi reckoned.

Rehena Saigol, a former President of the PBF, also paid glowing tributes to Masud Saleem, describing his as one of the greatest bridge players produced by the country.

“He had been laid low by illness in the last few years of his life and the PBF did hold a few benefit events for him. He has made outstanding contribution to the sport of bridge in Pakistan that can never be forgotten,” she thought.

The former PBF President recalled that Masud was outshone by his more flamboyant partner, Zia Mahmood, but the former also played a most significant role in putting Pakistan on the bridge map of the world.

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