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Malik feels the heat

An ex-captain was asked recently about Shoaib Malik's ascension to the captaincy. The true test of it, he said, will come during the course of a Test match or a series, and particularly when he loses. "When you have to gee up the team after a bad loss," he said, "getting the team together will be the toughest part."

Malik passed his preliminary tests in Abu Dhabi and the Twenty20 World Championship. He has shown himself to be a proactive and intelligent captain, keenly attuned to the demands of shorter games. That he is already comfortable and secure in both the shorter formats undoubtedly helps.

But Test matches? They bring with them their own little and large peculiarities. There's so much time - too much in which to think, sometimes - so many different ways to approach a situation, strategies to implement, different rhythms and moods to contemplate. This is a different test altogether, not given readily to leadership by rote or formula. And until he became captain, Malik was not a certainty in the XI.

Two Tests is far too early to be drawing conclusions on any leadership but some observational banter is valuable. A caveat or two first: South Africa are a far superior side to Pakistan. Three Test wins out of four over the last year says it, and if they win tomorrow, a fourth will do so loudly.

Further, losing Mohammad Yousuf (for the first Test) and Shoaib Akhtar (to both) to factors beyond his control robbed him of two impact players. Having a farewell foisted upon him as Pakistan looked to level the series here was also a bit much, for it further upset the balance of the team.

But in any case, the balance was skewed to begin with and here Malik must shoulder responsibility. To go into a must-win Test with only four bowlers, two of whom were spinners, was, in the charitable words of Graeme Smith later in the day, an interesting selection.

"We always knew if we spent good time in the middle, those two seamers would carry a lot of strain and that is what has happened," said Smith. Mohammad Asif's elbow injury meant he didn't bowl more than four overs in the second innings and Umar Gul bowled only four this morning.

That left only two spinners, one in his second Test. Well as Danish Kaneria and Abdur Rehman bowled today, their role was solely to control the flow of runs. And generally when that situation arises in a Test, it is because trouble is looming. When Pakistan really felt the lack of bite was when South Africa were 259 for 7 on the second morning and no one to finish them off.

The world is not out for him, much as he seems to act as if it was, and captaincy wasn't forced upon him, it was offered

Pakistan's strategy, their mantra, for this Test series - with spin we win - was Malik's. He made that clear at the very start and he must acknowledge now it was faulty. Pakistan captains have more say in selection and pitches than most others, so by default some blame goes his way.

Taking the new ball after 90 overs and handing it to the spinners was surprising, partly because it is so rare, but in his and the spinners' defence, it worked for runs still had to be ground out thereafter. South Africa didn't set a target of 500 by tea, as they were likely planning though to call that any kind of victory is stretching it.

But Malik's manner all through suggests he is feeling the pressures of it. Granted it is difficult to be proactive when a contest is slipping out of your hands the way this one has, but what is captaincy if not difficult? Pakistan have rarely looked so lacking in spirit and energy, even during Inzamam-ul-Haq's poorer days.

Details apart, this Test has mirrored the preceding one and Pakistan, with Younis Khan rampant, are familiarly placed. Lose by a heavy margin and reactions will be strong, a situation Malik's demeanour at press conferences has done little to assuage.

The world is not out for him, much as he seems to act as if it was, and captaincy wasn't forced upon him, it was offered. The decision was not lambasted, only greeted with understandable caution.

Now on the final day of this series lies an opportunity. Twice in three innings Malik has batted as a leader. If he can do it again, when and if he is needed to, Pakistan can save this Test. The world then might start looking a slightly better place.

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