Umar Gul is the man who operates in the shadows of his more colourful companions of the Pakistani bowling pack. Behind his captain Shahid Afridi among Pakistan's leading wicket-takers at this World Cup - 14 wickets to Afridi's 21 - Gul has emerged as the searing inquisitor with the new ball en route to Pakistan's arrival into the semi-final.
It will all come to a head in Mohali on Wednesday when Gul opens the bowling against the strongest batting contingent of the event. It is his first spell that could dictate how the rest of his team's overs go, but Gul has identified what he needs to do. "The first three wickets in the top-order are very crucial for us. They are depending on the top three. I am looking for these three batsmen." Now these are words tailor-made for screaming headlines, ("Gul targets top three", "Gul wants to rip through India top order") but Gul delivered them as if he were saying something routine. Like telling the physio about his ankles or ordering room service.
Were Gul to run into India's top three in their hotel corridor between now and Wednesday afternoon, there would be handshakes, smiles and pleasant chit-chat. It is a fact that most of the fans on both sides find hard to to digest, particularly two days before the World Cup semi-final that once again sets up one of the most over-heated rivalries in sport.
Gul said that given the strength of the Indian batting, the World Cup had taken his bowling to the rhythm it needed at the right time. "Our bowling is very good. Afridi is the leading wicket-taker. I am happy with my performance and form. We have a bit of an advantage with our bowling but I am happy with the way the batsmen played in the quarter-final." He said that the ideal combination for Wednesday would be the Pakistani bowlers being on top of their game on a friendly wicket, and the batting giving the start like it had against the West Indies.
The advantages of working with coach Waqar Younis and assistant coach Aaqib Javed, both fast bowlers of skill and nous, had found strong echoes at the World Cup, according to Gul. "I've only fully understood in this World Cup how much help I have got from them." On the tour to New Zealand, Waqar had informed Gul that he would be bowling with the new ball in the World Cup. "For the last one-and-a-half-years, I wasn't able to deliver with the new ball because of which I lost my form." In the last two-three months, however, working with both Waqar and Aaqib, had brought it all back, rhythm, confidence and success. "It's been like I was bowling in the past, I've got my new-ball skills back, which is good for the team."
One of the biggest dilemmas facing Pakistan is whether to play Shoaib Akhtar in what could be one of his last matches. Shoaib was dropped following Pakistan's defeat to New Zealand but Gul dismissed the talk that he had been omitted because of issues within the team about Shoaib's conduct. "He was rested after the New Zealand match so that he can focus on his fitness. The way he has been practicing for three days, I hope he will do well."
Shoaib's partnership with medium-pacer Abdul Razzaq and also the spin option of Mohammed Hafeez at the start has worked well enough, but Gul welcomed the idea of sharing the new ball with Shoaib. Asked whether he personally would like to partner Shoaib against India, Gul said, "Of course. He is our most experienced bowler and he has done very well in the past, especially against India. A little bit of pressure will be lifted off me too if he plays because in the last couple of matches, when Shoaib wasn't there, all the pressure was on me."
Gul was asked whether he agreed with what MS Dhoni had said about the match actually being bigger than a final. He said, "See, I don't think Dhoni was talking for himself, he was speaking about the expectations of the Indian people. As a player, no one would say this (a semi-final) is bigger than the final, but every cricketer feels the pressure of their people. We also feel the same pressure - our people also feel that we must beat India in each match. You can say that, if we were speaking not for ourselves, but for Pakistan's people, then yeah, it's a final and we will try to win.
"It is only natural, every player hopes he will get the kind of fame that Sachin or Afridi has. It doesn't work that way though. Players like that are idols, so Afridi and Shoaib, whether they perform or don't perform, are idols for the people of Pakistan."
"A semi-final can't be bigger than a final but it's a big match, a high-pressure match." Whether it is a knockout game or a league game, "any match against India is a big match always," Gul said, and then, for the first time in the press conference, he smiled.
The match was "crucial" for the teams but then Gul moved beyond the cricket. "It brings both countries closer, it's very good not only for the players but also for both countries." The prime ministers of both nations seem to agree with the fast bowler. "People from both countries want us to play each other often. Both fans enjoy the cricket because the more we play each other, it's better. I hope it will be a good match and both countries play well."
He also understood what the consequences would be for the losing semi-finalists. "Always, whether you are the Indian or the Pakistani team, there is pressure. The supporters of both teams absolutely cannot bear a defeat. But we've done well in the World Cup, we've won six of our seven games. The kind of support we have got from Pakistan, we are very happy. Whether we win or lose is not in our hands, inshallah we will try and play good cricket."
The team had not heard of Pakistan interior minister Rehman Malik's comments about how they would be monitored closely following the spot-fixing controversy. "I am not aware of this until now ... We don't focus on the media; we are focussing only on our cricket. The kind of pressure we have had over the last several months and the way we have handled it, this (the Malik statement) is no pressure at all."
Before he walked off to be with his mates and in the shadows again Gul faced a question about whether he sought stardom of the kind enjoyed by Afridi and Shoaib. He could have given the safe answer but chose not to. He spoke like a young man doing the hard yards in a punishing profession. "It is only natural, every player hopes he will get the kind of fame that Sachin (Tendulkar) or Afridi has. It doesn't work that way though. Players like that are idols, so Afridi and Shoaib, whether they perform or don't perform, are idols for the people of Pakistan. They will always remain that way. Sometimes in the heart, yes I do wish that I have the same kind of fans that Afridi and Shoaib have, the same fan following."
Then the fast bowler in him returned and he said, "But even then, I am satisfied with the following I have but I am never satisfied with my performance. If I do well in one game I want to perform better in the next ... I always want to try to perform better than the previous time."
No better time to perform than in a World Cup semi-final.
Which is why in the evening, like Gul had earlier promised, the Pakistanis turned out for a fielding session under lights, spending an hour. It was meant to assess the dew factor in Mohali and to give their skills one final polish. Pakistan are not practicising tomorrow and this session under lights would be their last hour on the field before they walk out into the sun on Wednesday afternoon.
--- Update ---
love to seee him destorying top order...........