South Africa was a milestone, not the destination
This was the moment the World Cup came alive. Until now, Pakistan and its fans had sleepwalked through the World Cup. The team had, until now, been doing a fairly good job of alienating its fan base.
The mood back home was as sour as one can remember in recent times, after facing humiliating losses to India and West Indies followed by a narrow win over Zimbabwe. But this team has a habit of roping you back in just when you think you are done.
Pakistan entered the match having never beaten South Africa in their previous World Cup meetings, and having won only four of their last 14 matches with the team and its balance in disarray. South Africa, on the other hand, was coming into this match full of confidence on the back of consecutive 400 plus scores in their last two matches. They were simply supposed to brush Pakistan aside with the combination of Steyn-Morkel – too much for Pakistan’s brittle batting line-up – and their batting, which was too explosive for an inexperienced Pakistani bowling attack.
Yet, what unfolded was an absolute cracker of a game; the sort of game you could argue this World Cup needed with all preceding matches between the top eight teams so far being one-sided. After a circumspect start with both teams weighing each other, the game exploded into life behind Sarfaraz Ahmed’s batting and exquisite fielding by the South Africans.
From there on, it was akin to a heavyweight match up with both teams wrestling momentum from one another, exchanging blow after blow before Pakistan finally put the final nail in the proverbial coffin of the South Africans with Sohail Khan putting an end to AB De Villiers’s outstanding innings.
A win to make every Pakistani believe in the repeat of the ‘92 miracle, it came not without its talking points.
In the build-up to the match, Pakistan coach Waqar Younis caused quite a stir when he revealed the management was considering Sarfaraz Ahmad, Pakistan’s hero the pervious winter, purely as a wicketkeeper rather than an opening batsman as well. In fact, Waqar went as far as to say that Sarfaraz’s technique was ill-suited to Australian conditions.
These comments caused even more outrage as they came in the wake of Nasir Jamshed’s wretched form – one run in three innings – and Umar Akmal’s costly mistakes behind the stumps. It seemed the whole of Pakistan from the street vendors to former players were crying out for the same thing and they finally got what they wished for as Sarfaraz opened the innings.
His inclusion provided a breath of fresh air to the team and it was his attacking approach, signalled by the three sixes in one over to JP Duminy, which provided the team the much needed impetus it had previously lacked. Although, his innings was to end tragically as he pushed for an unwarranted second run in order to reach his 50 and was caught yards outside. One can imagine, 20 years from now, Sarfaraz kicking himself thinking about his innings rather than watching the highlights of a Master-class show.
If there were still doubts lingering about his inclusion, his performance behind the stumps put those doubts to rest with six catches in total, including an absolute stunner low dive to his right to get rid of the backbone of the South African line-up, Hashim Amla.
Pakistan fans could be forgiven for wondering whether they should lambast the team management for their stubbornness in abstaining from playing Sarfaraz or praising them for his eventual inclusion. This was indeed a man of the match performance that no doubt leaves some egg shells on the face of Waqar and the rest of us with endless repetition of a quote from PK.
Unfortunately, Misbahul Haq’s innings yet again warranted debate. It seems the captain cannot help but polarise opinion. Having received plenty of criticism for his innings against Zimbabwe, Misbah walked in to bat this time, however, at 56 for two in the 17th over with a firm momentum. Yet his slow start of 19 from 38 balls, including a blocked maiden over of Imran Tahir, duly gave the momentum back to South Africa. An argument can also be made that it led to the dismissal of Younus Khan who will surely feel he missed out on a certain century after a solid start.
If Pakistan is to compete with the heavyweight line-ups of Australia and New Zealand, then Misbah will have to up the ante where 300 seem to be par. Yet, it is telling that amongst the three Pakistani batsmen to get good starts, Misbah’s innings was the worst of the lot, considering it was him who carried on to his standard 50. The others would do well to learn from the captain.
While Misbah receives criticism for scoring slowly, it is perplexing that both Umar Akmal and Sohaib Maqsood escape such treatment for scoring altogether. Sohaib’s struggles continue outside off stump as he has failed to come to terms with the bounce and pace of the wickets down under and the batsman will need to improve to shake off a growing reputation of a faulty technique and temperament.
While Sohaib’s struggles might be relatively new, Umar Akmal’s need no mention. It is fair to say that Umar pulled an “Umar-Akmal”. An interesting statistic would be to see how many times the batsman has got out in the batting Powerplay and he once again managed to throw away his wicket at a crucial moment with a mind boggling shot.
Indeed the inclusion of both Sohaib and Umar in the middle order merits a discussion as perhaps it leaves the middle order brittle and susceptible to a collapse – as was the case today where it hampered Pakistan’s chances of posting a daunting total. In fact, it can be argued that both are similar types of attacking batsman who accelerate the innings but neither can be trusted to build an innings for now. It is an issue which can be resolved with Haris Sohail’s return for Sohaib Maqsood, a move which should provide the team with more stability.
The fielding of the South Africans also merits a mention. The Pakistan team would do well to learn from the high intensity display of the South Africans where the gaps were plugged, singles increasingly hard to come by and led directly to the dismissal of Ahmad Shehzad through a wonderful catch by Dale Steyn and then Sarfraz Ahmad courtesy of a bullet throw by David Miller.
Defending 232 in 47 overs on a batting wicket with short boundaries; not many would have fancied Pakistan but their bowling display was one that took you back to the glory days of the 90s when Wasim and Waqar would be in full flow. While our bowling has maintained its position as the backbone of our team, it has transformed from a fast bowling attack to a spinning one with the success of Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez and Shahid Afridi.
However, with two of them not around, and the third out of form, it was the fast bowlers who stepped up yet again. While our spinners brought us countless joy, there are not many things which make Pakistanis feel as fuzzy inside as when witnessing a fast bowler in full flow.
Particular praise should be reserved for Rahat Ali.
Many questioned his inclusion in the squad after he was not included in the original 30, yet called up as a replacement for the injured Junaid Khan. In fact, Pakistan, as it has so often been in the past, seems to have uncovered a new gem in One Day cricket with Rahat building on his test performances from earlier.
He has provided crucial breakthroughs such as that of Hashim Amla today and made himself an indispensable asset to the team. And that delivery to David Miller, which shall be etched into our memories for a long time to come, was one even the great Wasim Akram would have been proud of. While we are in a generous mood, a special mention should be made of Chairman Shahryar Khan who vetoed the decision of the team management to request the tried and tested Sohail Tanvir that allowed Rahat Ali to be called up. It seems it was another decision the team management got wrong.
Speaking of Sohail Tanvir, it was reported that it was touch and go between him and Wahab Riaz when the squad was being named. It is a debate that Riaz is making a mockery out of it with each passing spell. Blessed with sheer pace, Riaz in this World Cup is doing a fine job growing into the leader of the bowling attack and evolving into the bowler we all envisaged he would become after that lung-bursting spell in Mohali which left us all in a daze.
It would be easier to praise the bowling unit altogether but such were their performances that they merited individual mentions. Going into the World Cup, we were all aware he could be a priceless asset with his height on the bouncy tracks in Australia, but he is doing a remarkable job for Pakistan – not only in taking wickets but also his economy rate. He set the tone for the innings with the wicket of De Kock with an absolute peach of a delivery and then came back to provide the vital wicket of Duminy. Mohammad Irfan shares a heavy burden of the attack and his importance to the team means every time he pulls up lame our hearts collectively skip a beat.
While on the subject, Misbahul Haq has been much maligned for his defensive captaincy in ODIs, yet today he was fantastic from the start. He set attacking fields with catchers in place, often two slips and a gully and an underrated part of the game was when the close-in fielders prevented Miller and De Villiers from releasing the pressure with cheap singles. This strategy built up pressure and eventually resulted in the wicket of Miller. Moreover, he brought back Irfan to land the killer blow and he duly delivered with the wicket of Duminy. Misbah truly possessed the Midas touch tonight.
However, not all aspects of our bowling fired.
The form of Afridi is becoming a source of concern for the Pakistan team. Batting at number seven, the team is reliant on Afridi as a specialist bowler and expects him to get through his 10 overs. Yet, not only is his bowling no longer threatening to take a wicket, his economy rate also took a hit as the South African and Zimbabwean batsmen both feasted on him. While it may still be too early to drop him, given Pakistan’s lack of an all-rounder as a replacement, the alarm bells are surely ringing.
Finally it would be remiss to conclude the match without talking about the brilliance of AB De Villiers. He has truly established himself as the best batsman in the World across all formats. His innings possessed a touch of genius as he flicked Riaz for consecutive sixes off his hips and swept Afridi for the maximum. Solely responsible for raising the collective blood pressure of the Pakistani public, he did not belong on the losing team.
So after a nail-biting victory, Pakistan’s stuttering World Cup campaign has finally come to life. It was not a must-win game but it was as close as possible to being one. Beating a team like South Africa will have brought a much needed confidence boost as Pakistan can now look forward to not only qualifying for the quarter-finals, but finishing as high as possible in the group to get a favourable matchup.
There are still issues to resolve for the team but that is for another day. Today it’s all about falling back in love with the team again.
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