The best that could have been said about Pakistan so far on their tour of New Zealand was that there had been signs of improvements and that they had been coming increasingly closer to the hosts.
But so low had they set the bar during the first couple of matches that improvements were inevitable.
In Auckland, you could almost hear a satisfying click as everything fell into place. Suddenly all those things that had seemed so difficult seemed so easy. Suddenly, everything that was going wrong went right. Suddenly, what had been so meek became monstrous.
Like always with Pakistan, it left the fans in a strange state of confusion that can be best described as happy frustration. The happiness stems from seeing Pakistan perform so well, the frustration from wondering why they can’t do this more often if it’s so seemingly easy for them.
Perhaps that is the biggest problem with Pakistan; the apparent ease with which they do the preposterous and the incredible alike.
Few question the talent Pakistan have boasted over the years. The stylish top-order batsmen and the destructive lower-order ones. The wicked spinners that can deceive you with flight, with spin and with pace.
And then there are the pacers. Nobody does pacers like Pakistan does pacers. Tall, fast, accurate, seaming, swinging, intelligent, aggressive; Pakistan has produced them all and Pakistan has produced them all several times over.
And yet here they were, Champions Trophy winners, on a six-match losing streak.
Those who love the Men in Green are doomed to oscillate between one extreme and the other. When they win, they win with such panache that the opposition may as well not have showed up. Arguably no other team is easier on the eye than Pakistan in full flow. But when they lose, they lose with so little fight that the opposition may as well have not showed up. Arguably no other team is more frustrating than a Pakistan side struggling.
This, thankfully, was a case of the former; a timely reminder of why Pakistan are loved by so many across the globe. Fakhar Zaman and Ahmad Shahzad gave Pakistan the one thing they had been missing throughout the series; a good opening stand.
Yet such is Pakistan’s unpredictability that even after an opening stand of nearly 100 in 10 overs, nobody was quite certain about what to expect from the remaining 30 overs. What followed was wonderfully carefree.
Sarfraz deserves censure for his poor captaincy on the tour but such fearlessness hadn’t been a part of Pakistan for a while now. Two wickets in four balls — and that too of the two set openers — would usually have been enough for Pakistan to go into their shell.
Here they played with the kind of reckless abandon that is worthy of a side this mercurially talented. Babar Azam’s unbeaten 50 took just 29 balls while skipper Sarfraz’s 24-ball 41 ensured New Zealand’s batsmen found no reprieve from the other end either.
Eden Park may have some of the shortest boundaries in the world and New Zealand may have some of the finest T20I batsmen around but Pakistan’s bowlers were never going to concede 202 here.
Muhammad Amir seemed like an altogether different bowler when he had runs to defend. Rumman Raees was his usual canny self. Hasan Ali continues to show why he is one of the finest white-ball bowlers in the world. Shadab Khan was expensive but, as always, looked threatening and claimed two wickets.
At the end of it all, the 48-run win means Pakistan have claimed their first win on their seventh try. A tour that had been written off can end up being moderately successful if Pakistan claim the third T20I and the series.
Right now, it is impossible to predict which Pakistan will turn up on that day. The answer to that question will determine the outcome of that game. Rest assured, if it is the one that showed up at Eden Park, that T20I trophy is Lahore-bound.
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