Suddenly, they went quiet in the aisles in Sharjah. Devon Conway’s stunning catch triggered a Pakistan collapse and as the home stretch approached, New Zealand looked favourites to pull off an upset. But as it has happened for the umpteenth time at this venue, Pakistan found an unlikely hero.
Asif Ali’s strike-rate in T20Is until this game had been 123 and averaged a shade over 16. He spoiled the Kiwis’ hopes with an unbeaten 27 off 12 balls, including three sixes, sending India into a virtual knockout on Sunday in the process.
In a group that has three big teams, India and New Zealand will now meet each other in a win-or-bust contest. Pakistan have stolen a march over the rest with back-to-back wins. After rolling over India, they edged ahead in this game by five wickets.
Heaps of wickets in the middle-overs had brought New Zealand firmly back into the game, despite a sub-par total, 134/8. After 16 overs, Pakistan needed 37 runs off 24 balls, with Shoaib Malik providing his team’s tenuous link to proper batsmanship. Sharjah has always been Pakistan’s home away from home, support-wise. Their fans in the stands, vociferous right from the start, had lost their voice. They found it back through back-to-back sixes from Ali.
Tim Southee bowled a slower delivery and Ali sent it way over long-off for a six. Another slower ball followed, another over-the-boundary ensued. The fast bowler responded with a bouncer and hit Ali on the helmet. Southee was the first to check on the batsman.
Pakistan and Afghanistan occupy the 🔝 2 spots 👀
This was supposed to be a grudge game. New Zealand’s abrupt Pakistan tour cancellation last month had prompted Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ramiz Raja to tweet about the Kiwis hearing from them at the ICC. Things on the field unfolded differently. Rival captains, Babar Azam and Kane Williamson, broke into laughter at the toss. After the game, Pakistan’s celebration was respectful. Their reserve players danced near the dug-out. Ali hugged Malik and shook hands with the opponents. Shaheen Shah Afridi took a selfie of the squad. Pakistan rather let their cricket talk, through a hard-fought victory.
Malik, 26 not out off 20 balls, joined the party soon, taking a four and a six off Mitchell Santner in the 18th over. Game over. Before the pyrotechnics, there was Haris Rauf.
Five years ago, when the last World T20 happened, Rauf wasn’t even a professional cricketer. On a private trip to Gujranwala, he dropped in at the Lahore Qalandars trial and burst onto the Pakistan Super League by dint of his pace. Then, Dale Steyn got injured and Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League called him. The 27-year-old fast bowler has been on a steady rise since.
Martin Guptill’s wicket was the result of a 148 kph thunderbolt that pitched on a perfect length, cramping the batsman and beating him for pace. Rauf was even more impressive at the death. Conway was done in by a delivery that bounced a little more than the batsman expected. A slower ball accounted for Glenn Phillips. Only three runs were conceded in the 18th over for two wickets. New Zealand, choked by spin upfront, had been resurrecting things for a back-end charge. Rauf cancelled it. His fourth wicket was Santner, another slower ball doing the trick.
Figures of 4/22 made Rauf the Man of the Match. “I just want to thank Lahore Qalandars, too, who supported me a lot. They are the reason I am here,” he said at the post-match presentation.
After consecutive home series cancellations by New Zealand and England, Raja had urged his boys to play with even more zeal at the T20 World Cup. Pakistan looked determined from the outset, from bowling to top-order batting, and very refreshingly for the team management, good fielding.
It was a new pitch at Sharjah, not conducive to stroke-play. Babar and Mohammad Rizwan made a cautious start to the chase before the skipper was cleaned up by Southee. Taking the pace off the ball was working well for the quicks and when spin was introduced, Ish Sodhi and Santner bowled good spells.
Conway’s catch came as a tonic. Mohammad Hafeez danced down the track to Santner, timed the ball well and it was sailing past wide long-off when Conway ran to his left, dived full-length and pulled off the catch of the tournament. It was spectacular enough even for the Pakistan fans to applaud the effort.
Close on Hafeez heels, the in-form Rizwan walked back to the pavilion. Then Imad Wasim departed and Pakistan’s winning probability took a hit. But as much as Ali and Malik rose to the challenge, New Zealand also failed to nail things towards the end. They badly missed Lockie Ferguson, who was ruled out of the tournament after suffering a calf tear.
As for Pakistan, a change in mentality has been serving the team well. After two consecutive wins, Babar spoke about conceding “10 runs too many” in this game.
Shamik Chakrabarty … read more