The enduring image of Australia’s 21-run victory over Pakistan in Mohali will forever be Steve Smith’s unbelievable shot in the penultimate over of Australia’s innings. Smith took guard outside off-stump, tempting Pakistan paceman Wahab Riaz to aim at his favoured leg side.
Smith continued to move to the off-side, completely exposing all the three stumps and then some and one would have anticipated Wahab to aim a devastating yorker at the stumps, something akin to his dismissal of opener Usman Khawaja earlier in the innings.
Instead Wahab bowled it so wide on the off-side that had Smith not hit it, the ball may not have even landed on the pitch. Smith kept shuffling across and, somehow defying physics, flicked the ball on the leg-side for an astounding boundary. Even the cameraman couldn’t track the ball. Nobody could quite believe what had happened. Smith was in that video game mode where he conjures the seemingly implausible. Australia eventually finished with 4-193.
Smith is prone to audaciousness as a renowned fidgety batsman but he had never pulled off anything quite as cavalier as this. Perhaps, if Australia end up winning the World T20 against the odds, Smith’s sublime shot will be deemed the team’s turning point and the moment when their lost swagger returned.
After such a disappointing opening two performances, this was a markedly better all-round show by Australia. They actually resembled a genuine contender, a far cry from the sluggishness against New Zealand and Bangladesh.
So much has been of Australia’s mishmash of selections and, despite constant criticism you felt the team that defeated Bangladesh was going to be backed by selectors in archetypal pugnacious Australian fashion.
But, smartly, the Aussies recalled opener Aaron Finch and paceman Josh Hazelwood at the expense of Mitch Marsh and John Hastings. Australia had been trading on their mantra of being flexible but it felt like the team needed more stability with specialists.
A jittery Finch did not fire, scoring 15 off 16, which was not surprising after such a turbulent last couple of months for him. Still, with Finch who is rated the world’s best T20 batsman with a T20I average of nearly 40 and a strike rate of 153 back at the top, Australia appear a little more strengthened.
They also made some subtle but important adjustments with David Warner and Steve Smith swapping positions. After having to wait until mid-innings to bat in the previous two matches, Warner seemed to relish coming to the crease earlier and encountering a pacier wicket.
Accordingly, Warner hit a couple of flourishing boundaries before being undone by a brilliant 148kmph delivery from Wahab that hit the top of off-stump. One of the best players of pace in the world was undone by sheer speed. Somewhere, Mitchell Starc probably had a wry smile.
You sense that Australia may have to go a step further against India and reunite the Finch-Warner opening partnership, which was the platform that ultimately laid the foundation for Australia’s ODI World Cup triumph just 12 months ago.
Let’s be honest, Warner is innately an opener and simply more effective from the get go. Wouldn't you want him to potentially bat as long as possible? Khawaja shouldn’t have too many difficulties shuffling down to first drop.
Under pressure after struggling at No.3 in the opening two matches, Smith seemed much more comfortable down a spot and scored a 43-ball 61 to be the batting fulcrum. It is strange to say someone with a strike rate of 142 played an anchor role but Smith did the T20 equivalent. He knocked the ball around, ran hard between the wickets and hit boundaries when needed.
Smith was the perfect foil for big-hitters Glenn Maxwell and Shane Watson, who propelled Australia to an insurmountable total with a 21-ball 44. Watson has generally batted at the top in T20 cricket but tapped into his wealth of experience and finished the innings superbly. With such a powerful physique, Watson has the capability of clearing boundaries continually and, when you think of it, No. 6 is a perfectly suitable position for him.
Pakistan teased in their chase but were never really seriously in the hunt. Hazelwood has struggled in this format but, encouragingly, he bowled a tight length and Pakistan’s batsmen were unable to get after him.
Hazelwood’s impressive display (1-26 from 4 overs) countered a poor performance from fellow quick Nathan Coulter-Nile (0-45 from 4 overs) who bowled far too short on this staid pitch. Coulter-Nile looms as a liability and the selectors will need to make another tough call whether to revert back to Hastings.
After knocking over Pakistan’s dangerous duo Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi, leg-spinner Adam Zampa continued to impress on the back of his man-of the-match performance against Bangladesh.
Importantly, Zampa backed himself even after being attacked and was duly rewarded. Zampa looms as Australia’s pivotal bowler in their crunch match against India on Sunday night in a severe test of his temperament. But you feel if Zampa holds his nerve and performs, then Australia has a serious chance of pulling off an upset.
James Faulkner (5-27 from 4 overs) finished off the middle and lower order with a slew of slower balls that baffled the rash Pakistanis to punctuate a satisfying performance from Australia.
It is now all set up for a titanic tussle between heavyweights India and Australia. The winner progresses to the knockout stages, while the loser will depart the tournament ingloriously. After a much-needed tonic, Australia should feel confident about their chances.