The Great Escape is a well-known movie where the main character makes it his business to extricate himself from impossible situations. To many, the manner in which the Pakistan ODI side seems to play its cricket in recent times would have made the makers of the classic movie proud.
The Super 4 game against Afghanistan played in Abu Dhabi was an important game from a Pakistan point of view. A convincing victory would have given them a major dose of confidence that the team needed ahead of their all-important encounter with India on Sunday.
The need of the hour was for Sarfraz Ahmed and his troubled men to put away the demons of their last disastrous outing against their arch-rivals and to put in an effort which would put them in the right frame of mind to take on Rohit Sharma’s confident side.
What transpired though was something of a nightmare for the beleaguered Pakistan captain. His own batting form and questionable decisions on the field had already placed pressure on his shoulders. To add to the stress, he had to contend with a less than effective Mohammad Amir whose form and luck seems to have deserted him in an alarming fashion.
It therefore stood to reason that Pakistan dropped Amir and took on the talented and much-talked-about Shaheen Shah Afridi to give him his ODI debut. Shadab Khan’s groin injury resulted in an enforced change which, in the scheme of things, turned out to be a fortuitous one in the shape of Mohammad Nawaz. Haris Sohail, who had been seen diligently working in the nets on his spinning skills the day before, was brought in place of all-rounder Faheem Ashraf.
The changes to the team were met with almost universal approval by the fans and experts and whilst the result of the toss may have gone the Afghan way who had no hesitation to bat in conditions found in a well-functioning sauna, the quality of the Pakistan bowling attack was considered able enough to take on the challenge.
And this is where Pakistan’s ability to create crisis out of a perfectly normal situation came into play in force. Afghan batsmen got two reprieves after it was found that the bowlers had over-stepped and if that wasn’t enough agony for the Pakistan captain, as many as five catches went down to some comical mistakes.
To their immense credit, Afghanistan batsmen did not let such let-offs deter them from their task of amassing a total which could see their very able bowling attack put Pakistan batsmen under stress.
A score of 257, which was Afghanistan's highest score in an ODI against one of the leading Test-playing nations was never going to be an easy one for Pakistan to chase. The very possibility of a humiliating defeat to a team considered to be in the minnow category was something that would have sent shivers down many Pakistan spines. The pressure in the Pakistan camp was palpable as was the concern on the faces of many Pakistan supporters who were easily outnumbered by their Afghan counterparts.
Fakhar Zaman’s curious journey of a man on a mission to someone who seemed to be wondering about the purpose of life since his lackluster performance against Hong Kong followed by the failure against India could easily fill many pages of a psychologists journal. And so he walked in a trance of self-doubt to the field. Wrapped on the pads, given LBW for an inglorious duck, the normally confident Pakistan opener failed to ask for a review of the decision. If he had done so, he would have probably found himself back at the crease and maybe, a fairytale innings akin to the one at The Oval last year would have ensued.
His departure caused many ripples of anxiety amongst Pakistan supporters and the Pakistan dressing room wore a solemn look. However, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam stabilized the situation somewhat and put on a mammoth 154 run partnership which put Pakistan back on track and when Imam departed he had done enough to give his teammates high hopes of success.
The dismissals of Azam and Sohail were telling blows to Pakistan’s chances of success. The Afghanistan bowlers knew that they were up against some of the most experienced batsmen such as Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz but they did not give up hope and the pressure was kept on until the end. The weight on Sarfaraz’s shoulders which was doubled by his own ability to score when his side needed it most was one that the Afghanistan bowlers could feed off and they did not disappoint.
A few lusty blows from Nawaz and Hasan Ali proved vital, but it was the experience of veteran Malik who saw Pakistan home by the skin of their teeth.
Pakistan fight on for another day and will be breathing a huge sigh of relief after a tense victory, whilst Afghanistan enthralled the watching world and enhanced their growing reputation.