In the aftermath of Pakistan's victory against England in the World Cup the same phrase was used by multiple Pakistan players, including Mohammad Hafeez and Imam-ul-Haq. "Winning moments" was uttered more often than "right areas" or "there are many positives to take from today's loss" is said by coaches in press conferences. It was a phrase that reflected six months of agony.
Pakistan had lost the ODI series in South Africa at the start of this year 3-2, a series which they should have won. It included a match which they lost despite reducing South Africa to 80 odd for 5 and one in which they scored 300+ but failed to defend a DL affected target. That was followed by a 4-0 series loss to England which was far closer than the scoreline suggests and one in which the true difference between the two sides were those "winning moments". Thus, it had seemed like the win against England in Nottingham was six months of learning from experience finally bearing fruit. Ten days later Pakistan were once again lamenting their inability to seize the "winning moments".
It had started two days before the match against Australia even began. Sarfraz Ahmed, the Pakistan captain, reportedly complained about the green nature of the pitch and was wondering why Pakistan don't get the surfaces that, for instance, India got against Australia. Never mind that pitches similar to that were one of the major reasons behind Pakistan winning Champions Trophy, this notion smacked of a team not confident in its own ability. This, of course, is nothing new.
Pakistani batsmen, even more than others, have never been fond of trying conditions. The three ICC ODI events in England prior to the 2017 Champions Trophy (the 1999 World Cup, the 2004 Champions Trophy and the 2013 Champions Trophy) had all seen Pakistan get knocked out due to their inability to bat in "typical English conditions" after all. Going in to this tournament, Pakistan's record in such scenarios spoke for itself: from the 2003 World Cup till this one Pakistan had been asked to bat first in England on nine occasions in ODIs; those nine matches had resulted in one win, but a win that Pakistan would take over a dozen losses (the 2017 Champions Trophy Final).
It had seemed as if Pakistan were just hoping and praying to win the toss. When they did so, they expected their four-man pace attack to run through Australia, after all that is what Australia's own bowlers would have done. It began with a spell from Mohammad Amir that was the equivalent the possession-for-the-sake-of-possession Spanish football teams of the recent past. It was pleasing on the eye and it created windows of opportunity, but not a single chance worth talking about.
Amir's lengths were ideal but his lines were never consistent enough. And yet he was by far the best of the Pakistan bowlers. The rest followed Amir's inconsistencies in line without even following his tutorial on lengths. Too short or too full, doing whatever they could to not take advantage of a green English wicket with clouds overhead. Just over twelve months ago, in conditions not dissimilar to these, Hasan Ali had taken a 4/51 to set up a Test win for Pakistan at Lord's. That Hasan, quite evidently, is no longer here. Perhaps nothing illustrated Pakistan's problems quite like the total number of extras bowled, an obvious indication of the lack of discipline that was shown: 19 extras in all, more than Pakistan have had in any match under Sarfraz Ahmed since April 2017.
By the halfway stage of Australia's innings, the defending World Champions were 165/1. From looking to get Australia under 250 to aiming to restrict them to 350 was the story of Pakistan's bowling. Over the next hour or so, though, led by Amir – with far more potency with the older ball than the new one – Pakistan wrestled the game back. They restricted Australia to 307, but even that seemed 30 to 50 runs over par.
Perhaps the best illustration of that whole innings was the way David Warner got to a hundred. Shaheen Afridi, for once, pitched the ball in the fifth stump channel on a good length, and despite Warner batting in the 90s, it produced an edge – an edge that flew between the stationary Sarfraz and a wide slip. In their previous match, Pakistan nearly had Joe Root's wicket when the ball flew through the conventional slip position, almost bisecting the keeper and the wide slip. Pakistan, it seems, didn't learn from their mistakes.
And yet halfway through Pakistan's innings, all those concerns appeared to be blown away. Australia had failed to take heed of the lengths that Amir bowled, instead emulating the rest of Pakistan's pace quartet. After 25 overs Pakistan found themselves at 136/2. Requiring under 7 an over with two set batsmen and a batting unit that had been strengthened for the sake of the bowling unit. The next half hour would be what Pakistan define as "winning moments." Over the next five overs, Pakistan scored 24 runs and lost 4 wickets, the whole of their middle order.
There are many examples and ways for Pakistan to collapse, but each requires at least one dismissal that leaves the fans gob-smacked. A true Pakistani collapse requires at least one wicket that makes you wonder how difficult it must have been for the batsman to lose his wicket. It’s almost admirable if you are into that sort of thing.
Imam's dismissal wasn't that. A bouncer down the leg side, gloved to the keeper, is unusual, but nothing new when it comes to Pakistani batsmen facing Australian pacers. Asif and Malik, meanwhile, were undone when Australia finally decided to bowl in the channels and a helpful wicket asked questions of their technique – neither of them, at this stage of their careers, have the defensive technique that stands up to much scrutiny from pace bowling in helpful conditions. So neither of their wickets was that either.
Thus it comes to Mohammad Hafeez, the man-of-the-match in the last game, a man in both the twilight of his career and yet somehow in the form of his life. Aaron Finch, struggling to get through his fifth bowlers' overs, took it upon himself to have a bowl. The Australian captain had taken 3 wickets in 112 ODIs prior to that over, but Australia, without Marcus Stoinis, were in need of desperate measures. Five balls into that over, Pakistan had scored 7 runs. The sixth ball was a full toss on leg stump. Hafeez smacked it high and handsome. Straight into the hands of Mitchell Starc on the deep square leg boundary. Hafeez had completely lost it in one of those "winning moments". And pretty much Pakistan had too.
The tail wagged, Sarfaraz Ahmed stood as an anchor, but the second half of Pakistan's innings still seemed like an exercise in futility. A foundation upon which a monument to what-ifs can be built. By the end of the day, Pakistan had that feeling again, the same one they had in the South Africa series six months ago. What if we had only won the "winning moments".