Pakistan had lost 12 completed ODIs in a row. England had not lost a chase at home since Donald Trump was a mere joke among the massive list of Republicans running for President. Over the previous eight years, Pakistan had won only three of their 20 ODIs against England. Here was the match between a team that believed it was on the path of destiny against the team that felt like it was being led by Charon across the Styx.
England had pummelled South Africa in a way that was reminiscent of Australian teams from a decade ago. Pakistan had been demolished by the West Indies in an exhibition that gave you a glimpse of what playing against the West Indies teams of the 1980s must have been like. England’s reaction to their victory was to double down — Mark Wood came in for Liam Plunkett, even more pace for an underconfident batting unit to deal with. Pakistan’s was to go on the defensive — after two years of preparing for the World Cup with five-man bowling attacks, Pakistan were going in with four frontline bowlers and ten overs to be delivered from Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik — the duo who bowled 18 overs combined in the four completed ODIs against England in the recently concluded series. One game after breaking all their batting records in a series against England, Pakistan suddenly believed their batting was too thin. It was a gamble that made little sense.
By the end of the day, nothing made sense. What could be more Pakistani than that?
It began in the most un-Pakistani of fashions — with a solid yet aggressive opening partnership. Since the record-breaking tour of Zimbabwe last year, the duo of Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq had had only two partnerships in excess of 75 in 18 innings together. Here they put up 82, or more than three quarters of the runs Pakistan posted against the West Indies at the same ground only a couple of days earlier.
Soon both of them fell, and the chokehold was on. The ground where 335 runs is a par score, which has been the most batsman-friendly venue in the world over the past four years, had Pakistan going at 5.5 an over when they lost both their openers. In walked Mohammad Hafeez.
Hafeez has had a curious ODI career. To this day, he believes that he is a top-order player who prefers to play as an opener. Meanwhile, when batting at number 4 or lower, his numbers speak for themselves: when he comes in to bat before the 20th over, he averages 19.5 at a strike rate of 67; when he comes in to bat after the 20th over, he averages 75.3 at a strike rate of 108. Here, he came in to bat on the first ball of the 21st over — statistically, the ideal time for him to come in, you could say. It was that sort of day for Pakistan. Whatever the marginal things that were going to go their way, somehow did. Nothing was a greater proof of that than Sarfraz Ahmed’s innings. Hafeez, meanwhile, after being dropped by Jason Roy, went on to play perhaps the finest innings of his ODI career.
Of course, Pakistan still managed to drop three chances — none of which were straightforward but ones you would have expected most of their oppositions in the World Cup to grab. But that’s par for the course, even in an obviously better fielding era for the national team.
But by then Pakistan had an imposing total on the board — although just as imposing as the ones that Roy and Bairstow had made mincemeat off just a fortnight ago.
Here they didn’t last long. Roy fell to Shadab, who had missed the bilateral series due to hepatitis. Bairstow fell to Wahab, who was quite literally dreaming of the World Cup a month ago. The final nail was hammered in by Mohammad Amir, who missed the England series due to smallpox. In another era, when we had less information, this match could have been mythologised to the point it ended up being the tale of how a leper colony beat the colonialists. But for now, Pakistan will just be happy with getting their World Cup on track.
In the middle, Pakistan’s gamble of the fifth bowler somehow worked in their favour. England, perhaps feeling the pressure of the World Cup for the first time, somehow managed to go through eight overs of Malik and Hafeez without attacking them. A final burst gave Buttler and Root the platform to build their partnership, as Sarfraz Ahmed tried to get the fifth bowlers’ overs out of the way as quickly as possible, but by then the off-spin duo had removed Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes, and managed to go at under run-a-ball in a chase of 349. As England begin the post-mortem of this match, you imagine that is the phase that Trevor Bayliss will hammer his team on.
Meanwhile, Mickey Arthur has another phase to point to. Buttler and Root had accumulated 128 off 100 balls (at 7.7 an over) by the 38th over. Both looked imperious. It wasn’t that Pakistan were missing chances, it seemed as if they weren’t even making them. That is the sort of situation the T20 generation is built for, and perhaps none outside of India’s last two captains excel at it the way this English team does. Pakistan, meanwhile, have been more worried about their death bowling than a desi aunt is about her niece’s potential marriage. They had tried everything to no avail, until all that was left was for the bowling coach to become a meme on Pakistani Twitter.
With 12 overs left, England needed 103 to win at under 9 an over. Over the next eight overs, Pakistan conceded just 50 runs — only two boundaries came during this period, and both the set batsmen were dismissed. Hassan and Shadab combined for 1-for-33 in their six overs. By the time that phase was over, England required 53 off 24 with two new batsmen in and Wahab and Amir with their tails up, and something to defend, far more than what had looked likely only a half hour earlier.
A month ago that had seemed like a preposterous sentence to write. Amir, after all, was not part of Pakistan’s initial 15-man squad for the World Cup. Wahab Riaz had not played a game for Pakistan for a week shy of two years. Meanwhile, we are barely nine months away from Pakistan jettisoning Mohammad Hafeez from their ODI plans. And here the three of them were, with the PSL generation, with the captain who had long been paranoid about his position as the captain, with a strategy that seemed fifteen years behind the rest of the world, having slain the Goliath of the fifty-over game.
It would have been easy for it to have been an individual match-winning effort, that would have made sense. But when has Pakistan cricket ever been constrained by that notion?