By the morning of Pakistan’s sixth game of the World Cup, it had seemed like they had run out of players. After making three changes from their preliminary World Cup squad to the final World Cup squad, Pakistan were still unsure of what their final XI was. In bowling, there were questions over everyone but Mohammad Amir; in batting, they didn’t trust any of the players sitting outside, nor any of the ones playing, apart from their top four. The team management had fought against all logic and data in backing Shoaib Malik but whom could they even replace him with — they didn’t think Haris Sohail had the firepower to replace him, nor that Asif Ali had the technique to play that role either.
By the end of that game, though, with more drops than in a monsoon, Pakistan came out with a more dominant victory than they could have even aimed for.
Haris Sohail has an odd career. He came to prominence in the 2011-12 season, scoring over a thousand First Class runs. The following season he averaged 134 in the President’s Trophy (the premier First Class tournament that season); no one else averaged over 53. But two-thirds of the way through that season, he suffered a season-ending injury. And that has been the story of his career. He was the solution to Pakistan’s middle order problems by the 2015 World Cup, but went on to play only 17 of Pakistan’s 80 ODIs from then till this World Cup, mostly due to injury. A failure in the opening match here, and he was the sacrificial lamb again.
The biggest question mark against him had been his ability, or lack thereof, to accelerate. Of the 15 instances in ODI cricket that he had crossed 40 before Sunday, only once had he scored at a run rate over 6.50 (a match against Zimbabwe where the two teams combined to score over 700 runs). He had confirmed his name in the World Cup squad with twin tons against Australia in the Emirates, both coming in losses, which had led to criticism of his supposed selfishness. In 69 T20s, only six times had he ever scored at a strike rate in excess of 150, and his career T20 strike rate is the lowest among all Pakistan batsmen in this squad.
He walked in on Sunday at Lord’s with Pakistan’s innings starting to follow a similar pattern. After an 81-run opening partnership, Pakistan had gone at under 4.1 RPO in the following 15 overs when he walked in to bat. Ten balls into his innings, he was on 22 having smacked Kagiso Rabada for a six over point. This wasn’t the Haris Sohail that Pakistan fans had known, but they were glad to have been introduced to this version. By the end, in a match where nine of the ten top-five batsmen scored at a strike rate under 90, Haris scored 89 at a strike rate in excess of 150.
After the match, his captain compared his innings to Jos Buttler, a comparison that no one would have ever expected to make. It was the highest score by a Pakistani middle order batsman in a World Cup for 27 years and it came from the man their team management had shown the least faith in. Here were Pakistan, with Fakhar Zaman as the top order stabilizer and Haris as the middle order smasher. Pakistan had succeeded by doing the opposite of what they had been planning to over the previous two years. And yet, somehow, it made sense with a team that rarely makes any sense.
And then it was over to the bowling.
In the two years leading up to the World Cup, much of Pakistan’s concerns had been about their new-ball bowlers, particularly Mohammad Amir, failing in the first powerplay. Here, he took a wicket with his first ball. It’s been that sort of tournament for Amir, as if he had woken up from a two-year long coma in which an impostor had taken his place — a secret that was apparently known only to himself.
And yet, South Africa survived his first spell — then it was over to the rest. Could someone finally stand up to support Amir?
Shadab Khan has not had a good year. He had finished 2018 as Pakistan’s top wicket-taker in ODIs (with 23 wickets at 24.6) and then began his annus horribilis. For perhaps the first time in his career, he appeared toothless in the ODI series in South Africa. That was followed up with missing the England series due to a bout of Hepatitis C, not getting a bowl in the opening match of the World Cup, and then being dropped for the first time in his international career in the match against Australia.
Sandwiched between those two matches was the victory against England where he did take the wickets of Jason Roy and Joe Root — but neither of those came in the middle overs, the role that Pakistan have defined for him. Finally, at Lord’s, he appeared to be himself again — applying the middle overs choke that Pakistan have so desperately relied on over the whole of this decade from their main spinners while being a constant wicket-taking threat too. Gone was the conservatism of the loss against India; he was attacking the stumps as his role demands. This is exactly what Pakistan had planned for, and at least one of their plans did come to fruition.
And then, almost to ensure that the balance between what they had planned for and what they had surprised themselves with had a definite winner: up stepped Wahab Riaz. The man who came into this World Cup having not played an ODI for two years bowled as if Pakistan had planned for him to be their death overs specialist.
In the end what was planned and what wasn’t doesn’t really matter. Pakistan are still alive in this World Cup, and for now, that’s all that matters.