It’s not often that Australia go into a World Cup without the tag of favourites. They weren’t quite the underdogs ahead of the T20 World Cup, but no one quite knew what to make of them. For one thing, they had only made the final once in six previous editions of a tournament they have never won. For another, even though they had lost all three bilateral series this year, all away from home, they had seldom put out their full-strength XI in deference to workload management and bubble fatigue and other related post-COVID spokes in the wheel.
Matthew Wade’s predicament best mirrored Australia’s. The wicketkeeper-batsman seemed to have found his T20 mojo at the top of the batting order during the last southern hemisphere summer when, in David Warner’s injury-enforced absence, he blazed a spectacular trail as opener against India.
Wade smashed 58 in Canberra and 80 in Sydney in the last two matches of a series India clinched 2-1. And even though he opened in 11 of the first 15 T20Is in 2021, it was always on the cards that once Warner and Aaron Finch were both available for World Cup selection, the left-hander would quietly drop down the order to relative anonymity in a line-up that also included Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis.
True to expectations, Wade did slide down the batting chart – he made a feisty unbeaten 15 in a stuttering but eventually successful run-chase against South Africa in the opener, and a sedate run-a-ball 18 during a fearful pounding at the hands of England. He was relatively anonymous during the league phase, you could say.
Not anymore, no sir. Not after his magical dismantling of the Sultan of Swing, the exuberant Shaheen Shah Afridi, in Dubai on Wednesday night.
All other things being equal, Wade’s anonymity would have spilled over to another night, Australia’s misery in a competition they have so singularly failed to crack extended to another competition, had Hasan Ali not grabbed centrestage. That position had belonged for the majority of Australia’s chase of Pakistan’s 176 for four to Shadab Khan, the canny leg-spinner who snaffled a wicket in each of his four overs to finish with the best semifinal figures (4/26) in the history of the T20 World Cup.
In the cruel, nowhere-to-hide world of T20 cricket, Hasan’s time in the spotlight came not because of a piece of magic, but because of the exact opposite. If Wade didn’t tell him, ‘You just dropped the World Cup, mate’, it was because the fielder was a million yards away and Wade himself had a huge task at hand. But neither the generous soul nor the beneficiary of his munificence would have even suspected how influential that drop would come to be.
Had Hasan held on to the catch, Wade would have been dismissed for 21 off 14 deliveries. More crucially, Australia would have been reduced to 157 for six after 18.3 overs, leaving them needing 20 to win in nine deliveries, Stoinis saddled only with Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Adam Zampa and Josh Hazlewood for company. Perhaps Australia might have still pulled off a miracle, but we will never know now, will we?
What we do know is that a millions hearts were in the mouth when Hasan circled to his left from cow corner, trying to gobble up Wade’s ambitious hoick off Afridi. He got there in time, a little too quickly if anything, but put down what appeared reasonably straightforward, inasmuch as anything can be straightforward when you have run 15 yards sideways aware of the crowd baying behind you and how much hinges on the completion – or otherwise – of that catch.
Hasan looked like he could do with the earth opening up and gobbling him; the rest of the team and the thousands of Pakistan supporters at the venue looked at him with daggers drawn. The only solace came by way of an encouraging hug from elder statesman Shoaib Malik, but if Hasan was just beginning to feel slightly better about himself, more misery was in store courtesy Wade.
The ball after the drop, the left-hander shuffled audaciously outside off, exposed his stumps to Afridi and scooped a full ball over the ‘keeper for six. It would have been a tremendous shot even in isolation. Given the preceding sub-text, any fight that remained in Pakistan went out immediately. Australia still needed 12 off eight, Afridi and the impressive Haris Rauf would bowl those eight deliveries, but no one believed anymore. No one believed that Pakistan would pull the fat out of the fire, no one believed that Australia could be denied. The broad ‘no one’ seemed to include the Pakistan team too because Wade went ‘six, six’ in the next two deliveries to round off the second night of an unexpected hero emerging from a wonderful run-chase that ended with six deliveries to spare.
Wade was to Australia what Daryl Mitchell had been to New Zealand 24 hours previously, in neighbouring Abu Dhabi. Mitchell is a bit of an unknown even to the cricket world, but Wade is a 10-year veteran on the international circuit with nearly 200 appearances for his country across formats. He has, though, never nailed his place down. Indeed, he only returned to the Australian 20-over scheme of things at the start of 2020 after having played just one game in the preceding four years.
This year, in 20 innings before Wednesday, he touched 30 just twice, both times opening the batting. All this puts his mesmeric unbeaten 41, off 17 deliveries, in perspective. By his own admission, he wasn’t sure if Australia would be able to get over the line when he joined Stoinis in the middle, with 81 needed in 46 deliveries. He was happy to sail in his partner’s wake until the dropped chance stirred something in him. That something sent Pakistan packing, it catapulted Australia to the final, and lack of favouritism be damned.
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