In normal circumstances for most teams, the term “momentous victory” is usually reserved for massive series wins where sides play out of their skins to overcome huge odds or whitewash another in majestic fashion. In Pakistan’s case, where they are struggling to be recognized as viable opposition in their current tour of Australia, the six-wicket victory in Melbourne represents nothing short of a phenomenal achievement.
To start with, there is the purely statistical wonderment which defines this victory as one to marvel at, especially if you are a Pakistan supporter. This is Pakistan's first ODI win against Australia at the MCG since 24 February 1985. Prior to Sunday's win, Pakistan had lost their last sixteen matches against Australia in Australia, with their last win against the Aussies Down Under in any format coming on 30 January, 2005. There is some element of embarrassment for the home-side as well as this is only Australia's second ODI loss at home since November 2014.
Whilst the statistics may be mind-boggling for many followers of the game, from a Pakistani angle, the series-levelling second ODI win is nothing short of miraculous. Pakistan's ODI squad had just about settled in to their hotel when they lost the services of their tall fast-bowler Mohammad Irfan due to a family tragedy. Next to follow was their aggressive talisman Sarfraz Ahmed, who had to make an urgent journey back home to attend to his ailing mother in Pakistan.
The visitors rushed Junaid Khan to replace Mohammad Irfan, and Mohammad Hafeez, who had recently passed a test which cleared his bowling action for international cricket, was also included as an additional member to the squad. To add more confusion to an alarming situation, Pakistan lost their ODI captain Azhar Ali to a hamstring injury that he sustained in his failed effort to help Pakistan chase 269 in the first ODI.
Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s head coach, openly admitted in a press conference that they were unlikely to get another chance to get top Australian batsmen out for a lowish total as they did in the first ODI. The Australians for their part, though circumspect, were in a confident mood as they looked at upholding their splendid record against Pakistan at the MCG.
If Hafeez’s inclusion in the Pakistan ODI squad was received with more than a fair-share of raised eyebrows among Pakistan supporters, his elevation to the role of captain in the absence of an injury-hit Azhar was met with derision. The same Hafeez, who had been out of favour due to his failures in the 2016 series against England, was now asked to lead the national team in a crucial game.
From zero to hero was how Hafeez may have felt on Sunday. For a start, his bowlers responded with exemplary application of their skills. A rejuvenated Junaid, inspired by the occasion and wanting to put the nightmare of being excluded from the Pakistan ODI team since 31 May, 2015, lead the charge. He opened the floodgates with the crucial dismissals of David Warner and Usman Khawaja, which put paid to his own coach’s suggestion that Pakistan were unlikely to remove the top-order easily again. Imad Wasim, Hafeez and Shoaib Malik then went to work to enforce a chokehold on the Australian batsmen which they were unable to free themselves from.
Dot balls and false strokes galore, one-by-one Australia’s ODI specialists fell to a determined Pakistan bowling onslaught. In the first ODI, Pakistan were guilty of letting the home side off the hook when they were precariously placed on 78-5 and allowing them to score 268 in their fifty-over quota. Azhar was duly criticized for his inability to close down the Australian innings within a reasonable score. Hafeez, on the other hand, faced with a similar start to the Australian batting effort successfully managed to control the flow of runs and his side bowled out a batting line-up known for its depth for a mere 220 runs in 48.2 overs.
The target of 221 may have looked manageable for most top batting line-ups but given Pakistan’s history of frailty in Australian conditions, even a below-par chase was fraught with the dangers of a collapse. In fact, when Hafeez was dropped by Smith in the first over, it did seem that Pakistan were in for a torrid time, but Hafeez in survivor-mode kicked into top gear and with sheer grit and determination scored 72 runs to bring his side within sight of victory. Shoaib then brought his years of experience to bear as he combined with Asad Shafiq and Umar Akmal to take Pakistan home to an excellent six-wicket victory.
There were a few positives then for the visitors to pick from their first victory of the five-match series. The return to international cricket for Junaid in spectacular manner could only be matched with Hafeez’s excellent captaincy where his field settings as well bowling changes were instrumental to Pakistan’s success. Amir continued doing what he does best as he picked three wickets whilst Sharjeel Khan and Babar Azam also made their presence felt in this challenging run-chase.
The Australian batting skills against Pakistan spinners were badly exposed in the first ODI and only continued to get worse in the second ODI. They have some planning to do to counter Pakistan’s go-slow bowling attack to try and take the battle to the visiting bowlers. Failing which, they can expect more of the same in the rest of the series and with sterner spin-examinations awaiting them in India, they have a real challenge at hand.
The danger of reading too much into Pakistan’s performance in one game is something that the Pakistan fans and team management will be wary of. However, they can now draw an immense amount of satisfaction in the way they responded to the challenge of being put into field first after Australia won the toss and the manner in which they responded to the pressure of the chase. Not many gave Pakistan a whiff of a chance in this ODI series given their dismal performances in the Test series, but as Australia learnt on Sunday, underestimate Pakistan at your own peril.
Saj Sadiq is a freelance writer and chief editor of Pakistan cricket website PakPassion. He tweets at @Saj_PakPassion.
Updated Date: Jan 16, 2017 11:05:02 IST