By R Kaushik in Mirpur
In a game of seesawing fortunes, Pakistan throttles Australia despite, at one stage, Australia needing just 66 from 50 balls with seven wickets in hand
Group 2 of the Super 10 phase of the ICC World Twenty20 sprang dramatically to life in front of a massive audience that was treated to a veritable run feast. Desperately needing to win to keep its campaign afloat, Pakistan rallied from a modest start after being put in, to muscle to 191 for 5 on the back of Umar’s classy 94, a total that did full justice to the excellent batting surface laid out.
If there is one batting line-up capable of overhauling that total, it has to be Australia’s. Armed with a plethora of power hitters, each capable of winning the match on his own, it almost found its hero in Maxwell, who walked in after the first over with his team on 8 for 2, and toyed with the feared Pakistan attack on his way to a fairly incredible 73 off just 33 deliveries.
If there is one thing Pakistan is renowned for, it’s the ability to seldom conform to the norm. Maxwell’s dismissal gave them just the ray of hope they were seeking; after that, the skills kicked in as it throttled the opposition, squeaking home by 16 runs for its first win after Australia was bowled out for 175 off the last ball of the 20th over.
Pakistan not only brought in Zulfiqar Babar, the left-arm spinner, for Junaid Khan, but also threw him the new ball, and the 35-year-old did not disappoint. In the space of six deliveries, he winkled out David Warner, beaten for pace as he backed away to cut, and Shane Watson, whose expansive drive only managed an edge through to the wicketkeeper as the ball turned just that fraction.
If Australia was feeling the heat, it didn’t show. Aaron Finch is normally a destructive batsman, but quickly wisening up to the need to feed Maxwell the strike, he batted well within himself. Grateful for his partner’s understanding, Maxwell teed off, favouring the leg-side as the slog sweeps and the biffs competed with each other for maximum effect.
It didn’t make for pretty viewing. The ball wasn’t so much coaxed and cajoled and caressed as it was brutalised and dismissed, but it served Australia’s purpose. Pakistan, unprepared for the ferocity with which Maxwell came at them, was as helpless as it has ever been on the cricket field. Reputations and quality mattered precious little to Maxwell, Mohammad Hafeez, Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal all treated with equal disdain though the most telling salvo was reserved for Bilawal Bhatti, whose first over produced a mammoth 30 runs, but who redeemed himself by bowling a good final over with 23 required by Australia.
Australia touched 100 in 8 overs, and the third-wicket stand had burgeoned to 118 in just 65 deliveries, when Afridi produced the strike that altered the course of the match. Maxwell had just been put down at deep cover by Ajmal but didn’t make the most of it, clubbing Afridi to deep mid-wicket, where Ahmed Shehzad held on to a crucial catch. Few realised at that point just how crucial.
Australia was then at 126 for 3, needing a further 66 in 50 deliveries. With seven wickets in hand, that ought to have been fairly regulation. If it wasn’t, and if it was Pakistan who walked away with the honours, it can be put down to the pressures of T20 cricket, and the admirable rapidity with which Pakistan regrouped once it sniffed an opening.
All of a sudden, Pakistan was a team transformed. Afridi and Ajmal looked more threatening, while Gul continued to hold his own. Australia, perhaps lulled into a sense of complacency when Maxwell was firing away, was pushed further and further back as the boundaries dried up, and Pakistan kept hitting the poles repeatedly to produce the best dot balls. Till the time Finch was around, Australia was in with a shot but once he was cleaned up by Ajmal in the 18th over with 30 needed, Pakistan had emphatically shut out all escape routes and pulled off a famous, unexpected come-from-behind victory.
In the afternoon, the Pakistan innings had failed to get going until Man of the Match Umar arrived with an array of strokes. Mitchell Starc and Doug Bollinger gave precious little away with immaculate control over lengths and lines. Shehzad did play a beautiful back-foot punch off the first delivery of the game from Starc, but Pakistan’s desire to make the early running and stamp its authority backfired when Shehzad was caught on the pull off Bollinger, and Hafeez was undone by Watson as he dragged one on to the stumps.
At 25 for 2, Umar walked out to join Kamran, his older brother who was searching for timing and fluency. It was a stunning contrast; Umar was all silken grace, having the measure of the bowling right from ball one, Kamran stumbled along.
The decisive shift in initiative came in the eighth over, which Pakistan started at 42 for 2. Umar whipped Nathan Coulter-Nile through midwicket, then played a wonderful bowler’s back-drive to race to 22. Off the next delivery, he half-whipped, half-pulled and picked out Brad Hogg on the deep backward square-leg fence. Caught off guard by the trajectory and speed with which the ball travelled to him, Hogg spilled the relatively straightforward chance, a mistake Australia paid the price for.
After that let-off, Umar quietened down briefly even as Kamran rediscovered a semblance of touch, while Australia’s out-cricket went to pieces. There were fumbles in the field galore and a catch off a Watson no-ball grassed by Bollinger; Australia had gone from hunted to hunter in the space of one over, powerless from stopping Umar’s sustained onslaught once he found a second wind.
Umar had to pass a fitness test for a troublesome hamstring earlier in the afternoon, so he kept the running to a minimum. He teed off against Finch, smashing him for two sixes in the left-arm spinner’s only over as four overs of spin brought Pakistan 47 runs. In all, Umar hammered nine fours and four sixes before being dismissed in the final over, one blow away from becoming Pakistan’s first T20I centurion.
Kamran’s role in helping Umar add 96 for the third in just 52 deliveries can’t be exaggerated. He only scored 31 at a run a ball, but Umar needed someone to stay with him, and who better than the older brother, especially with the younger one struggling physically. Afridi tonked the bowling around at the end, Pakistan amassing 149 in the last 13 overs. Breathtaking, like the entire game.