New Zealand vs Pakistan, ICC World Cup 2019: Babar Azam, Shaheen Afridi shine as Pakistan halt New Zealand’s unbeaten run
Chasing 238 on a tricky Edgbaston pitch which offered vicious turn, Azam (101) and Sohail (68) showed intent, temperament and resolve while batting in Pakistan’s must-win game.
Overcast and windy Birmingham brought out jackets, woollens and a few smug smiles around Edgbaston. Edgy but upbeat Pakistan fans spoke excitedly of the hell that would rain on batsmen as they entered the stadium. They can be quite superstitious, these Pakistan fans. Social media is abuzz with stories of how uncannily similar this campaign has been like the 1992 World Cup. In tough times when hopes hinge on must-wins and net run-rate scenarios in case the scenario gets complicated, these are stories that give hope.
Mohammad Amir gives wings to these hopes with his celebratory runs. Second over, first ball and Amir pitched it so full that Martin Guptill couldn’t resist the temptation to drive it without moving his feet. A green Edgbaston erupted. Seven balls were all Pakistan took to come alive to the challenge of facing the most dogged opponents in this World Cup.
Having lost the toss on a used pitch under a gloomy Birmingham sky, Pakistan were asked to come out of their comfort zone. They always bowl well. But to survive they had to chase well. In a three-part thriller that once again reflected their steely resolve, Pakistan, with a six-wicket win, showed they could be here to stay.
Hope burnt brightest when Shadab Khan had Kane Williamson caught behind. On any pitch and under any circumstances, Williamson is and will be the prized wicket. Just a week back, Williamson had dropped anchor to author one of the finest one-day innings ever. He was shaping up to do the same when Khan lured him with a length ball that bounced and spun away from him. The difference between this innings and the one against South Africa was how Shaheen Afridi had bolted New Zealand’s scoring areas before this. Williamson was patient one week back. This time, frustration made a guest appearance.
Perfectly understandable though. When a tall, strong left-armed pacer comes in at serious pace without a break, belief can go for a toss. With a surreal spell of 7-0-11-3, Afridi had New Zealand’s batsmen huffing and puffing at his pace and probing length. A good measure of Pakistan’s control over their bowling can be illustrated by the fact New Zealand played 168 dot balls in their innings.
Extra bounce was the reason Colin Munro edged Afridi to Haris Sohail at first slip. Sarfaraz Ahmed’s leap of faith was why he could hold on to the sharp edge off Ross Taylor’s bat. And it was just that slightest shape away that caught Tom Latham on the defensive. Williamson’s dismissal after a long vigil reduced New Zealand to 83/5, sending Pakistan fans into wild celebrations
But they hadn’t taken into account New Zealand’s batting depth. Colin de Grandhomme --- one of the architects of that win against South Africa --- and James Neesham showed how understated but effective New Zealand’s batting is. They saw off the threatening overs and added 132 for the sixth wicket as New Zealand reached a score their bowlers would have been glad to defend. Only this was to be Pakistan’s day. If history has taught us anything it’s how Pakistan have never won anything with restraint.
With a full-blooded pull to the square-leg boundary, Imam-ul-Haq announced Pakistan’s intentions. Till Trent Boult’s delivery flew off his leading edge, Fakhar Zaman was primed for the knock that could have set up Pakistan’s chase. But Babar Azam, taunted and chided for not being able to walk the talk of trying to bat like his idol Virat Kohli, came to the party like only he can.
Did he emulate Kohli? Not really. Grafting runs isn’t really Azam’s forte. He is better at taking the bull by its horns. Azam blunted Boult’s edge with a crunching cover drive, followed by another drive despite a change of angle from the bowler. Mohammad Hafeez can be the perfect foil for such batting. And he was doing just that till Williamson got him with a half-tracker.
Back to Sohail then as Pakistan started cantering towards the target. The narrative could have changed if Latham had held on to the sharp catch off Azam, on 38 with Pakistan at 91/2, while Mitchell Santner was bowling. But Sohail didn’t really offer any hope to the Kiwis at the other end.
Azam meanwhile was batting like a man possessed, almost mocking New Zealand’s attempts to bring back parity in the game. Azma duly got his century, his first of the World Cup. New Zealand slumped to their first group-stage defeat in eight years. The dream lives on for Pakistan. 1992 and now, this really has been an eerily similar journey.
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