LEEDS: A security official stops a pitch invader after the World Cup match between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Headingley on Saturday. — AFP
LEEDS: A security official stops a pitch invader after the World Cup match between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Headingley on Saturday. — AFP

PAKISTAN won a nervous and thrilling contest with neighbours Afghanistan at Headingley to lift them to fourth place in the World Cup table. Imad Wasim was the unlikely hero with the bat, seeing his team home with a boundary in the final over to finish one short of a half century.

He was ably assisted by Wahab Riaz, who came in with only one idea in his mind, and that was to smash every ball to the boundary. He didn’t quite manage that but his impetus added a thrust to Imad’s late acceleration.

Pakistan were struggling on a hot day in Leeds when passions boiled over in the stands, and the players’ nerves tested by a second run chase in quick succession.

Afghanistan’s spinners tied Pakistan in knots on a helpful track. Imad, in particular, looked bamboozled, and Shadab Khan was scratching around as the game reached the 46th over. Pakistan now needed 46 off 30 balls with four wickets in hand.

Imad Wasim shines with both bat and ball

The required run rate was climbing steadily, Pakistan’s massive support silenced in the stands, but Afghanistan needed bowlers and their captain Gulbadin Naib took matters into his own hands. It was the decision that settled the match. Imad seized upon the error, taking 18 runs off Gulbadin’s penultimate over.

The game was now back in Pakistan’s control but Shadab was recklessly run out, following in the footsteps of his captain. Wahab, though, primed for battle, and already fighting through a hairline fracture in his right hand, smashed his second ball for four.

Afghanistan came back, refusing to accept defeat, leaving Pakistan 16 runs to win from the last two overs. Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s great bowler picked up the ball. Wahab swung and missed the first. The second, he launched over midwicket, the first six of the innings, to all but settle matters.

Afghanistan had won the toss at Leeds, making a sensible decision to bat first. That judgement was vindicated as a low total of 227 placed Pakistan under tremendous pressure. The excellence of Pakistan’s run chase against New Zealand was made stark by the struggles at Headingley.

Up to the point that Babar was in the middle, Pakistan were coasting to victory. But the shock of Pakistan’s talisman being bowled on the sweep by Mohammad Nabi placed the innings in jeopardy.

Pakistan’s over reliance on Babar became rapidly evident. If Babar doesn’t score, Pakistan’s next best options are Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq. Fakhar went second ball, trapped leg before. It was a bad start for Pakistan in a high stakes game. The stage was set for Imam to play his natural orthodox game and guide Pakistan to their modest target. But Imam once more fell when he looked set, a habit that he needs to shake.

There is no rush to make changes, and opening options don’t really exist in this squad, however, Pakistan must address the inability of its top order to regularly play a decisive innings in one day cricket.

Haris Sohail brilliantly helped shore up the batting in the previous two games, and he set off with the same sense of responsibility. But losing him to Rashid put the focus on Mohammad Hafeez and Sarfraz Ahmed. Hafeez disappointed again. Included for his experience, for pressure moments such as these, Hafeez failed to play the elder statesman. Sarfraz, meanwhile, ran himself out at a key moment, when a captain’s calm was most required.

Earlier, another mature performance by Shaheen Afridi ensured that Pakistan reached the halfway stage in control of the contest. Afridi struggled with his length at the outset, but just as Afghanistan’s openers looked to be tucking into the teenage left-arm pace bowler he dismissed Gulbadin and Hashmatullah Shahidi in successive deliveries. The first was a loose drive to a wide full ball. The second, a leading edge, confirming that Afridi has a happy knack of taking influential wickets.

He returned later in the innings to help restrict Afghanistan with a clever spell of death bowling. Afridi’s development in this tournament is a major positive for Pakistan, each outing suggesting that he is a bowler willing to learn, and a cool head in the heat of the moment.

Indeed, the whole bowling effort has been a strong suit, in particular over the last three games. Mohammad Amir provides both threat and control. Wahab is potent with reverse swing at the end of an innings, but importantly, is an improved and tighter bowler in his early spells.

Shadab is helping the cause with key wickets. It was Kane Williamson at Edgbaston. Here, Shadab dismissed Asghar Afghan when he was dominant. With clever use of Hafeez and Imad, Pakistan’s spin combination is maintaining control in helpful conditions.

Imad also picked up two wickets at Headingley but it was his belligerent batting that saw Pakistan home in a game that was in the balance until the very end. In a game in which they were hot favourites, Sarfraz Ahmed’s team got over the line, but Afghanistan were worthy opponents and gave Pakistan the scare of their lives — as only a neighbourly rivalry can do.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2019