PAKISTAN’s batting hero Asif Ali hits a six against New Zealand during their ICC Twenty20 World Cup match at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Tuesday.—AP
PAKISTAN’s batting hero Asif Ali hits a six against New Zealand during their ICC Twenty20 World Cup match at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Tuesday.—AP

WHEN Asif Ali, wobbling after a blow to the head, struck Trent Boult for six over midwicket to all but seal Pakistan’s win over New Zealand, it was a metaphor for how the recent blows to Pakistan cricket have left the team unbowed and defiant. Pakistan, traditional slow starters in world tournaments, have gone off like a rocket to place themselves in the strongest possible position to qualify for the semi-finals.

Ramiz Raja, the new cricket board chairman, had urged his players to exact revenge on India and New Zealand on the field of play; it seemed a dangerous bout of over-exuberant bravado. Now, the chairman’s words seem almost inspirational.

Read more: Channel your frustration and anger into your performance, Ramiz Raja tells cricket team

The stars of the show in Sharjah were the bowling attack and Asif Ali, who walked into a mini-crisis at 87-5 and with a personal point to prove. He dabbed his first ball to the backward point boundary, before taking Pakistan fans from tension to ecstasy with back-to-back straight sixes off Tim Southee. In a low-scoring game, those two pure strikes were decisive and killed the Kiwis’ spirits.

Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Hafeez, and Imad Wasim threatened a return to the bad old days of seizing improbable defeat from the open jaws of victory — and concerns remain about how reliable that middle order will be — but Asif justified the selectors’ faith with 27 of the most popular runs ever scored in Sharjah at a strike rate of 225.

At the other end, Shoaib Malik, in his third decade of international cricket, mixed rotation with aggression to help see his country home.

Pakistan’s clinical performances are as unexpected as they are welcome. A Pakistan team that bowls with discipline, fields with excellence, and bats with well-judged attack is a rarity. And, although this might only be two performances, the signs are encouraging that Pakistan can turn their rich skills into results. The team, and particularly the bowling attack, looks balanced, with a nice blend of world class talent, experience, and emerging players.

All of this good feeling might be turned on its head with a defeat against Afghanistan or one of the minnows in the group, but experienced Pakistan watchers, which most of the country’s 220 million population and tens of millions of ex-patriots are, will know that they are seeing something more professional than they are used to, a new identity of disciplined aggression.

Read more: Pakistan to play aggressive cricket: Shadab

Haris Rauf was the hero as Pakistan’s bowlers restricted New Zealand to a below par total. The conditions offered nothing for the pace bowlers, even denying Shaheen Shah Afridi the late swing he so enjoys. But both bowlers bowled at high speed, regularly clocking 90mph, and kept to a tight line. The variation delivery was a well disguised slower ball.

Rauf, in particular, relentlessly attacked the stumps, and was rewarded with a career-best haul of four wickets. He looks a changed bowler in this tournament, focused and consistent. When those two attributes are combined with his relentless pace, Rauf becomes a match winner.

Two games may be too soon to judge, but consistency and subtle variation appear to be the hallmarks of Pakistan’s new bowling approach. Loose deliveries are a premium, heaping pressure on their opponents.

All this discipline is now backed up by vastly improved fielding levels, best summed up by Hasan Ali’s lightning direct hit to run out Kane Williamson.

The quality of Pakistan’s lead pace bowlers was never in doubt, but the spin bowling had more questions to answer. As good as Imad and Hafeez have been, sticking to narrow lines, Shadab Khan’s return to form is most welcome.

Saqlain Mushtaq, Pakistan’s interim coach, was a master of spin, daring to outfox the world’s best batsmen with flight and a full length. Saeed Ajmal followed the same path, deliciously defeating his opponents in the air with pace off the ball. Shadab, who seemed to have lost his way, is re-emerging as the bowler he promised to be, bowling slowly enough and full enough to allow his spin to do its work.

Pakistan’s bowling is a traditional strength, but the quality, variety, and discipline in this team promises to rival some of the great Pakistan bowling attacks if it can continue at this level. Clearly, the change in coaching team is working to Pakistan’s advantage.

Babar and his team must make sure that the euphoria of these two major victories doesn’t cause them to lose focus when they meet a dangerous Afghanistan team on Friday. But Pakistan have already proved to themselves and their opponents that they have the class to win this T20 World Cup.

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2021

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