Mohammad Hafeez, the Professor, faced a test he has faced many times in his career of 18 years and 389 matches: Pakistan were a little anxious against a minor team. At 122 for 2 in the 16th over, the runaway leaders of Group 2 might easily have stumbled to around 150 runs — a total that Namibia later showed was entirely within their range. But the Professor took the examination in his stride, showing that when you understand your own game you can pass any interrogation.
Hafeez guided his first ball for four to backward square, and then, with a sense of wise urgency, found runs off almost every ball. He played every shot within his repertoire to relaunch Pakistan’s innings, and it was just the nudge that Mohammad Rizwan needed as he dramatically picked up his own pace, finishing with a blistering 24 runs off J.J. Smit’s final over. In 26 balls, Hafeez and Rizwan added 67 runs.
Once Pakistan left Namibia with 190 runs for victory, the game in Abu Dhabi was as good as over. Pakistan had taken no chances with selection, picking their first choice bowling attack. Nonetheless, a late flurry from David Wiese, Namibia’s Qalander, showed that Pakistan might easily have been embarrassed but for the impetus that Hafeez provided.
Along with Shoaib Malik, Hafeez has had his place in the team questioned more than any other Pakistan cricketer. From when he was first introduced by Aamir Sohail, then chairman of selectors, as the leader of the bits-and-pieces revolution, commentators and analysts have doubted Hafeez’s purpose. But, ultimately, Hafeez has confounded all his critics. He has matured like any good professor would, confident in what he knows and in what he brings to Pakistan cricket.
Rizwan struggled early in his innings and then failed to match the free flowing batting of his captain. The pair did put on 113 for the first wicket, with Babar scoring an inevitable fifty, but the game’s balance felt uneasy. When Rizwan eventually joined the party, he did so with the eye of a hunter and the wrists of an axeman, ruthlessly carving the ball square of the wicket at one stage to bypass up to three fielders stationed to stop him.
Rizwan is a special player. Babar is a special player. But Hafeez is a player who knows himself and his game inside out, and that’s perhaps one level that both Rizwan and Babar can still aspire to. Fakhar Zaman, in particular, might do well to learn Hafeez’s lesson of knowing your own game, as he missed out on another opportunity to score runs.
Pakistan won the toss and, in a break from previous tactics, decided to bat first. It was a sensible decision, showing their willingness to take a chance to test themselves, to remind themselves how to set a total and how to bowl and field when the late night dew settles. It turned out to be a valuable game for both these reasons.
The team was also unchanged, and that betrayed something different about Pakistan’s mindset. There was no desire to take the foot off the pedal. The team wanted to secure semi-final qualification straight away. Cricket World Cup history is littered with teams that have started strongly, only to fade away in the decisive games. Indeed, Pakistan themselves have a record of rallying late to win each of their one day titles.
This then has been the most atypical performance by a Pakistan team in a World Cup: entertaining and aggressive, as the great Pakistan teams usually are, but also unexpectedly professional and consistent. It is those latter attributes that Pakistan must sustain in the final stages of this tournament. For now, though, Pakistan can celebrate reaching their first World Cup semi-final since 2012, and, along with England, Babar Azam’s team now look strong favourites to win this year’s World T20.
Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2021