PAKISTAN waved goodbye to Sharjah and said hello to a World T20 semi-final against Australia with a clinical victory over Scotland on Sunday.
The feel-good factor continued for Babar Azam’s team, which has put together the most consistent and professional performance by any Pakistan team in any tournament.
The victory alone assured Pakistan’s status as the only unbeaten team in the competition and helped them secure the top spot in their group and avoid playing England in the semis.
A quiet power play and the early wickets of Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman, who needed runs, threatened to burst Pakistan’s bubble, but the remaining batsmen hammered 154 runs off the last 14 overs in front of an ecstatic crowd to put the contest beyond Scotland’s capabilities. It was a psychologically important phase of play because no team wants to lose momentum going into a semi-final.
Once Pakistan had left Scotland 190 to win, the match was a no contest. The bowlers, led relentlessly by Shaheen Shah Afridi, were too strong, and India’s 151 remains the highest total they have conceded.
The major plus for Pakistan is that Hasan Ali, out of form in the early matches, is now finding his groove. Pakistan’s bowling, supported by impressive ground fielding and catching, is showing no weak links.
Earlier, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez once again reminded us that age has not wearied them. First Hafeez reprised his role of innings accelerator. His impetus nudged Babar into gear and when Hafeez fell, Malik picked up the pace further, clubbing 54 runs from 18 balls, including a tournament best 26 off the last over.
Malik’s dominance was such that Asif Ali, who played like a man expected to hit a six every ball, only scored five runs out of a partnership of 47.
The Sharjah wicket and the opponents suited Malik, but his hitting was breathtakingly pure and brutal. The question remains whether he and Hafeez can replicate these heroics against the stiffer bowling attacks of Australia and England.
The opposition, though, matters little to Babar Azam, a gifted player who always seems to be in peak form. A fourth effortless fifty saw Pakistan’s captain become the top scorer in the group stages of the tournament.
Babar had to steady the innings as both Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman fell cheaply, but he has matured enough in this format to always play with a sense of urgency.
Australia, packed with experience, will be dangerous semi-final opponents. Similar to Pakistan, their bowling attack and opening batsmen are in good form. But Pakistan will need to focus in areas that they hold an edge.
Australia’s fifth bowling option is more hand to mouth than Pakistan’s, and more of Pakistan’s middle order have made meaningful contributions.
Australia’s performances have been mixed so far — some easy victories balanced by a comprehensive thrashing by England.
The key game for Australia was the opening victory over South Africa, when the latter were clearly distracted by the controversy over Quinton de Koch’s refusal to take the knee in support of anti-racism.
Since Pakistan have a good record against Australia in the UAE, even in the worst of times, they should feel confident of their chances of progressing to the final.
In the end, the match may boil down to who wins the contest between Pakistan’s pace attack and Australia’s opening batsmen.
This was a comfortable win for Pakistan, but better teams have lost focus against lesser opponents. That focus is what is most impressive about Pakistan in this tournament. They are physically and mentally in optimal shape, which is remarkable considering their recent inconsistent form and more recent coaching changes.
But whatever happens in the semi-final, and T20 is the most unpredictable format, Pakistan cricket has once again surprised the world.
With the cricketing talent among Pakistan’s population, the world needs no reminder. The passionate brilliance of much of Pakistan’s cricket that is a trademark.
The welcome surprise here is that Pakistan are hungry for wins, just as super stars like Babar Azam, Shaheen Shah Afridi, and Mohammad Rizwan are relentless in pursuit of runs and wickets.
Pakistan will need more of the same if they are to overcome the formidable opponents that remain. But Pakistan, with their new-found ruthlessness, are now the team to be feared.
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Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2021