MELBOURNE awaits. In a rerun of history, echoing the famous and much loved journey of the Cornered Tigers of 1992, Babar’s shers face England in a tilt at a World Cup trophy. Thirty years have not faded the memories of Pakistan cricket fans of a certain generation, nor have they lessened the hunger for success. A nation expects. A nation prays. A nation dreams.
A nation also debates and analyses, but that phase is all but done. Pakistan are Pakistan, the eleven men who took the field for much of this tournament, four fast bowlers, a cricket team metamorphosing before our eyes, rebooting from the standard version of T20 cricket to T20 2.0.
And England are a new England, who have perfected T20 cricket Version 2.0, adding fresh dimensions to their game. Fast bowlers, leg spinners, and relentless hitters are all part of this very un-English mix.
Above all, England play a brave brand of T20 cricket, one that requires aggression from the first ball to the 120th of any innings.
It is that incessant intent, particularly in batting, that Pakistan are learning. It’s also how these two teams are defined. Pakistan are king of the contest confined to below 160. England are supreme when the conditions will tolerate something closer to 180 and above.
That extra stretch is one that Pakistan don’t regularly manage, and achieving those higher scores consistently is the next stage of this team’s development after this World Cup. That’s why there has been such a debate about Pakistan’s batting order, but that needs to be put on hold until after the final. Pakistan, to their credit, have begun the process; their semi-final victory over New Zealand brimming with intent and courage.
Now that positivity must be continued into the final. England will not change their approach, it is something they demand of their players. It is a ruthless brand of cricket, destructive and uncompromising, and it destroyed India’s hopes in the semi-final.
But that does not mean it will destroy Pakistan too. Babar Azam’s team should take encouragement from their group match against India, a game that Pakistan had all but won had it not been for a calamitous last over. And Pakistan hold an advantage over India in their bowling. England will not find run-getting so straightforward against Pakistan’s attack.
Pakistan’s bowlers have been the best in this tournament without a doubt. A four pronged pace attack that may already rank among the best that this country has produced, and it will only firm up that reputation with a win on Sunday.
It is an even more remarkable achievement since the performance of the bowlers has ebbed and flowed. Shaheen Shah Afridi started slowly and is only now returning to his best taking crucial wickets, especially in the opening over.
Haris Rauf has sometimes struggled with his line, and his pace has helped batsmen put him away for boundaries. Mohammad Wasim didn’t start the tournament as first choice. Naseem Shah has probably been the most consistent. But the genius is that when one bowler has misfired or underperformed, the others have compensated.
Pakistan’s pacers have hunted as a pack, and without them the batting would have failed Pakistan a long time ago. Each fast bowler knows his job, and is executing plans to near perfection. Four pacemen have also eased pressure on the spinners, where Shadab Khan has once more dominated a world tournament in the middle overs.
With the option of a conventional off-spinner and left arm slow bowler, Pakistan have a match up for every opponent. In this Pakistan bowling attack, the sum of the parts is formidable but the whole is sensational.
The bowlers have also bought time for the batsmen to find some form. Runs now come from the middle order, namely dominating batting from Ifthkhar Ahmed and some solidity from Shan Masood. But the revelation has been Muhammad Haris, the batting find of this tournament, whose injections of energetic runs have ensured Pakistan’s last three victories. With Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan too finding form, Pakistan’s batting is suddenly more dependable.
However, Pakistan will go into the final as underdogs, just as they did in 1992. But they will also go into the final with hope. Their run to the final has created an uplifting momentum that will be hard for England to contend with. And England will be wary of Pakistan’s bowling attack and the unpredictability of their batting. Pakistan, in a knockout game, is often the team nobody wants to face.
The final is a hard one to call, but the large boundaries of the Melbourne Cricket Ground may work in Pakistan’s favour. It will, as ever, be down to the bowlers and whether they can restrict England to a total that’s within the range of Pakistan’s batsmen – anything under 160 will do nicely. Pakistan, while giving England the respect that they deserve, must be confident of success.
Win or lose, Babar Azam’s have brought thrills, a sense of hope, and revived some romantic memories. History is important, but Babar’s Shers can create their own legend at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. If they do win, the echoes of 1992 will be uncannily strong, but the magic of 2022 will be just as powerful.
Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2022