MELBOURNE: England’s captain Jos Buttler holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after victory in the Twenty20 World Cup final against Pakistan on Sunday.—AFP
MELBOURNE: England’s captain Jos Buttler holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after victory in the Twenty20 World Cup final against Pakistan on Sunday.—AFP

THE fairytale of Pakistan winning a second world title in Australia evaporated into the drizzle of a Melbourne night. Instead, England are now double world champions, holding both 50-over and 20-over titles, and Ben Stokes again delivered when it mattered.

Pakistan were never ahead in the game, and struggled to a sub-par total of 137, with Shan Masood the only batsman to score enough runs at a reasonable rate. But just as the bowlers had brilliantly got Pakistan back into the game, a recurrence of Shaheen Shah Afridi’s knee injury settled a contest of small margins.

Ironically, England’s players of Pakistani origin, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, made decisive contributions in support of Stokes and Sam Curran, who surprisingly won player of the match and player of the tournament. But perhaps it was Jos Buttler who made the biggest difference. England’s captain won an important toss, masterminded an exceptional bowling and fielding effort, and forced early momentum that was hard for Pakistan to stop.

The wicket demanded a traditional line and length, and Pakistan were too full early on, feeding Buttler’s drives. But it was the injury to Shaheen that proved decisive. With five overs to go, and Shaheen and Haris Rauf to come, the match was in the balance. Afridi had injured his knee in taking a hard outfield catch to dismiss Harry Brook, and then left the field for treatment.

Pakistan had little luck, and even then might have pulled off a victory, but they didn’t score enough runs

The moment was set up, 1992 and all, with Pakistan’s left arm talisman back for a decisive spell taking his team to glory. And this is when the comparisons with 1992 dissolved. When Shaheen tried to bowl, his knee gave way and Pakistan’s premier fast bowler trudged solemnly to the bench.

The decision for Babar Azam was who would complete the over? Five balls were left and England were under the cosh, struggling against pace. Mohammad Wasim seemed an obvious option, in a team packed with fast bowling. Babar turned to Iftikhar Ahmed, and Stokes, who had struggled against pace, licked his lips and hit a four and a six that released the tension in a low scoring game.

Pakistan showed they were worthy finalists in pushing England so close, and their fast bowlers once more proved their class. Shadab Khan was good, too, again helping control the middle overs. This bowling attack is young and can continue to serve Pakistan well.

Pakistan had little luck against England, and even then they might have pulled off a miraculous victory, but ultimately they didn’t score enough runs and the chronic problems of Pakistan’s batting order proved costly in the final.

The supporters can be proud of their team, and it has potential to improve. The question now is whether this painful defeat derails their trajectory or whether it drives them to future success?

Pakistan’s squad was unbalanced, and they ended up relying on four frontline batsmen in team selection. They have missed a seam bowling all-rounder, which forced them into the correct and brave decision to go with four fast bowlers from the players available.

It was a strategy that always risked being exposed under pressure — especially when Pakistan insisted on selecting seven bowlers and only using six of them, Mohammad Nawaz on this occasion. Why were the other batsmen in the squad if they weren’t deemed to be good enough to be used? What plan weakens the batting without strengthening the bowling? Selection is a controllable, and Pakistan failed to get it right.

Another controllable is player management, in terms of how much cricket they play and how their injuries are managed. The PCB is aware of its over reliance on a small nucleus of players. Is it any surprise then that an injury to an exceptional young fast bowler, who is barely given a rest, ends up damaging Pakistan in a major competition?

The PCB must be more proactive about player rotation. It has also promised to revamp its medical support for players, but this is a system failure dating back decades. These are not issues being raised in hindsight. While results go your way nobody wants to hear criticism, but it needs to be paid attention to otherwise reality bites.

T20 is often a game of luck and moments, and it is dangerous to over analyse. Pakistan are a young team with talent, especially in their bowling. Their achievements in this tournament defied the doubts over their planning and preparation. They can come again, but to grow stronger in T20 cricket they could do worse than learn from England, a team they have seen enough of at close quarters.

England have a long-term plan, a philosophy of how they want to play, a vision of how they want to push the boundaries of T20 cricket, and they now have depth in batting, both in the team and on the bench. Pakistan don’t even need to invent a new blueprint for success, they just need to borrow what they need from England.

Yesterday, Pakistan stood on the brink of a historic win to launch a phase in their cricket. What they hold instead is a burning desire for a world title to dispel the bitter taste of defeat in Melbourne in 2022. They also have a core of world class players with youth and ambition on their side. Sometimes, losing rather than winning drives you to rewards that you seek. Life, as we know, is no fairytale.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2022

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