IT was a great match — one that will go down in legend. And Pakistan were good, though not quite good enough to overcome an inspirational innings from Virat Kohli, a mad last over from Mohammad Nawaz, some generous interpretations by the umpiring team in India’s favour, and a selection error of Pakistan’s own making.
Kohli, as often is the way, saved his best for Pakistan. He may have mellowed over the years, winning admiration on both sides of the border, but remains a supreme competitor.
Winning a game single-handedly, against the odds, is the pinnacle of batting achievement. It’s a narrative that Kohli loves, and to do it in Melbourne’s cricketing amphitheatre with 92,000 hooting and cheering fans, as well as the billions transfixed at home, was the height of audacity.
Even so, Pakistan looked favourites for most of India’s innings. And they did much right. Their fast bowlers bowled with aggression, loving the pace and carry of Melbourne. Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah more than compensated for Shaheen Shah Afridi’s understandably unspectacular return to international cricket.
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Babar attacked with pace, giving his fast men the full six overs of the first power play and keeping a slip — both of which reaped dividends. But the formula wasn’t perfect. Once Ifthikar Ahmed had hit Axar Patel out of India’s attack, Pakistani minds turned to their team’s selection of three spinners. How could they contain India?
And Shadab Khan did. Ifthikar Ahmed wasn’t used. But the pressure of four overs from Mohammad Nawaz weighed on Pakistan’s fielding effort. The last over would go to him, and it proved costly. Under pressure, Nawaz changed his approach, when the hour called for him to rely on what he knew best. It was a disaster. Two wides and a no-ball smoothed India’s path to an unlikely victory.
The last over no-ball, for height, was tight and Nawaz was unlucky that the umpires bowed to Kohli’s pressure. But he should not have been bowling the last over. Since Saeed Ajmal left international cricket, Pakistan have not had a spin bowler of sufficient calibre to deliver at the death.
This the glaring hole in Pakistan’s strategy. They want to bat deep but can only do so by picking three fast bowlers and three spinners, when Australian pitches are made for a four pronged pace attack. An allrounder who is a pace bowler is the missing ingredient in Pakistan’s squad.
And this is where Pakistan will need to make a decision: do they stick with this formula, leaving them at risk in the field, or pick four fast bowlers with the negative impact that has on the batting? An attacking mindset would say pick four fast bowlers, play to your strengths.
But Pakistan were generally more aggressive here. It was a key transformation, and one that bodes well for the rest of the tournament. The first hint was the way Pakistan’s middle order attacked while Shan Masood anchored the innings, caring more for run rate than their own survival.
That positivity, particularly from Iftikhar, saw them set a competitive total after India’s pace bowlers had disturbed Pakistan’s top order with swing and bounce. Pakistan’s fast bowlers followed by bowling attacking lines, supported by wicket taking field placings from their captain.
It was a game plan that almost paid off. Indeed it should have won out had it not been for Nawaz’s unravelling at the end and Kohli’s brilliance. The fact that Kohli was so influential for India covered for their deficiencies as they played an old school game of digging in for the final assault.
Pakistan know only too well that such a strategy is too dependent on one or two people pulling you through. It was very much old-school T20 cricket from India and that may be enough to get them through this group but England and Australia, and now too New Zealand, play a very modern brand of T20 cricket that is a non-stop assault on bowlers.
Pakistan will leave Melbourne, a game to rank with final over classics in Sharjah in 1986 and Johannesburg in 2007, heartbroken but encouraged that this can be a good tournament for them. But they will be kicking themselves that their squad selection created an imbalance that could ultimately ruin them in Australian conditions.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2022