Error-prone Pakistan squander their advantage
Sarfaraz Ahmed won the toss and chose to bowl. Aaron Finch said if he had won it he would’ve bowled too. Pakistan picked four pacers and dropped their legspinner. Australia picked four pacers and dropped their legspinner. Down below the pitch looked like something Mohammad Asif had dreamt up; up above the clouds looked like something Mohammad Asif brought together. And the clouds had promised not to cry. Australia were coming off a loss more comprehensive than the margin indicated. Pakistan was coming off a long rest. This was the dream toss to win. Win the toss and dream.
So far so right, although if we were being picky at that stage, dropping Shadab Khan – who should really be one of the very first names on any Pakistan white-ball XI team sheet – seemed an especially ballsy move. Or just, you know, not a very smart one. They’ll say they wanted batting depth, though nobody can say definitively right now that Shadab does not bring more depth than Shoaib Malik, for instance. Still, the toss is won, four pacers are in. This is on.
Except that Pakistan’s fast bowlers proceeded to put in one of their loosest performances in recent memory. And there’s been plenty of loose performances in that recent memory. These were Test-match conditions David Warner would say later. This required discipline and patience, from bowlers and batsmen alike and Pakistan’s quartet would have understood this too, yet only Mohammad Amir from that quartet could execute.
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In those first 15 overs, Pakistan gave half a game away. In that phase, Amir alone bowled 19 balls that ESPNcricinfo’s data recorded as good length, or just back of it; that is, not too short but not too full. Not a single ball was down the leg side or too far outside off. Hasan Ali, Wahab Riaz and Shaheen Afridi between them bowled just 37. And more than that, they bowled 22 balls that were either too short or too full, both lengths ripe for runs on this pitch. Those 22 deliveries cost Pakistan 34 runs.
Seven times in his first four overs Amir beat Warner and Aaron Finch; Hasan and Afridi beat them four times combined in that period but where Amir kept some pressure on, the others relieved it. Australia’s strategy wrote itself: see off Amir, plunder the others.
The pressure of a helpful surface weighs not just on batsmen but on fast bowlers as well. They get carried away, often trying too much when all that is needed is to land the ball not just in the right place – which Pakistan did – but to be able to repeat that – which Pakistan emphatically did not.
Watch on Hotstar (India only) – Amir’s five-for
It was understandable, if not equally frustrating, that they got it right in their later spells. But they got it so wrong early on that although keeping Australia down to 307 was a win, letting them get 307 on this surface – where hindsight assessments settled on 250-270 being par – was a resounding loss.
And as so often happens but in exponentially greater degrees with Pakistan, the fielding followed suit. Here again the absence of Shadab came back to haunt them. He is only one person, but he visibly changes the dynamic and energy of Pakistan as a fielding side. And had he been on the field, Babar Azam would have been at first slip and not in Shadab’s spot at backward point, when Finch edged Wahab on 26. Instead, Asif Ali found himself at slip and this was not a good day for him. Australia were on 67, this was the 13th over. Another two would go down (Pakistan have now dropped eight catches in this tournament) and the misfields started spreading themselves around; for the first time, even Shoaib Malik – usually steady and safe – started looking old.
That first catch, according to ESPNcricinfo’s Luck Index cost Pakistan 25 runs. The misfields cost them seven runs in the field and Pakistan ultimately lost by 41. The maths is simple.
And yet somehow, because this Australia side is in different ways also flawed, Pakistan still had opportunities to win. Until the 26th over of their chase Pakistan were still in it. But the way this day had gone, it would not have been complete without more errors: of judgment and in execution. To do it having capitalised on some not-great bowling from Australia themselves will grate. But to be dismissed by the deliveries that Imam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez were constitutes the most exquisite kind of torture: still and for days, you’ll wonder how.
“We probably made more mistakes,” was Sarfaraz’s candid and accurate assessment of this error-ridden game. “We won a good toss. The pitch was helping fast bowlers. We didn’t bowl in the right areas. Until 30 overs, we were just not up to the mark. Batting, little, little mistakes. There was a partnership between Babar and Imam, Babar got out soft, Imam, Fakhar [Zaman] also, the entire top four got out to very soft dismissals.”
That’s it really and it leads to the simplest truth. You can’t afford this many mistakes at any level of any sport, let alone at a World Cup.