Australia v Pakistan, Champions Trophy, Group A, Centurion September 30, 2009

Unpredictable v unyielding

In the last ten or so overs in Centurion was found the very essence of Pakistan and Australia as cricket nations, and their beauty. It is why people love one country and so respect and fear the other. That another nation could have benefitted from this almighty slugfest adds to the value of this ICC Champions Trophy.

There is not a country in the world that can pull off, even precipitate, the kind of crazy that Pakistan did here, let alone with the regularity that Pakistan does it. It is unique and it is theirs to unveil when they see fit. They have done it across the ages, in most countries, in all conditions, against all opposition and it is a thrill unlike others. Usually it happens at least likely moments when the game is drifting.

Today, Australia was toughing it out, chasing a small total, but there was a sense, even if a fleeting one, that a wicket might just do something. It was there today and it has been there on many such occasions, in Multan in 2005 against England, through the 1992 series against the same opponent, very often against New Zealand, also in South Africa in the early-to-mid 90s. Even when Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey were grinding along, so well were Pakistan bowling and so sluggish was the track that one wicket was going to make it, just one.

So Ponting then fell to an outstanding catch in the deep, which is often how these things emerge, to take on a life of their own. It happened during the 1992-93 Hamilton Test where an Asif Mujtaba reflex-stunner at short leg lit up the mother of all disintegrations. It happened against the same opponents just a few months back, on neutral territory, where Shahid Afridi's catch turned the match on its head, as well as the tournament itself. Sometimes it is a run-out.

And then everything changes. Fielders become panthers, more alert; bowlers sharpen their eyes and hone in on the length, and batsmen panic, as if they have suddenly discovered that the person lying down next to them for years is in fact someone else entirely. Rana Naved-ul-Hasan bowled two maidens in a row during the death overs (and gave just one the over before), having already beaten Hussey with a yorker so good, even he didn't see it hit the stumps. Mohammad Asif, just back from hell, snuck out a two-wicket over; Umar Gul came back to bowl the last over of the game cold, having not bowled since the 15th over of the chase, yet promptly produced yorkers as if he had been in the nets practising them non-stop in the interim.

Fielders were diving around, the captain was trying to keep a lid on things and Australia lost six wickets for 47 runs in just over 14 overs: magic. Waqar Younis wasn't around and Wasim Akram was only in the commentary box, having just been inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame, but they lurked over this period.

That Pakistan fell just short is precisely what makes Australia, Australia. Immediately after the game, Ian Chappell explained it: Australia never beat themselves. He has said it before, but it does not diminish any on repetition. They just do not implode as other teams might under this kind of tension. You have to beat them, for they will give you nothing and there is almost always someone who will not lie down and succumb to the madness around them.

Brett Lee and Nathan Hauritz did it here, Lee somehow squirting a drive off an outside edge through cover for a boundary, when Pakistan were favourites with 18 needed off 18 balls, off a ball he didn't pick. Countless others have done it before him. Any team other than Australia, Younis said later, would have bottled it, in a blaze of poor shots.

"I didn't think it was going to go this close with 20 overs left to be honest," Ponting said. "We sneaked over the line and we're through to the semis, the stage we wanted to be at."

Of course they did and of course they are, because they always are, irrespective of what any rankings might say. Fortunately for everyone, it took the tightest match of the tournament for them to do it.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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