Afridi's spirit the difference for Pakistan
There was no drama. No last minute dash past the tape. Instead it was a compelling performance from a confident team led by a spirited leader. It is funny that despite being the world champions in the format twelve months ago questions were being raised at the outset today about Pakistan finishing on top of this two-match series against Australia. Yes, there is no denying the fact that, like Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal, Australia possess the skill and mental discipline to crush any opponent any day but based on Pakistan's aggressive performance Monday evening there was never a doubt about who entered the arena more positive.
Australia seemed cagey from start to the finish. Pakistan seemed more sure and precise in what they did. In the end Michael Clarke fell short of reasons behind Australia's defeat. Shahid Afridi, his opposite number, glowed with pride in the gloaming, as he was more decisive on both evenings while defending a par score. He was the single biggest reason behind Pakistan's self belief and it is easy to forget his tactical nous considering the enfant terrible he has been in the last decade.
For Afridi, in addition to his own performance, the biggest challenge was to get every player in the squad to read from the same page - something Pakistan teams have never been famous to do. But once the Pakistan Cricket Board had dealt firmly with the happenings in the aftermath of the disastrous Australian tour and given Afridi the captaincy; he has not wasted time to make his mind clear. Together with his coach Waqar Younis and the selectors, Afridi charted a plan which encouraged the inclusion of youngsters. And despite his eccentricities, Afridi remains a good mentor.
Importantly, Afridi knows his winning unit. Shoaib Akthar might not be completely fit to consistently feature in all the three formats but Afridi has shown faith in the maverick speedster. Hence it did not matter that Shoaib had been taken to the cleaners by the Davids - Warner and Hussey on Monday. He returned today charged by the vociferous crowd and steamed in with a renewed vigour that brought back memories of the bowler who once could hold an entire stadium enthralled. Today Afridi did not break Shoaib's rhythm with a three-over first spell. Though Shoaib managed just one wicket, he troubled the batsmen with bounce, with movement with changes of pace.
At the other end the exemplary young talent of Mohammad Aamer continued to flourish as the left-armer got a wicket in first over for the second evening in a row. With his ability to control the swing and also bend the ball at will at optimum pace Aamer is easily one of the most destructive bowlers in cricket. Afridi had worked out his plans precisely where he knew he would save his three best bowlers - Aamer, Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal - for the final five to six overs. These are his go-to men.
Australia needed 52 runs off the final six overs with the Hussey brothers looking dangerous. Ajmal straightaway got in his most favourite weapon - the doosra - which the younger Hussey (David) failed to read and returned a simple catch. Afridi was unhappy when Ajmal sent a long hop to debutant Steve O' Keefe, who duly smashed it past the cover boundary. But O' Keefe was involved in a run out a ball later and Ajmal finished with impressive figures of 1 for 26. Next over Gul kept his nerves, despite being hit by Michael Hussey for two fours off the first two balls, bouncing back with a a lethal yorker from round the stumps and wide off the crease, which the Australian erroneously tried to reverse sweep and was declared plumb. Aamer took his second three-wicket haul in two days first delivery of the next over, trapping Mitchell Johnson leg before.
Like a babysitter Afridi never left the bowlers alone - he walked towards them virtually after every ball, cajoling them, patting them and at times directing them what to do when the bowler failed to carry out the instructions. Obviously the twin victories have now put Pakistan in a positive frame of mind ahead of the two-match Test series, starting at Lord's next Tuesday. But this result will hardly have a bearing on that, something the Pakistan think tank is well aware of. Waqar was understandably guarded. "[It is] still early days. It is a good start. A win always gives us the momentum," he said. Still the opponent will be wary now.
"We can learn a lot form the way they bowled at the death," Clarke said in praise of the Pakistan bowlers, before going on to single out Gul who he felt was "outstanding". "They missed him during the World Cup. You have to be at your best to beat a team like that," he said.
It takes a lot to stir Australia. For the moment, without getting carried away, Pakistan can be proud.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo