Afridi helps Pakistan draw first blood
A team desperate to erase painful recent memories immediately settled in at their new, adopted venue, with a four-wicket win against a struggling Australian side in Dubai. The devastation caused by Shahid Afridi's career-best 6 for 38 had all but shut Australia out of the match before the halfway stage of their innings. A late recovery pushed them to 168 but it wasn't enough to seriously challenge an unpredictable Pakistan outfit. Pakistan stuttered, rebuilt, stumbled again and a late push by Afridi, contributing an adrenalin-filled yet brief 24, pushed them towards a win.
The ultimate difference between the two sides was spin. While Pakistan's pair of Afridi and Ajmal shared eight wickets, Australia's Nathan Hauritz bowled four overs and failed to pick up a wicket. It wouldn't be fair to blame Australia's lone specialist spinner for the defeat. It was a collective failure of their middle order to read the spinners who mercilessly ran through the batting and effected a top and middle-order crumbling to the tune of 8 for 27.
Australia's rapid demise was a reflection of their ordinary recent one-day form. A collapse of this magnitude exposed a weakness against spin which was also on show in South Africa, even with a number of familiar returning faces in the ranks. With the ball gripping and turning, Afridi's mixture of googlies and topspinners caused most of the problems, but the relatively inexperienced Ajmal offered little respite with his doosras.
At 95 for 1 in the 19th over, Younis Khan's pre-match prediction of chasing a target of 260-270 seemed a reality. That was until Afridi got the ball and the crowd to dance to his tunes. He began by getting rid of the most well-set batsman, Brad Haddin, for a brisk 40, tamely chipping a flighted delivery to short cover. Michael Clarke's struggles against the spin trio of Paul Harris, Roelof van der Merwe and Johan Botha in South Africa were well documented and the nightmare didn't end with the move to another country. He was flummoxed by an Ajmal doosra and edged behind before Afridi worked his magic.
A rusty Andrew Symonds nicked one to a refreshingly sharp Kamran Akmal, before Shane Watson, who had played neatly on his return to the side after injury by adding 54 with Haddin, was beaten by one which turned through the gate. Safe catching helped Pakistan and Misbah-ul-Haq showed his sharp reflexes to cling onto Callum Ferguson's edge to remove one of Australia's few in-form batsmen. Hauritz completely misjudged Ajmal's line, shouldered arms and lost his stumps.
The score suddenly read a shocking 110 for 7 and it brought back bad memories of their collapse at Centurion very recently. It wasn't the kind you would expect of the second best team in the world even in the worst of days. The spinners sensed a weak link and exploited it with clinical efficiency. Afridi's googlies proved too much for the tailenders Stuart Clark and Nathan Bracken as he collected his best ODI figures and Pakistan's best figures against Australia.
James Hopes enjoyed a free swing of the arms in the third Powerplay with an unbeaten 48 to push the score to 168, a big improvement from a hopeless 122 for 9, but the momentum was still with Pakistan.
The Australian seamers failed to get enough early breakthroughs to cause a serious flutter in the Pakistan camp. The dangerous Salman Butt was trapped lbw for 5 in the seven-over period before the dinner break before a fidgety Younis Khan holed out to midwicket.
Spin was introduced in the 13th over but Hauritz couldn't extract the same turn and bite that Afridi and Ajmal managed against his batsmen. He overpitched too often and that allowed Akmal to get forward and drive through the line. He used his feet well and chipped down the track to bisect the gaps in the infield.
Shoaib Malik contributed only 12 in a stand of 48 with Akmal, content to let his partner hog the strike. However, as Akmal motored along, a flashy drive outside off cost him his wicket and Clark had his revenge after being slashed for a four past slip two balls earlier. A loose dab by Malik brought Afridi to the crease, who began by clipping his first ball - a low full toss - past square leg and then pulling the next past midwicket.
He took Pakistan within 31 of the target before mishitting one to mid-on. The chase thereafter was scratchy, with Misbah holding fort as Pakistan got home with 35 balls to spare. It wasn't the most convincing of chases but good enough to prove a point. Moreover, they played with a hunger to win against a team dogged by injuries and knackered after a back-breaking summer.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo