Akmal and Malik script a thriller
Those who say 50-overs cricket has lost its ticker needed to look no further than the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi for a humdinger. In a throwback to the days of Sharjah classics, Pakistan overcame a sluggish start and a middle-order wobble to sneak the most thrilling of last-over wins over West Indies. Khurram Manzoor and Younis Khan helped Pakistan overcome a jittery start and gather some steam, but it was Shoaib Malik's whirlwind 66 and a stunning last-over assault from Kamran Akmal that pulled the carpet from beneath West Indies' feet.
After winning the toss and batting, West Indies settled for a below-par 294, which owed mostly to Chris Gayle's glorious 113, his 17th one-day hundred and second on the trot after an unbeaten 110 against Canada in August. Just 96 runs were scored since Gayle departed in the 35th over, and only 71 in the last ten overs, credit to Pakistan for sticking to their guns on a hard pitch. Ultimately, that made a big difference.
The last 15 minutes of the match were nerve-wracking. Akmal amazingly swept the last ball of the 48th over, by Jerome Taylor, for six, but a miserly penultimate over from Gayle seemed to have sealed it West Indies' way. Fawad Alam failed to put away a full toss, Gayle bowled Akmal with a no-ball, and Akmal then survived a stumping appeal. The over cost only six runs.
Needing 17 from the last over, Akmal slashed the second and third deliveries for six, backing away: cue hysteria in the ground. A scampered two became three with an overthrow, and Alam clipped the fifth delivery of the final over for a single to seal victory. Akmal's 24 from nine balls, however, was the clincher.
When Pakistan struggled initially under lights in the first 15 overs, this was hard to envision. In the absence of any fluency from Salman Butt, it was left to Manzoor to keep the score ticking over. Manzoor played himself in, reaching his second half-century in two ODIs played for Pakistan, one full of punchy back-foot play. Younis Khan, Pakistan's most experienced batsman after Mohammad Yousuf joined the ICL, hit consecutive boundaries in the 23rd over - one driven off the back foot, the other lapped very fine - to up the rate.
Taylor was brought back in the 28th over to do a job, and he succeeded. Taylor dropped short, Manzoor tried to run it fine, and Carlton Baugh held on to the thin outside edge (142 for 2). Younis swept his way to half-century from 50 balls, but the pressure told on Misbah-ul-Haq, way too early into a reverse-sweep against Nikita Miller's left-arm spin.
As per the new rules, the batting side can choose one Powerplay and Pakistan left the third one until the 38th over. It was a critical phase and Pakistan lost two wickets for 38. Unable to pierce the field like Malik, Younis slogged Baker into the starry night while Shahid Afridi pulled Baker to a tumbling Shivnarine Chanderpaul at deep midwicket. Malik made sure to hit the ball as straight as possible and went past 50 from 36 balls, but when Pakistan needed 33 from 18 balls, he pulled Taylor to midwicket.
Akmal's heroics, though, spoiled what should have been Gayle's party. The venue changed from Antigua to Abu Dhabi, the format from Twenty20 to 50-overs, but what did Gayle care? After five overs West Indies were 11 for 0; that's when Gayle moved up a gear, stepping outside the line of a delivery from Abdur Rauf and swinging it over midwicket for six.
Rauf, who opened the attack in the absence of an injured Shoaib Akhtar, was then taken for 17 in one over. A whip over mid-on was followed by a flick off the pads. Then Rauf pitched outside off stump and craned his neck as Gayle biffed him over his head. Shoaib Malik removed third man and Gayle smartly steered the ball past the wicketkeeper. Having hit a 33-ball half-century in the Stanford 20/20 for 20 earlier this month, Gayle enjoyed his first trip to Abu Dhabi. Sohail Tanvir was cracked past point and West Indies' fifty was up in the tenth over with consecutive pulled sixes in Umar Gul's first over. In five overs, 48 had been scored, and Gayle's half-century needed 36 balls.
Sewnarine Chattergoon contributed 33 to an opening stand of 125, the sixth-best for West Indies against Pakistan, content to play second fiddle before an attempted heave against the turn went to mid-on. Ramnaresh Sarwan partnered Gayle past his century - in a 73-run stand - and watched him get out for 113 after a series of attacking shots, the last of which went straight to midwicket (198 for 2) in an over in which he had been dropped by Gul. Sarwan used his wrists well and leapt on to anything short, hitting five boundaries before he tickled Afridi down the pads in the 38th over. But Gul came back well to take 3 for 66 and Tanvir took two in two balls during the last over as West Indies failed to build on Gayle's innings.
A cricket-starved Pakistan came to Abu Dhabi wanting to win. They've certainly started well.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo