Charismatic Pakistan live to fight
Pakistan have bitten another bullet, in style. At the toss Younis Khan seemed relieved, almost trying to suppress laughter, when he called this a do-or-die match. It was as if he liked that there was no choice left, and his team showed they relished being in such a situation. By the end of the night, Pakistan had done, and left dying for another time. Abdul Razzaq, formerly a pariah and now making a comeback to official cricket after two years, struck with the fourth ball he bowled, and then in his third over to skittle the New Zealand top order, which was followed by Umar Gul's destruction. Gul was on a hat-trick twice and also became the first bowler to take a five-for in Twenty20 internationals.
Those two spells sandwiched a period when the spinners choked the life out of the middle order as a weakened New Zealand, missing Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor, stumbled to a meagre total on a belter of a pitch at The Oval. Debutant opener Shahzaib Hasan threatened to finish the match in a hurry, but the New Zealand spinners did well to delay the end of the match, and make sure Pakistan didn't run away with a hefty net run-rate, which will come handy in case New Zealand beat Sri Lanka.
How Pakistan would want to thank BCCI for the "amnesty" it accorded the ICL players. For Pakistan had bowled yet another ordinary first over; the first and last balls, from Mohammad Aamer, were boundaries, in between there was poor fielding and no dot balls. Had even Razzaq got off to a poor start, Pakistan would have had to bring Gul on early, which is not their original game plan. But Razzaq got Brendon McCullum before he could cause severe damage, and then Martin Guptill with a trademark straight delivery that the batsman missed. He exulted with arms aloft, more of a reaction than you can usually draw from Razzaq. Welcome back, Pakistan cricket was poorer without Razzaq.
Razzaq's first wicket was the first dot ball of the innings, but by the time Aamer and Razzaq were done with their three-over spells, New Zealand had barely doubled their score at 1.3 overs. Time, then, for spinners to come on. For the first time with the medium-pacers having put them in a favourable position. Time also it was for the fielders to raise their game, which they did. Diving saves, hustling fielders, and accurate bowling meant that Scott Styris and Jacob Oram struggled even to rotate the strike.
When it got too much for Oram, he stepped out to Shahid Afridi, in the 10th over, and skied a faster delivery. At the end of that over, Afridi's figures read 2-0-3-1. And because the opening bowlers did their job, Younis had Gul saved up for the last eight overs. At 72 for 4 after 12 overs, New Zealand had their task cut out, facing the yorkers from Gul and trying to accelerate.
Styris tried to put Gul off his rhythm right in his first over, and all he managed was a top edge to long-on. But this was Afridi's moment. He ran from mid-on, his eye on the ball falling over his head, his hands stretching out at the right moment and finishing the catch metres inside the boundary. Pakistan fielding had come a long way from being the laughing stocks of the tournament.
Following that dismissal, it was all Gul, his accuracy and his late swing. Peter McGlashan tried to paddle him next ball, but was undone by the in-dipper. James Franklin saved the hat-trick, but couldn't deny the irresistible Gul for long. With a change of ends, he cleaned up Nathan McCullum and Franklin with straight and fast bowling. Kyle Mills, though, fell to a slower one, giving Gul the five-for and another chance for a hat-trick. The hat-trick didn't come, but New Zealand managed just 27 since Gul's introduction to the attack. Once the euphoria of this performance dies, Pakistan will want to thank the man returning to international cricket for allowing them to go ahead with their preferred bowling strategy.
It was the best environment for a 19-year-old making his debut. Shahzaib was eased into the chase, Kamran Akmal facing the first 12 balls of the innings. Turned out Shahzaib didn't need any shielding. He got off the mark with a free-hit, but showed glimpses of his potential in the subsequent overs, lofting Daniel Vettori for a six down the ground, and cutting and pulling with aplomb during his quick 35.
With Afridi batting responsibly, Vettori's guile and athletic fielding only fought the inevitable.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo