Akmal, Ajmal take Pakistan to semi-finals
Requiring a win to move into the semi-finals, Pakistan accomplished just that with an efficient performance, easing past Ireland by 39 runs at The Oval. The margin was also sufficient to lift their net run-rate to 1.19, ensuring there's no way both New Zealand and Sri Lanka can finish with as many points and a higher rate.
Pakistan's last World Cup game against Ireland had ended in grief, but here they seemed aware of the threat posed by their feisty opponents: after winning the toss Pakistan played within themselves but yet managed 159, thanks largely to a well-paced 57 by Kamran Akmal. Ireland's batting is clearly their weaker suit, and considering their highest in the tournament so far is only 138, a target of 160 was always likely to be a tough ask. And so it proved, as they finished on 120.
Apart from Akmal, none of the other Pakistan batsmen got big scores, but there were reasonable partnerships for almost every wicket, ensuring there was no repeat of the collapse which had knocked Pakistan out of the 2007 World Cup. Ireland, as usual, made the opposition work for their runs, with Boyd Rankin being the stand-out bowler, but the inability to get wickets meant Pakistan finished with 27 more than they had managed in the 50-over game in Jamaica a couple of years back.
Akmal held the innings together with a measured knock. The confidence of having scored runs in the earlier games was clearly on display, and he was decisive with his footwork and generally sound with his shot selection. He began with a pick-up shot over midwicket for six off the hapless Trent Johnston, and continued to play both the meaty shots and the deft ones: a scoop over fine leg off Alex Cusack went for four, as did crisp drives through cover off the left-arm spin of Regan West.
Shahzaib Hasan and Shahid Afridi, promoted up the order to No.3, didn't go on to get bigger knocks but they provided the early impetus. Shahzaib kept lofting the pitched-up deliveries over the infield with varying degrees of success till his luck finally ran out, while Afridi thrashed Cusack and West through the off side before Kyle McCallan deceived him with a superb slower, tossed up, offbreak.
Along with Rankin's fiery burst with the new ball, McCallan's clever bowling was the highlight for Ireland in the field. Rankin kept it tight and was desperately unlucky not to pick up a wicket, while McCallan's outstanding flight and change of pace ensured none of the batsmen dominated him. Johnston had a nightmare game, conceding 20 in his second over and 12 in his third, as batsmen picked him off their legs quite effortlessly, but even he redeemed himself with an excellent fourth over, picking up Akmal with a yorker and conceding only four runs.
Ireland gave little away in the field, and yet a target of 160 was always beyond them. William Porterfield fought gustily for his 36-ball 40, but hit his first four in the tenth over of the innings, by which time the asking rate had already climbed to nine and a half. Paul Stirling, playing his first game of the tournament, showed some promise in his 17, which included an impeccable cover-drive to get off the mark, but the big difference between the two sides was in their boundary-hitting abilities - Pakistan struck 13 fours and four sixes; Ireland only managed six fours.
Pakistan's bowlers were all disciplined, with Mohammad Aamer getting rid of the dangerous Niall O'Brien early. Afridi and Saeed Ajmal offered few scoring opportunities, while Umar Gul continued from where he had left off against New Zealand, knocking over the stumps thrice, including once off a free-hit ball, and then scoring a direct hit to run out West.
A dropped catch by Abdul Razzaq late in the innings was a small blot, but overall it was a polished performance by a team which is increasingly looking like a sound bet for the title.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo