Afridi on song as Pakistan enter final
The South African juggernaut was brought to a screeching halt by Shahid Afridi who, with a little help from his team-mates, dumped the tournament favourites out of the World Twenty20 and secured Pakistan's place in the final. Afridi put in an all-round performance of tremendous intensity, lifting Pakistan to a defendable total with an aggressive yet methodical half-century, before bowling a spell that left the South Africans struggling at Trent Bridge.
The clinical South African side, unbeaten in the competition, were favourites going in to the semi-final and their bowlers fought admirably to restrict Pakistan to 149 when, at one stage a total of 170 seemed on the cards. With the exception of Jacques Kallis, though, their batsmen failed to give the chase any sort of direction. They were suffocated by Afridi and the offspinner Saeed Ajmal and their inability to score enough runs during the middle overs left them with too much to do against the pinpoint accuracy of Umar Gul's yorkers.
South Africa had reached 40 for 0 in the sixth over when Mohammad Aamer gave Pakistan an opening, holding a skier of Graeme Smith off his own bowling, minutes after the South African captain had been dropped by Gul.
Afridi, high on confidence after his innings, came into the attack in the seventh over but was immediately driven by Herschelle Gibbs to the cover boundary. That was as bad as his evening would get. He bounced back, bowling Herschelle Gibbs with a straight and quick delivery and, an over later, he got AB de Villiers the same way. South Africa were 50 for 3 and struggling.
Kallis and JP Duminy prevented the fall of any more wickets but they were unable to raise the run-rate. Afridi got the ball to turn, bounce and hurry on the batsmen and finished with 2 for 16 while Saeed Ajmal, the offspinner, was also difficult to score off because of his variations.
The situation was perfect for Umar Gul to do what he does best, hit the blockhole. After an indifferent first over from the Radcliffe Road end, he ran in from the pavilion and fired in yorker after yorker. It didn't matter who was batting, those deliveries were impossible to hit. Duminy and Kallis could not get the ball off the square. It was Ajmal who struck the decisive blow when he had Kallis caught on the long-on boundary, realistically ending South Africa's chances. They needed 23 off the last over, a responsibility Younis Khan handed to the 17-year-old Aamer, who had bowled three overs for 15. He gave only 15 more, and sent Trent Bridge into raptures.
Pakistan coach's Intikhab Alam had said on the eve of the game that his team would be looking to set a target of around 150. Pakistan got exactly that after an innings which followed a strangely symmetrical pattern. They dominated the first five overs, scoring 43, while South Africa fought back between overs five and ten to keep Pakistan to 68 for 2. Pakistan once again controlled the game between overs 11 and 15, reaching 120 for 3, but South Africa conceded only 29 off the last five overs.
Pakistan's early dominance was due to Akmal, who was intent on smashing the ball from the start. He cut Dale Steyn twice for four in the first over and lofted him cleanly over long-off in the third. In between, he crashed Wayne Parnell to the midwicket boundary and raced to 23 off 11 balls before top-edging a pull off Steyn to mid-on.
Pakistan had raced to 47 for 2 after six overs, with Afridi pulling Jacques Kallis twice through midwicket but South Africa then cut off the boundary supply. Afridi and Shoaib Malik didn't hit a boundary for 24 balls before Afridi slogged Roelof van der Merwe through midwicket. He cut loose against Johan Botha, making room to loft the offspinner thrice in a row to the cover boundary before unveiling a delectable late-cut to snatch 18 off the over. The 50-partnership had come up off 49 balls but Pakistan had begun to accelerate, with Afridi placing the ball into gaps consistently, plucking twos.
South Africa desperately needed Afridi's wicket and it was duly picked up by JP Duminy, who struck with his first ball. Afridi tried to slog sweep and skied the ball straight to AB de Villiers at midwicket who took a vital catch with ease. South Africa celebrated the wicket with more relief than joy.
Malik had played a more subdued, anchoring role until then, but began to step up, scoring his first boundary - a sweep off van der Merwe - off his 30th ball. He soon added another, hitting Duminy over extra cover, but eventually holed out to long-off. Younis and Abdul Razzaq were the two new batsmen at the crease and Parnell and Steyn bowled with extreme accuracy to deny them loose deliveries at the death.
A target of 150 appeared less than what Pakistan were on course to get when Afridi was at the crease. But Afridi the bowler ensured that it would be enough.
George Binoy is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo