The Jekyll and Hyde that is Pakistan cricket displayed both its faces in the series decider against New Zealand. Pakistan needed only 212 to clinch a 2-1 series victory on a placid pitch but their batting combusted in typically dramatic fashion. When all hope was lost, though, there was more drama as Mohammad Aamer scripted a phenomenal comeback with Saeed Ajmal. It was New Zealand, however, who held their nerve to win the decider in the desert.
When Aamer came to bat at No. 10, Pakistan needed 126 runs from 26.5 overs with only two wickets in hand, and people were emptying the Sheikh Zayed stadium thinking the game was over. But what is Pakistan cricket without its twists and turns? And what is New Zealand cricket without a struggle to finish games? Aamer and Ajmal threw their bats around, played conventional and unorthodox shots, and added 103, the second highest last-wicket stand in ODIs. It went to the last over, bowled by Jacob Oram, with Pakistan needing eight runs to win, but Ajmal top-edged the first ball and was caught by Kyle Mills at short fine leg.
Aamer initially appeared as though he was having a lark - a tailender indulging himself in a lost cause. Even when he hit Daniel Vettori for three slog-swept sixes in an over, it seemed a matter of time before the last wicket fell. However, Aamer persevered, cutting and driving Mills in particular, and the game hurtled towards a thrilling finale. The pressure, however, kicked in only when they got close to the target and Ajmal succumbed with Aamer stranded on 73, the highest score by a No. 10 batsman in ODIs.
What Aamer's effort also did, though, was highlight the failure of his more capable team-mates. Pakistan crashed and burned from 47 for 0 to 101 for 9 with batsmen playing rash shots that betrayed a nervous and muddled mindset. No one took ownership of the chase and New Zealand kept gaining ground with disciplined bowling.
Pakistan's openers were cruising when Vettori introduced himself in the eighth over. He trapped Khalid Latif lbw with an arm-ball to create a small window of opportunity, which was soon flung open. Younis Khan, Pakistan's captain who is waging an increasingly difficult battle to hold his place in the ODI team, struggled for fluency and the mounting pressure led to him running out a settled Salman Butt. It was the beginning of the end.
Younis perished next ball, stabbing a bouncing delivery from Shane Bond to first slip and exposed an edgy middle order, which lacked the cool head of Mohammad Yousuf, who had been dropped for Umar Akmal. The line-up was full of attacking batsmen but, as they showed in the last game, they were likely to collapse under pressure. Only Shoaib Malik had the temperament to fight but he was guilty of playing the worst shot of all. Pakistan were wobbling at 74 for 3 when Kyle Mills bowled a few short balls at Malik, who ducked out of the way. Suddenly, in a moment of madness, he fetched a short delivery from well outside off and hit it straight to deep midwicket. Pakistan had started its freefall.
Umar Akmal edged an intended cut and Shahid Afridi ran Malik close with a poor shot of his own but it's not much of a surprise when Afridi implodes. He tried to break free by heaving Jacob Oram down the ground but only succeeded in nicking to Brendon McCullum. Pakistan's last hope was Kamran Akmal and Abdul Razzaq but both failed. Kamran was guilty of playing an overambitious shot as he tried to pull a delivery from Tim Southee which wasn't short and top-edged to mid-on. Razzaq made a mad dash for a non-existent single: Umar Gul had pushed to the left of Vettori at mid-off and took one step out, but Razzaq charged too far down the track and couldn't get back in time. Pakistan's misery was almost complete but Aamer's heroic half-century gave fans something to take from the game.
New Zealand also had their share of batting wobbles. They were in a great position at 138 for 2 in 27th over, after choosing to bat, but they collapsed to be bowled out for 211. McCullum, who hit a superbly-paced 76, fell to a tame dismissal, caught and bowled by Shoaib Malik. Younis then proceeded to suffocate them with his spinners.
From the 18th over to the 45th, New Zealand faced only two overs of seam bowling, gradually succumbing to the slow men. Ajmal confused them with his doosras, Afridi taunted with his sliders and googlies, and Malik tested with his offbreaks. Most batsmen pushed and prodded with nervous uncertainty, unsure about the destination of the spinning deliveries and one felt that a wicket was always around the corner. New Zealand, however, scraped to 211 before they were dismissed in the 47th over. It proved to be just enough.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo