Pakistan's death bowlers step up again

Australia's players touched down at Adelaide Airport around 5.30pm. This just happened to be about the same point that Pakistan were ensuring they would be the team to meet the hosts in Friday's quarter-final, by clamping down brilliantly on Ireland in the latter overs of what had to that point been a quite fluent first innings.

By the time they had collected their bags, travelled into town, eaten dinner and settled into their hotel rooms at the Intercontinental, the Australians could turn on their TV sets and watch as Sarfraz Ahmed and Ahmed Shehzad take Pakistan more than halfway to their target of 238 with a stand of good sense and and the appropriate level of urgency. And before they tucked into bed, Sarfraz and Misbah-ul-Haq had secured passage to the quarters.

This was far from a flawless display from Misbah's men, as plenty of fielding foul-ups could attest. But to defeat Ireland under the pressure of elimination and while taking the less preferred route of chasing will have been enough to give the hosts some food for thought. While Pakistan's campaign has offered up many of the hallmarks of the nation's boom-and-bust cricket history, the Adelaide effort was their most sustained departure from the picaresque yet: the ragtag assembly missing so many players is beginning to take on a threatening shape.

The greatest challenge for Pakistan this day was always likely to be a mental one. Ireland's campaign has lost momentum in the latter phases, their bowling not up to the standard required to beat international teams on a regular basis in the absence of Boyd Rankin (permanently) and Tim Murtagh (this tournament). Even so, their ability to scrounge collective performances is widely known and admired, and at 182 for 4 in the 39th over they appeared poised to set a steep target for a team of nervous chasers - England slid from contention in similar circumstances.

William Porterfield had played a staunch if somewhat flawed innings, making up in boundaries what he lacked in strike rotation. On a benign if somewhat two-speed pitch, Ireland's batsmen struggled intermittently for timing but equally did not lose clumps of wickets, leaving Misbah to contemplate the possibility of chasing something in the region of 270. That Pakistan were ultimately left with a mere 238 to get was the result of the day's most critical passage.

All tournament, Misbah has backed in his pace bowlers to perform at the death of an innings, the period that for most teams has represented something of a graveyard for fast men and spinners alike. The loss of a fifth outrider due to tighter fielding restrictions, plus the use of dual new balls, has robbed fielding sides of their ability to contain except by taking wickets. It is to their great credit that Pakistan appeared to recognise this as quickly as any side, and the collective of Sohail Khan, Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali have all excelled in plucking wickets to keep runs down.

Their nominal spearhead is Mohammad Irfan, but even in his absence due to a buttock strain not expected to preclude him from selection against Australia, Ehsan Adil stepped in. The early wicket of Paul Stirling was important, preventing Ireland from setting an even more strident pace than they did. This compensated for indifferent early spells from Sohail and Wahab, as the new ball declined to move much at all.

When Misbah called them back into the attack as the final 10 overs approached, defence may have seemed the more natural option. Full deliveries asking the batsmen to drive to the longer straight boundaries made sense if the goal was constriction, particularly as the pitch leaned towards the eastern side of the oval's drop-in wicket square. However Wahab, Sohail and Rahat can each summon decent pace, and it was with a considerable element of aggression that they set about pulling Ireland back.

Porterfield was hurried for pace and length by a ball he wanted to drive, providing Shahid Afridi the chance to claim a low catch. Gary Wilson was unable to ride the bounce of a short ball and cuffed it to third man, and then Rahat jammed in another bouncer that Stuart Thompson could only top edge.

The Irish slide was to be completed by Wahab, who has rather belied his often peripheral standing in relation to Pakistan's best XI by proving himself to be consistently the world's fastest bowler at this tournament. He was again touching 150kph as he bored in on the hard-hitting pair of Kevin O'Brien and John Mooney. O'Brien's striking lit up the 2011 tournament but he has been more subdued this time, and Wahab's pace induced a shot that sailed only as far as midwicket. Mooney's rear grille has been a noteworthy addition to helmet technology at this event, but an attempt to ramp Sohail had him edging the short painfully into his throat, and he was unable to get enough bat to another 150kph missile from Wahab.

That sequence left Pakistan with a chase that did not overly test their batsmen or the team's occasionally faulty nerve. Further signs of their development across the tournament came in the form of Sarfraz's innings, a second consecutive innings of substance from a wicketkeeper deemed too risky to be chosen when the Cup began. How Misbah and the coach Waqar Younis must wonder at their earlier hesitance. Save for the harebrained run out of Haris Sohail, Sarfraz did not lapse, and his earlier keeping had been typically tidy. With the help of some orchestration, his hundred arrived simultaneously with qualification, fitting for a man who has been as a dose of snuff to Pakistan's batting.

All this added up to a victory that not only allowed the World Cup to see more of Pakistan, but also a pointer to the fact that a heavily favoured Australia may not have things all their own way on Friday. Spunk at the top of their batting order and speed at the tail of their bowling makes Pakistan a team capable of troubling plenty of opponents. Australia's players only have to cast their minds back to a humbling defeat at many of these same hands in the UAE last October for a reminder of that.