One of the joys of sport is that it provides the sort of clarity and definitiveness life doesn't. Wins, losses, the final score, all easily expressed as numbers that we can understand. Yet sometimes numbers, particularly in romantic encounters, fall under some sort of mystic spell.
One of my favourite such oddities is Kevin Pietersen's statistically improbable encounters with the number 158. Another example is of the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry and the 5-0 scoreline. Madrid won by that score in 1953 after poaching future legend Alfredo di Stefano from their rivals, while Barca won by that score in the first clasico between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. Both teams also exchanged wins by that score in January of 1994 and 1995, in consecutive seasons.
Pakistan and India's storied and even more dramatic rivalry also has a particular quirk. Shahid Afridi's recent Mirpur heroics added a new chapter to the tradition of the climactic final-over six in games between the two sides. Here are five games that shaped that narrative.
Miandad in Sharjah: The one that started it all - Miandad's last-ball six to beat India in Sharjah is one of cricket's most dramatic memories. Chasing against the reigning world champions, Pakistan had whimpered along to the final over with Miandad their last hope. It was bowled by Chetan Sharma, the man to take the first World Cup hat-trick, and Pakistan needed four off the last ball. You all know what happened next, but the match also signalled a turning of the tables in the rivalry. Pakistan would embark on an era of domination over their arch-rivals that would arguably last another 17 years.
Chauhan in Karachi: Easily the most obscure reference in this list and the only one to feature an Indian batsman, Rajesh Chauhan's effort came in the final over of a pulsating match at the National Stadium. Batting first, Pakistan's trademark final-overs assault was interrupted due to a section of the crowd pelting the Indian fielders with stones. The match was reduced to 47 overs, and Pakistan were mostly on top. With eight needed off the final over, the world's most exciting offie, Saqlain Mushtaq, took on one of his plainer cousins. Yet Chauhan emerged the hero, smacking a six off the first ball to lead India home. Unlike Miandad's six, Chauhan's couldn't even change the tide of the series, let alone the rivalry. Pakistan took the series after an evisceration in the decider in Lahore. Chauhan did, however, manage to score an endorsement from a liquor company, which celebrated his six in an advertisement.
Moin in Karachi: The next two entries on this list are unconventional, since they are about sixes that weren't hit. In fact, at the end of this 2004 match some Indian journalists predicted that the six Moin failed to hit would turn out to be as influential as Miandad's. Although India did go on to dominate Pakistan for a decade, in hindsight the turning point is agreed to be the World Cup match between the two sides a year earlier. But regardless, the first match of perhaps the most anticipated tour in recent history lived up to the hype, with India rampaging to 349 off a silken Dravid 99. Buoyed by a phenomenal crowd, Inzamam led his team towards the impossible. The 344 Pakistan scored chasing was their second-highest total at the time, and the match ended with the highest-ever aggregate in an ODI. Nine runs were needed off the final over by Ashish Nehra, and then six off the last ball. The delivery was a full toss - reminiscent of what Chetan bowled to Miandad - but Moin Khan could only hit out to Zaheer Khan, who took the catch. Whether here or in Centurion, India had exorcised the ghost of Sharjah.
Misbah in Johannesburg: It is hard to think of a moment more tragic than this one, even in the comically poignant career that Misbah-ul-Haq has had. Although redemption has arrived now, at the time he was an obscure domestic giant who had spent a decade on the sidelines, biding his time. He had earlier taken Pakistan to the brink of victory against India in the group match before falling at the end and seeing his team lose in a bowl-out. Here in the final, he single-handedly brought Pakistan back into the match and, with 13 needed off the final over, smashed Joginder Sharma's inoffensive medium pace for six off the second ball. With six needed off four, Misbah played a frog-legged scoop that sailed to long leg and was caught by Sreesanth. Cue wild celebrations, cue the IPL, cue the End of Cricket As We Knew It.
Afridi in Mirpur: A few days after the match, ESPNcricinfo's Twitter account shared a photo showing the number of remarkable similarities between this match and the Miandad-Sharjah one, particularly in the final over. Both sides were chasing 246, both lost their No. 10 off the first ball of the 50th over, and both ended as one-wicket victories for Pakistan. Miandad's batting effort was far greater, with his century the lone innings guiding the chase, compared to Afridi's last-minute heroics. More importantly, Miandad's six irrevocably changed the course of how the rivalry unfolded. While it is too early to say that here, the fact that this match occurred in the age of rolling media and the internet has certainly added a lot more relevance - not helped by the idiotic suspension of several students in India for supporting the "wrong" team. Moreover, it also caps off a strong run for Pakistan in recent matches against India, after having beaten them in a series last year. It was also a rare recent example of Pakistan prevailing over India in a tense finish, particularly in a chase. The tide may take a while to turn, but Pakistan can surely take a lot of belief from not just the victory but also its historical significance.