SHARJAH - Pakistan had come into this match with their backs to the wall, their honour at stake. They were threatened with elimination at the venue where they have won more games than at home. And they silenced all doubters by powering their way into the final with consummate ease.
Chasing a very modest 214, and docked one over for overstepping the deadline, Shahid Afridi and Imran Nazir devastated the Black Caps attack, putting it to the sword without mercy to carve out a comfortable win, by eight wickets, with nearly 18 overs to spare.
Shahid Afridi pummelled Ian Butler for a four at long-off to seal the victory which had more or less been delivered by the end of the 15th over, with Pakistan making 103 just for the loss of Nazir.
Pakistan had been off to a turbo-charged start and as Nazir got out, Pakistan was already 101, and scoring as rapidly as 6.9 runs an over, the openers had done their job, reducing the remainder of the chase to a mere cakewalk. In statistical terms, the asking rate was a mere 3.3 runs an over.
But the way Afridi was now playing, his bat bludgeoning relentlessly, it wouldn't have mattered had the task been far steeper. He made 108, his third hundred in one-day cricket, and it came off just 92 deliveries, with the help of 8 sixes and 7 fours. But more than the sum total of his runs, or its intrinsic value in Pakistan's victory, it was the way he tore the attack into smithereens which must have filled the Kiwi hearts with fear and awe. Exactly the kind of influence Pakistan would have wanted on the eve of their rescheduled tour.
Afridi did give a chance, but only a ghost of one, at 89, but so ferociously was the ball hit that Oram at short covers could not have held on to it. By then the horse had bolted the stable anyway. The rest was all clean hitting, too clean for Kiwis comfort.
On a comeback trail, it was first Nazir who blasted the New Zealand attack with such high quality shots, mostly in front of the wicket, the hallmark of real calibre. Starting with a four at extra cover, he carved Ian Butler for another three fours in his next two overs. Fleming took Butler out of the attack, but Andre Adams was treated even more severely as Nazir took a couple of twos, and then ferociously cut and drove him for two boundaries at point and covers respectively to take Pakistan to 51, off only 49 deliveries. Most amazingly, while Nazir's share in the total was 45 off 31 deliveries, Afridi had made just three off 18 deliveries.
Adams induced the edge in his next over, but the ball fell safely and ran to the third man fence; it was Nazir's 50, his fifth in one-day cricket coming off just 38 deliveries, with the help of eight fours.
Afridi, who till now had looked like a strokeless wonder, decided that enough was enough and lofted Adams to the cover boundary. That opened the floodgates, and Nazir delicately guided Styris, brought on in hapless Adams place, to long leg fence, and later in the over Afridi clubbed him for a straight six and a four to long on. In Styris' next over, Afridi was even harsher on him, and despite Fleming bringing on a fielder on the fence, he still clouted him for three sixes on the same spot, long on, to take Pakistan galloping to 101, off just 85 deliveries.
At this point, leggie Brooke Walker struck, as Nazir tried to sweep him to fine leg and Sinclair took the edge off a miscue. Yousuf Youhana seemed to be in great form in his brief cameo, making 24 off 29 deliveries with three fours and a six. But it didn't matter as by now, Afridi was in full cry, and Inzamam (18, off 16 balls, 2 fours, 1 six) was content playing second fiddle to him.
Earlier, the Black Caps, having won the toss and electing to bat, got off to a blazing start, their best of this tournament with the openers contributing 75 runs at better than a run a ball. But then they lost four wickets in the space of only 18 deliveries for the addition of just four runs. They were never to recover from this dramatic collapse, and eventually finished at 213 for 9, the lowest by any side batting first.
And it was such a far cry from what they would have expected when they had such a remarkably stroke-filled beginning. But right when the Pakistani bowlers were all at sea, and skipper Waqar Younis looked desperate for a break, more than anything else the Black Caps over-impetuosity set them back. One has to grant Younis that, when he and his partner in pace Akram not only failed in getting a breakthrough but were most unceremoniously hit all over the park too, he immediately made two inspiring bowling changes, bringing on Shoaib in the 11th and Saqlain in the 12th over. And it was these two who bailed him out, getting him not one but three breakthroughs, with Jacob Oram committing hara-kiri in getting himself run out.
Once those four wickets were gone, it was always going to be uphill, more so with Fleming gone at the half-way stage. To their credit, Styris (43, 63 balls, 1 four, 1 six), Harris (35, 67 balls 4 fours), and Adams a quicksilver 21 (28 deliveries, 1 four and 1 six, both in one Waqar over) contributed vital runs, 112 runs in the last half of the innings. But all it did was add some respectability to the total, and nothing more.
Before that quartet of wickets, however, it was all New Zealand. Dealing almost exclusively in boundaries, Astle clobbered Pakistan's much vaunted pace attack, with authority bordering on disdain. It seemed to be his day, and whatever he tried came off. He started off by straight-driving Akram and then Younis to extra cover for boundaries. In the meanwhile, Horne took a boundary off Akram, lofting him over the in-field to mid-wicket fence.
New Zealand was well and truly cruising, when Astle clubbed Younis for three boundaries in one over, and then smote Akram's good length delivery for a straight six. Saqlain, brought on early for the 12th over, was clubbed for a straight six by Horne, but the champion off-spinner avenged himself next ball. Horne failed to read his straight one, and offered a caught and bowled chance to Saqlain who pouched it with unconcealed joy.
Fleming sent in Oram to reinforce the good start, with the purpose of pinch-hitting Pakistan's attack into submission. Little did he know that it had really started unraveling for him. In Saqlain's next over, Astle tried to hit him out of the ground, and miscued; Waqar ran backward at long-on with such intensity as if his life depended on it, bringing off a remarkable diving catch. Next over, Shoaib's in-shooter dismantled Mathew Sinclair's middle and off stumps. Later in the over, Oram, going for a run, stopping many times over, ran himself out, as Akram made no mistake running in from long-on with an underarm throw.
A superb New Zealand start had ended up in shambles, and the target they eventually gave Pakistan was not likely to save the day for them.
After the close Shahid Afridi was declared Man of the Match.