More than anything, it was the combined wisdom of Pakistan's experienced cricketers that tilted the scales in their favour at the Sharjah Cricket Association stadium. Zimbabwe, slumped to yet another defeat in the Khaleej Times Trophy, losing by 29 runs. Two stalwarts - Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis worked their magic when it was needed the most and outclassed Zimbabwe. But spare a thought for Zimbabwe, an inexperienced side with a new captain, and they did not disgrace themselves. The loss means that Zimbabwe have no chance of qualifying for the final.
When Waqar Younis won the toss and elected to bat first on a featherbed Sharjah wicket, he would have hoped to put more than 261 on the board. Especially after Shahid Afridi played an amazing innings first up, smashing the ball to all parts of the park. Hitting the ball cleanly over the infield, Afridi picked his spots well, either going over the onside with fierce power or carving the ball over extra-cover with impeccable timing. In a 36-ball essay that yielded 58 runs, Afridi struck six sixes and just one boundary. Easily the fastest half-century of the tournament, the innings brought the crowd alive.
Following Afridi's early blitz and some sensible, steady batting in the middle order from Yousuf Youhana (41) and a good half-century from Younis Khan, Pakistan managed to post 261/9 off 50 overs. Younis Khan's innings was well paced and had the right mixture of aggressive and defensive strokes. With just two boundaries in his 58, Younis Khan had to do a lot of running and the effort began to tell. It was a tired shot that caused his downfall, coming after almost 100 minutes spent in the hot, humid conditions out in the middle.
After starting well and threatening to bat Zimbabwe out of the game, Pakistan lost six wickets in the last 10 overs, adding just 56 runs to the total in the process.
As it turned out, Pakistan had enough runs on the board. Waqar Younis, pumped up and running in with great rhythm knocked the stuffing out of the Zimbabwe top order. In the 8th over of the day, Waqar sent back both Trevor Gripper and Stuart Carlisle. Although Gripper would like to forget that particular moment, Waqar Younis will remember it for a long time to come as the wicket took him to 350 wickets in his 115th ODI. That's a strike rate that would make anyone proud. After an initial burst of 6-1-16-2 that left Zimbabwe reeling at 13/2 Waqar took himself and Akram out of the attack.
The second string of Pakistani bowlers, Abdur Razzaq and Azhar Mahmood are nowhere near as imposing as the men they took over from. The Zimbabweans too thought so, and the Flower brothers took full toll of this. Putting their heads together, Grant, with his booming drives and Andy with his delicate touches put together a partnership that gave Zimbabwe just a glimmer of hope. Stroking the ball freely into the gaps, the pair put on 146 for the third wicket before Wasim Akram stamped his authority on the game.
Brought back to bowl the 31st over, Akram sent down a maiden over, changing the tempo of the game. In his very next over, the 33rd, Akram deceived Andy Flower (48 runs, 60 balls, 3x4) getting the left-hander to chip back a return catch. A good diving catch in his followthrough saw Akram complete catch. Not content with removing Andy Flower, Akram sent Dion Ebrahim packing just two balls later. Welcoming Ebrahim to the crease with a quick yorker, Akram slipped in an away swinger next ball and induced the edge. Reacting extremely quickly, Rashid Latif snapped up the ball diving full length to his right.
Akram's burst had done the trick for Pakistan.
The matter was laid to rest well and truly when Azhar Mahmood stuck his hand out to field a drive from the blade of Douglas Marillier. Grant Flower backing up at the non-striker's end could only watch in dismay as the ball brushed Mahmood's hand and ricocheted onto the stumps. Falling just nine short of a well deserved ton, Grant Flower had spent 159 minutes out of the middle and struck 11 boundaries.
Using the old fashioned long-handle to good effect Marillier tonked the bowling around for 37 (43 balls, 1x4, 2x6) but could only delay the inevitable. As entertaining a knock as any played on the day, Marillier's innings showed that the lad had more than a bit of fighting spirit in him.
Returning to complete his spell at the death, Akram accounted for Brian Murphy, having the Zimbabwean captain caught behind. This took his figures to 9-3-19-3, a sterling effort. Fittingly, the end of the Zimbabwean innings came at 232 when a strong throw from Akram found Henry Olonga short of his ground.
The Akram-Waqar pair between them ended with the analysis 18.2-4-60-6. That made all the difference.