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Amir and Shadab make Pakistan smile again

They only played together in two of Pakistan's 11 losses in a row, and their tandem act contributed significantly to ending that losing streak

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
No wise man ever said that legspin and left-arm pace make the world right. Let's just say that that speaks more to the wisdom of Pakistani men in particular, given how right their world has always looked with one of each.
The simple fact of Mohammad Amir and Shadab Khan playing together in only two of Pakistan's 11 losses in a row was not an insignificant contributor to their world being so wrong recently. Since the Champions Trophy final, where both were so key, they've played together in less than half of Pakistan's ODIs. And the fact that they finally both bowled against England was, it follows, a fairly significant contributor to the ending of that losing streak.
The pair took four wickets between them including the two, five overs apart, of Joe Root and Jos Buttler. That was the winning of the game. It was a collective bowling triumph - this was a bowling side that had the second-highest average coming into the World Cup and worst strike rate (from January 2018). They were also, on average, taking the fewest wickets per match.
Hasan Ali was in a rut, Shaheen Afridi's youth was catching up with him, Mohammad Hasnain was exciting but the time when rawness worked as surprise was gone two decades ago, and Wahab Riaz was on holiday until two weeks ago. This wasn't an attack that looked like it could defend 348 precisely because it hadn't only earlier this month.
But the individual wins can't be ignored. Amir had gone through a drought unlike any in his career, and it had driven him mad - as much from the criticism as from the frustrations of bowling adequately but not picking up wickets. Who'd have blamed him if he thought he was undergoing some kind of karmic retribution, now that the legal toll had been taken?
The headline was that he swung that first ball and boy did he ever swing it, full and late, curving in and turning Jonny Bairstow, for one ball only, into a tailender. For many Pakistani fans, that alone was worth the admission price and they won't be the only ones who will cling to its memory: at some point in this tournament, even if it is for just that first over, it'll be something Amir and whoever he is bowling to will remember.
The swing went quickly, but only for Amir to unveil the non-sexy bits. He's always been a sharp reader of contests and batsmen, just that everything else has often overshadowed that. One instance was the set-up of Root. Two balls angled across him to start, but neither wide enough to let him breathe out, a quick, accurate bouncer to squeeze harder, another angled across but no room so that an inside-edged boundary was and wasn't an exhale, and then the mirage: fuller and wider. Come and get me, I'm your oxygen.
It played on a pattern in Root's career, having worked him into a state before doing it. Babar Azam dropping it at slip was the fingerprint on this otherwise perfect, gleaming black mirror, but the dismissal of Buttler later was plenty consolation. Amir, unafraid to go wide despite having been twice slice-driven over mid-off off such deliveries, went this time with a cutter and so got a little extra bounce for the edge - both those sliced fours had come soon after Buttler was beaten by almost this exact delivery.
One of the more curious observations about Amir since his return has come from Mickey Arthur, that Amir is a big-game gun. It's curious because such assessments sound glib and reductive, and yet you see Amir as he was at Trent Bridge - the opponent, the crowd, the occasion - and you think maybe there's something to it. He was completely on, the eyes alive, body and mind primed, the pace up. It's a tiny sample size, because Pakistan don't play that many big games: a couple against India, some Tests in England, but in those games is not the Amir 2.0 seen and bemoaned on many other days.
Shadab, in plainer words, is a wonder, and his impact right through England's chase reaffirmed this. He's Sarfaraz Ahmed's go-to guy in the early death overs, and here again his three from the 39th to 43rd, for just 13 runs (plus Root's wicket), were game-breaking. He concedes just 4.66 per over from overs 36 to 45, and among spinners who've bowled in at least 20 innings in that phase since his debut, only Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman (who have bowled a lot more overs against lower-quality opponents) have been more economical.
It was those opening overs, though, where he self-corrected so quickly after a poor first over, that speak of the expanse of his gifts. He doesn't like bowling with the new ball and the few times he's done it - in T20s - results have been mixed enough for him to not be especially confident about it. Neither can it have been easy to be the second legspinner to open against England in this tournament, the element of surprise long gone, and the chances of ending up a cheap, desperate imitation high. Still he pulled it off.
Intriguingly he bowled only six googlies, intriguing because his wrong 'un is a really good 'un, and the days of using it sparingly to retain mystery are long past us. The white-ball googly is as abundant as it is successful. But he made up for it with what appears to be a new variation, one he is said to have been working on ever since Thisara Perera hit him for 22 in four balls in Lahore nearly two years ago.
Shahid Afridi had a fun quicker ball but he generally delivered that seam-up, and it doubled up as a reminder that he could've been a proper fast bowler. Shadab's been taking tips from Afridi but on close observation, the quick ball that did for Joe Root - 69mph - seemed to be delivered as a leg-break, or leg-cutter; that is, difficult as hell to pull off.
To do it at the moment that he did - Root already on 107 and the game tipping wildly towards England - was a moment of genius. Won't be his last either.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo