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Match Analysis

A night for the Pakistan Star and Crescent

Babar and Imam helped seal the highest chase in their ODI history against a team that has routinely tormented them

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Babar Azam cracks the ball over backward point, Pakistan vs Australia, 2nd ODI, Lahore, March 31, 2022

Babar Azam produced a match-winning century  •  AFP/Getty Images

You can't miss it as you approach the Liberty Roundabout on the way to Gaddafi Stadium. Australian flags are being hawked as spectators, only at a trickle in the searing heat of day, trudge towards the venue. A few stop, purchase the little flag adorned by the Union Jack, the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross, and continue their march towards their section. It's just another facet of an unusually affable tour, but by now, it must also be nice to feel like you're supporting a side that actually wins.
A month after this historic series began and less than a week before it concludes, the side representing that flag are the only ones to have tasted triumph so far. Pakistan are yet to pick up a win, and Aaron Finch's golden duck aside, Australia start in a manner that suggests the streak won't be broken today. As the sun retreats beneath Gaddafi's iconic horizontal columns and the shadows begin to encroach over more of the venue's seating capacity, the stadium begins to fill up. The green and white of the Pakistani flag is ubiquitous, of course, but every now and then, flashes of the Blue Ensign are visible.
It's a different shade of blue that's a hallmark of Pakistan's fiercest rivals, but the ones who've given this side the most to resent play under this flag; their resplendent yellow immediately evocative of myriad traumas and heartbreaks. This Australia side has beaten Pakistan in each of the last 10 ODIs stretching back to 2017; as they amass 348 at the halfway stage, it's impossible to see how that won't stretch to 11.
Pakistan begin at the sort of leisurely pace that would make you think they were chasing something closer to 250 than 350. Which, in this country, is all they've known against Australia; Pakistan's highest chase at home against these visitors is 251. When Fakhar Zaman survives a superb attempt at a catch from Marcus Stoinis on the boundary, it feels, as early as the fifth over, like a moment that's kept the game - and series - alive.
Fakhar is the variable in this side, the wrecking ball who can make a mockery of bowlers, targets, and precedent in general. Which is handy, because with Pakistan on a 16-match winless streak against Australia across formats, precedent will very much need to be mocked if the Gaddafi faithful are, for once, going to go home happy.
Fakhar churns through the gears, putting the pressure back on this inexperienced bowling line-up. It's worth remembering none of the frontline seamers are part of a first-choice Australian XI, and they need not become magically scarier just because they've got that green and gold top on. Imam-ul-Haq, meanwhile, has kept his strike rate well out in front because he is - in that gloriously Pakistani way - under pressure despite scoring 103 at a strike rate of 107 in a chase of 314 on Tuesday. On that evening, he was dressed down publicly by the Pakistan captain Babar Azam after he got out, with Babar believing he could have taken the game right through to the finish.
"In the last match when he got out, I wanted him to take the game deeper because he was the set batter," Babar said after this game. "A set batter can change the game and help out the other batters. So I was just telling him he could have kept going. Today we kept saying we didn't want to leave it to anyone else and get as many of the runs as we could."
This time around, Babar's at the other end when Imam gets to yet another hundred, and the aggression in Imam's celebration is unmistakable as a signal of intent. The stadium roars as one alongside Imam, while his captain rushes over to embrace him. Babar clearly knew how to draw a positive reaction from his long-time friend, who now has nine ODI hundreds in just 48 innings. He's just one ODI hundred behind a certain famous relative, who it's perhaps best to leave unnamed for once.
With Pakistan well on course two-thirds of the way into the chase, Gaddafi begins to believe again. Babar's leading from the front even as Imam falls soon after, smashing, nay, caressing, six boundaries off 11 balls as he charges towards yet another hundred, dismantling both legspinners and Sean Abbott along the way.
"The credit goes to the whole team, who put in a phenomenal effort. We gave a few too many runs away, but the way Fakhar and Imam started gave us the momentum back. Then Imam and I continued the momentum. Wickets in hand always give you and the incoming batters confidence. There are ups and downs but we never stop believing."
It's hard to say the Lahoris packed into the stadium always share that conviction. The hot afternoon had given way to a pleasant late March night, and while you might expect the crowd to thin out as the finish approached, Pakistanis know enough about Australia to recognise a game that isn't finished. And sure enough, when Babar and Mohammad Rizwan fall in quick succession and Nathan Ellis squeezes in a tight over, Pakistan need 27 off 18, and heartache briefly looms large once more.
Khushdil ensures Pakistan needn't suffer exposure therapy anymore, perhaps masking concerns about the middle order for one more game. This might not be anywhere near Australia's full-strength side, but Pakistan have achieved their highest ever ODI chase, and it's come against a group of players wearing a top that says "Australia". The shot in the arm it gives them will not be diminished by the fact the visitors have been hampered by unavailability due to injuries, Covid-19 and IPL contracts.
It's unlikely, too, to bother an exultant Gaddafi stadium, where people of all age groups now head for the exits. Young children and seasoned veterans know equally well the pain of watching this side beat theirs in the most soul-crushing manner, and the smiles on their faces show they do not take what just happened for granted.
The Southern Cross is put aside for now. This is a night for the Star and Crescent.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000