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Match Analysis

Welcome aboard the Pakistan rollercoaster: don't try to understand it, just enjoy it

It makes no sense, follows no script, and laughs in the face of conventional wisdom, but Pakistan are somehow in the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
06-Nov-2022
If the only value of bilateral T20I cricket lies in the opportunity to make the right tweaks ahead of the upcoming T20 World Cup, then Pakistan spent the last year wasting everyone's time. They built in seven (7!) games against England, ostensibly to experiment with the top order, only for Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan to open in six of them.
They wanted to trial Shadab Khan further up the order, but he wouldn't bat once in the top four. When, in a tri-series against New Zealand (yet more T20Is!) they did try Shadab in the top four, he whacked Ish Sodhi around for fun. It suddenly made so much sense. So of course, they didn't bat him there again next game. Like against India in the Asia Cup, where Mohammad Nawaz had come in at number 4 and sensationally won Pakistan a match they looked to be stuttering in. He wouldn't bat there again all tournament.
We didn't understand this side well enough, though, you see. Rizwan and Babar always had to open because they were Specialist Chasers™. It didn't matter whether the total was 140 or 200, these two were built to run it down. Never mind that Babar and Rizwan are what you might imagine the opposite of Marilyn Monroe to be: if you couldn't live with them at their worst batting first, you didn't deserve them at their best batting second.
So the first game Pakistan chased at this World Cup, they had Babar and Rizwan up top, of course. They threw in Shan Masood, too, because it never hurts to have too many anchors, right? And they were set 130 by Zimbabwe, a chase so built for anchors it was almost offensive. It was all set up so beautifully for Pakistan it was too tempting not to fluff this up. No World Cup is as valuable as brand reinforcement and narrative consistency, so naturally, Pakistan fell short by one run.
It was their second defeat of the tournament, and they sat dolefully at the bottom of a group containing Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, less than a fortnight after they had lifted a T20 tri-series trophy in New Zealand. The first defeat, too, came in the most characteristic fashion, complete with a top order failure, a middle order salvage, and a lower-order slap and dash to perfectly set their fast bowlers up to defend 160. They duly put India to the sword, and pretty much the game to bed, only for Virat Kohli to play the T20I innings of his life and deny Pakistan at the last.
The match against the Netherlands was that one clinical game Pakistan sometimes have when they've stunk a place up so much everyone's left, and therefore no one's watching to put any pressure on them. Haris Rauf hit Bas de Leede in the face, Mohammad Rizwan's strike rate finally realised 100 isn't the speed limit, and there was some wholesome content to be had from Haris giving de Leede some encouraging words and a cuddle.
Just like 2007 and 2009, though, Pakistan suddenly discovered the value of the low-value wicket up top, and the futility of anchors in this format. Fakhar Zaman's injury saw them replace him in the squad with Mohammad Haris. He's a man who has travelled alongside the team without playing so much he might have been mistaken for a hanger-on, the sort of person sports stars end up stuck with and don't know how to shake off.
Pakistan had the entirety of the Asia Cup, the seven matches against England, and the tri-series in New Zealand to figure out if this Haris bloke might be any use to them. They gave him all of eight balls in those 18 T20Is. He tried to hit the ball too much, took far too many risks, and looked like he had never met the forward defensive shot in his life. How would he play against high-class fast bowling in Australia? No, thank you, out you go.
Having made that judgment call, there was only one thing to do. "You want to play a World Cup, boy? Here you go, you play tomorrow."
Not against the Netherlands or Zimbabwe to get settled in. "We play South Africa tomorrow, and good news, you're playing. We'll stick you right there in the top order, just after Rizwan or Babar get out for a strike rate so low it might even shock Temba Bavuma. There'll be lots of pressure to get runs quickly. You like to do that, yeah? Well, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje like to test out how strong helmets are. Let's see who wins."
Even Wayne Parnell smacks him on the grill second ball. But the six balls he faces off Nortje and Rabada see him plunder 22 runs. Pakistan have hit one powerplay six all tournament; Haris smashes three in 11 balls. Pakistan realise attacking cricket can also be quite fun, an epiphany that neatly escaped them through the scores of build-up T20 games they had been playing. Iftikhar Ahmed and Shadab wallop everything, their 103 runs coming off a combined 57 balls. They blow South Africa away, a side that was top of the group, just beat India last game and thrashed Bangladesh by 104 runs.
"There's perhaps no point talking about rebuilding for 2024 when this World Cup comes to an end, because Pakistan rebuild on the hoof, right in the middle of World Cup campaigns"
Rizwan's consistency over the past two years means there's no template for how to play when he isn't fit and firing. For all the criticism around his alleged conservatism, he has spent the last two years before this World Cup averaging 64.51 and striking at 131.89. It prompts Pakistan to brush aside all criticism and stick with him as their man up top. So, across five innings, here, his average drops to 20.60, and he's striking at 100, the lowest among all players at this World Cup to have faced over 100 balls.
It is almost impudent for Pakistan to have the cheek to dream of a semi-final spot with their T20 setup in this state, but here in Adelaide, the Netherlands have just beaten South Africa. It is close to the only thing that could keep Pakistan in the hunt, and just about encapsulates Pakistan perfectly. The form team of last year's World Cup, with the number one ranked opening batter in the world, bowlers so fast and skilful it's almost unfair to stock them all into one team, preparation so exhaustive it could generate performances through muscle memory alone. And yet, their hopes come down to a sleepy, sunwashed Adelaide morning, and how well a 38-year-old Stephen Myburgh playing his last match can attack Kagiso Rabada, or how fast Roloef van der Merwe can run backwards to dismiss David Miller.
They still have their own work to do, needing to beat Bangladesh, and are well on their way with the ball. But Babar and Rizwan almost parody themselves as they inch their way along, an alarmed Pakistan fanbase watching the asking rate rise ominously up. Even Mohammad Nawaz, who's shot up to three ahead of Haris for no discernible reason can only manage 4 off 11. Haris comes in and whacks just enough to break the back of the low-scoring total because, surprise, that is what hitters with a license to slog do. Shadab, of course, has been shunted far down again, but who can really keep up anymore?
This team's in the semi-final, folks. It makes no sense, follows no script, laughs in the face of so much received wisdom we've come to learn about T20 cricket. There's perhaps no point talking about rebuilding for 2024 when this World Cup comes to an end, because Pakistan rebuild on the hoof, right in the middle of World Cup campaigns. And they've made it to six out of eight T20 World Cup semi-finals doing that, a feat unmatched by any other side.
You really can't understand Pakistan cricket. You can only enjoy it. And on days like today in Adelaide, that can seem ever so easy.

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