From splitting opinions to tearing into NZ: Haris, Asif push Pakistan towards semi-finals
After the golden boys delivered against India, it was the turn of a late-blooming tearaway and a six-hitting supremo
"Afridi, Afridi, Afridi!" roared the Sharjah crowd as the star of Pakistan's thumping win against India bounded in with the new ball. If anyone needed a reminder that the UAE is Pakistan's home away from home, Tuesday night provided it: this was their 13th consecutive T20I win in the Emirates and secured their newly-found status as favourites for this World Cup.
Sunday night's demolition in Dubai was set up by the three golden boys of Pakistan cricket: Shaheen Shah Afridi, the smiling assassin, and the elegant, diminutive partnership of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. Perfectly fittingly given the shift 40 miles up the main road to Sharjah's rickety old ground with its peeling paintwork and low stands, this was the turn of two players who have split opinion more than most: Haris Rauf, the late-blooming tearaway, and Asif Ali, the six-hitting supremo.
Asif has long been a favourite of data and stats analysts for his boundary-hitting record, particularly at the death: his career strike rate in all T20 cricket is 148.14, and he has hit almost as many sixes (241) as fours (269). But there has remained a perception that Asif is a flat-track bully - a gun in domestic cricket who lacks the temperament, skill or power to step up to international level.
The argument is surely deficient. He has dominated in the PSL, where the condensed talent pool and depth of fast bowling makes finishing the innings a remarkably tough role, but his T20I numbers - an average of 16.38 and a strike rate of 123.74 heading into this tournament - were ugly. There were mitigating circumstances, like a lack of role clarity and a turbulent period off the field including the loss of his infant daughter in 2019, but trial by social media offers little room for nuance.
On Tuesday night, Asif changed run chase in two balls. Demoted to No. 7, with Imad Wasim pushed up the order to create a left/right-hand partnership with Shoaib Malik, Asif walked in with 48 required from 31 balls on a slow pitch with low bounce, which rendered power-hitting difficult. He carved his first ball away for four, slapping a cut off Trent Boult past backward point, but the second and third ball of the 17th over made the difference.
Pakistan needed 36 off 23 when Tim Southee ran in, and Asif gambled. He set himself for a slower ball, sitting deep in his crease and crouching low in order to get underneath the ball. Southee duly obliged, missing his length and finding the slot; Asif creamed him back over his head into the VIP seats.
The stock response would have been a back-of-a-length, pace-on ball, but - perhaps wary of Asif's record against pace at the death - Southee doubled down. He jammed in another cutter, this time slightly shorter, and Asif camped on the back foot. He swung cross-batted, heaving the ball up, up and away. In Dubai, he would have been caught at long-on; in Sharjah, he found the tenth row of the stand.
That brought the equation down to 24 off 21 but Southee responded well. Asif struggled to connect with his quicker balls, struck on the pad by one and missing another, before top-edging a bouncer into his grille. He was visibly shaken and twice received treatment, but refused to let it stop him: with eight required, he clubbed Boult back over his head for six, then threaded him through extra cover and set off in celebration.
Fittingly, Asif's destruction of Southee demonstrated the value of Rauf's pace. Southee has a proud T20I record - he became only the third man to reach 100 wickets in the format - but at 32, his quicker ball is generally no quicker than 83mph/134kph. That lack of genuine ball-speed means that batters feel comfortable sitting back in their crease waiting for the slower ball at the death, as Asif proved.
Against Rauf, by contrast, batters do not have that option. He started his spell with a vicious 93mph/149kph yorker to Martin Guptill, before bowling him via the thigh pad with a 92mph/148kph length ball, banged into the pitch. At the death, the resultant fear factor made his slower balls - which were clocked in the region of 80mph/130kph, not far off Southee's quicker balls - deadly: according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, he took wickets with three of the four slower balls he bowled.
When the last men's T20 World Cup was staged in 2016, Rauf had never bowled with a hard ball; in Sharjah, he delivered a masterclass in hard lengths. Length is the key for seamers at this ground, where the low bounce means that back-of-a-length balls skid on towards the top of the stumps. Rauf adjusted accordingly, pounding away and looking to hit batters in the thigh-pad region: exactly half of his balls were short of a good length, and those 12 deliveries brought him three wickets and cost five runs off the bat.
Rauf knows better than most that slot balls are a fast bowler's worst nightmare in T20 cricket: just think back to July, when he missed his length and disappeared 122 metres over his own head when Liam Livingstone cleared the football stand at Headingley. He has never been renowned for using his slower ball, but appears to trust it enough to be effective; at this early stage in the tournament, he has five wickets in eight overs while conceding less than a run a ball.
Pakistan won this game at the death, both with bat and ball. After 13 overs of each innings, New Zealand were 90 for 3 and then restricted Pakistan to 75 for 4, but Rauf and then Asif blew them away. The jokes have already started - wouldn't it be typical of Pakistan to beat India and New Zealand then lose to Namibia and Scotland? - but they already have one foot in the semi-finals and in conditions that they know all too well, there is no reason to doubt their credentials.
Pakistan might struggle in Australia next year but here in the UAE they have everything they need to compete: legspin, offspin and left-arm spin, genuine pace, right-arm reverse-swing and the best left-arm seamer in the world - not to mention a world-class opening pair and six-hitters throughout their middle order. This win was a statement of intent: do not take this team lightly.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98