The Pakistan players are on their knees, some sprawled on the ground, all of them shattered after the cruel finality with which Australia - of course it's Australia - have aborted their campaign prematurely. Imran Khan
rambles on sometimes, but now he chooses his words carefully: "To Babar Azam & the team: I know exactly how all of you are feeling right now bec[ause] I have faced similar disappointments on the cricket field," he tweeted. He knew what he was talking about.
It might sound a bit platitudinous but that is the current prime minister of Pakistan actually baring a bit of his soul. He doesn't follow cricket with any great interest anymore; he hasn't for a decade. But it's likely the memories of the 1987 World Cup semi-final
were swirling around in his head after Thursday's game, awakened generations after he thought he had put them to rest.
That was what Imran, at that time, thought would be his final World Cup, and Pakistan were well on their way to the final. They were up against Australia, who should have held no special fear for that Pakistan side, not in Lahore, not in 1987. Imran himself was in splendid form, the pick of the bowlers, but as captain he ended up leaving an off-colour Saleem Jaffar
to bowl the 50th over. Steve Waugh
plundered 18 runs off it.
Four hours later, Pakistan lost by 18 runs.
There was just one link between that Pakistan side and the one in 1999, when Pakistan took Australia on in the World Cup final
. Wasim Akram was captain now, and he won the toss and opted to bat.
This was a different kind of heartbreak. Pakistan and Australia had played one out a classic in the group stage, where Akram had broken the game open at the death, powering Pakistan to a pulsating ten-run win. In the final, Pakistan were cut to ribbons by Shane Warne
and Glenn McGrath
in what remains, in terms of balls remaining, the most one-sided knockout game in World Cup history. Australia won with almost 30 overs to spare. Against, arguably, Pakistan's most gifted white-ball side.
But it was the 2010 T20 World Cup semi-final
- Michael Hussey
vs Saeed Ajmal
- that really defined the build-up to this latest one, a game that brought that historical heartache to the T20 generation, and the 21st century. That was a game Pakistan controlled for 39 of the 40 overs, only for Hussey to send Ajmal into the stands three times in that final over to send Australia into raptures, and Pakistan back home.
If those memories had been on Babar Azam
's mind, he would have hoped to avoid them, on Thursday evening in Dubai, especially when, as in St Lucia, Australia won the toss and opted to field.
This has been a T20 World Cup defined by the numbers, the extensive data-driven approach finally given the inclusive embrace it deserved. Pakistan, one of the latest adopters of the revolution, have benefited. On the night, even where the match-ups might have indicated otherwise, Pakistan, somehow, seemed to be edging the big moments. Fakhar Zaman
took on Australia's best death bowler and hammered 27 in seven balls to close out Pakistan's innings at 176, the highest first-innings total in Dubai all tournament.
, as Shane Watson reminded everyone from the commentary box, averaged 173 against left-arm pace, but was trapped in front first ball by Shaheen Shah Afridi
had seen off the early hostility and looked imperious against Pakistan's slower bowlers, greeting both Mohammad Hafeez
's double-bouncing first ball and Shadab Khan
's first with sixes.
Warner had little reason to fear Shadab, he hadn't been dismissed by a legspinner all year. But he then appeared to nick Shadab through to Mohammad Rizwan and walked, another numbers-defying turn as the game twisted and turned to its climax. The irony as Australia coach Justin Langer
's face appeared on the big screen was delicious: in a famous chase against Pakistan in Hobart in 1999
, Langer had been reprieved by the umpire after clearly edging behind; he famously went on to blame a "clicky bat handle".
Here now, Pakistan were on top. The little scraps of fortune and the inherent randomness of knockout matches in T20 cricket were falling Pakistan's way, and we're not even getting into the impregnable numbers Pakistan did have on their side. Until Thursday, they had only lost two games defending a higher total in T20Is, and never in the UAE. Indeed, they sat pretty on a 16-match T20I winning streak in the UAE; the last time they lost here in this format, Babar was yet to play a single T20I.
However, those aren't numbers that felt like they matter in a fixture that, from a Pakistan perspective, history seems to cast a long, cursed shadow upon. The only numbers going around in a loop across Pakistan were 1987, 1999, and of course, 2010. Three generations of Pakistan cricket followers have at least one story to tell about World Cup heartbreak at Australia's hands. And when you have been holding on to trauma that long and deep-seated, no amount of favourable Afridi match-ups at the death are likely to comfort you. The only match-up that matters is Australia vs Pakistan in a knockout game, and it doesn't favour Pakistan.
Pakistan's reputation of unpredictability carries the concomitant implications of carefree, uncomplicated cricket that doesn't dwell too much on the past, but this fixture gives the lie to that myth. As Marcus Stoinis
and Matthew Wade
struck up that wondrous sixth-wicket partnership to plot, and complete, the heist, Pakistan's fielders looked gripped by a sort of angst absent earlier, over five-and-a-half matches. Long before Pakistan missed run-out chance after run-out chance to leave Australia alive in the contest, Pakistan played as if aware of the weight of history against them. Indeed, long before Hasan Ali
conceded 12 and 15 in his last two overs - and dropped the Wade catch that will likely make him the scapegoat - Pakistan looked like a team that wanted to get over the line, rather than one that knew what it had to do to do it.
A slightly wayward bit of fielding at fine leg had seen Babar, normally composed in the field, lose his temper and remonstrate sharply with nobody in particular, while any boundary would be followed up by lengthy crowded huddles around the bowler's run-up. Pakistan were firmly on top, but Hussey or Waugh or Warne, in some form, seemed to be pulling this game's strings.
So when Afridi was brought on for that penultimate over, the game still hung in the balance, but by now Australia's conviction almost felt palpable. Eleven years ago, when Pakistan had brought on their best bowler against a middle-order finisher, Hussey had gone 6, 6, 4, 6 to put Ajmal on his knees. Wade went one better, following that reprieve with three sixes to seal the game, and passing on that old trauma to yet another generation of Pakistani cricket followers.
Lahore 1987, Lord's 1999, St Lucia 2010, and even Hobart and Sydney
- 1999 and 2010 respectively - each broke Pakistan cricket in their own unique ways. And Pakistan cricket never really healed because it was easier to pretend they had never been broken in the first place. And so Australia knew how to break Pakistan again and again.
Dubai 2021 is another one to add to a catalogue that Pakistan will try to shove away to the back of the mind. One day, they will hope to close that catalogue, for good. Until then, though, that grip Australia have over Pakistan in World Cups will only grow tighter, straddling the length of the country, right up to the prime minister's doorstep.