Bairstow fires England as Imam’s 151 goes in vain for Pakistan

Bristol: England won comfortably, of course they did. They were chasing, after all, and the last time they lost an ODI at home batting second, the word “Brexit” was almost as unfamiliar (and the event as unlikely) as the scale of transformation this England side has undergone since that dreadful World Cup campaign Down Under.

What were they chasing? It doesn’t really matter, though for the record, it was 359. England scoffed, as though merely posing the question was an insult to their abilities, and then, like a group of players with better things to do than dismantle Pakistan’s bowling attack, cakewalked to the finish line more than five overs ahead of time, having barely broke a sweat.

It looked like almost anyone in that top seven was capable of gunning down what was, after all, England’s second-highest successful chase ever, but they were grateful for a pair as marvellous as Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy. England had won 15 consecutive ODIs when chasing a total at home, and the two openers were a major reason for that record. By the second over, Roy’s twin boundaries had put Pakistan on the backfoot, and what followed was an hour and a half of such glorious hitting even the most churlish of Pakistan fans would have had to applaud.

Shaheen Shah Afridi dropping Roy was unquestionably a sliding doors moment, not just because of the devastation he wreaked thereafter but how simple the catch was. It plopped straight out of his hands at cover, and that may as well have been the match gone for Pakistan.

Every strike was pure, every stroke convincing. There were no half-measures; Imad Wasim, usually Pakistan’s economical option, was smashed for a straight six by Roy off his first ball and then again a couple of overs later, while Bairstow seemed to pick up any length thanks to a strong bottom hand and lift the ball over midwicket for regular boundaries. By the time the hundred was brought up in the 13th over with a swept Bairstow six off Imad, England still needed 260 runs to win, but the game had the sense of a foregone conclusion already.

It didn’t help the pitch was flat as a pancake, with no assistance whatsoever for the bowlers; one of the more amusing moments occurred after Hasan Ali swung a couple back into Bairstow, and took the surprised reaction of the batsman as an affront to his integrity. Pakistan’s fielding was sorely lacking, and the three simple catches they dropped didn’t help against an England side that needed no leg-up anyway. By the time Roy found the point fielder on 76, England had added 159 in 17.2 overs.

Bairstow continued to hammer away at some hapless bowling without fear of retaliation; nothing Pakistan did appeared to hamper him. When Sarfaraz Ahmed brought Haris Sohail into the attack, Bairstow launched him for successive sixes that led to the loss of at least one ball, bringing up the 200 with the same shot.

Bairstow eventually dragged on having raced to a remarkable 128 off 93 – he looked good for a double-hundred at one point – and Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali then took advantage of perfect batting practice conditions for what remained of the chase. There was never any real pressure, and Stokes found some of the aggression that has been missing in his game of late, while Root and Moeen played themselves into decent form. By the 45th over the chase was officially done, but in effect, England had had this game wrapped up a good couple of hours earlier.

Put in to bat, Pakistan’s 358 was a particular surprise given the architect of their big score in Southampton, Fakhar Zaman, was dismissed inside the first over, reverting to recent form and nicking the fourth ball he faced off Chris Woakes into the slips for a simple catch. The total owed itself to Fakhar’s more consistent (but less explosive) opening partner Imam-ul-Haq, whose splendid innings of 151 formed the backbone of the innings. Having lost Fakhar and, shortly after, Babar Azam to a brilliant spell of opening bowling from Woakes, Imam consolidated with the maturity of a seasoned professional with Haris at the other end, crucially ensuring Pakistan maintained a healthy run rate on a small ground and an excellent surface for batting.

Haris found some touch that should hold him in good stead for World Cup consideration, but a moment of carelessness may yet cost him. With the partnership standing at 68 and Haris having raced to 41, he cantered through for a single that was best run hard. Tom Curran sprinted the length of the pitch and sidefooted the ball, which cannoned into the stumps, replays showing Haris making no effort to stretch his bat into the crease. It cost him his wicket at a crucial time, and allowed England back into the game.

Asif Ali came in at six and immediately put the spotlight on the selectors’ decision to leave him out of the preliminary squad again. Moeen was lofted into the sightscreen to get him going, and from there onwards, Asif got stuck in. Pakistan’s run rate picked up in a partnership that amassed 125 runs in 90 balls, with Asif posting a career-best 52 off 43, his second half-century in as many games.

Imam wasn’t taking a backseat by any means, though, his thoughts having squarely turned to his sixth ODI hundred. Plunkett was worked away for successive boundaries to move Imam through to the 90s, and a whip off the pads got him through to three figures. It was then that he properly cut loose, smashing the final 51 runs off 35 balls. The feisty cockiness that endears and enrages so many in Pakistan had found its way back into his game, a kiss blown in David Willey’s direction following a tonked six over long-on unlikely to have enamoured him to the Bristol crowd.

They could make their peace, though, with the revenge England dished out thereafter, and Pakistan can walk away wondering what indeed might have been enough to keep England at bay. Next up? Trent Bridge, the land of 481 and 444. Pakistan’s bowlers have been forewarned, but what they can do to be forearmed is anybody’s guess.

AlamulKhabar Sports