Sharjah: Australia 281 for 2 (Finch 116, Marsh 91*) beat Pakistan 280 for 5 (Haris 101*, Coulter-Nile 2-61 ) by eight wickets. The way Pakistan paced their innings after opting to bat first, it seemed they had complete control over the target they wanted to set. As it turned out, the figure they settled on – 280 – was well below par.
In an insipid performance in the field in sharp contrast to Australia’s clarity of purpose, Pakistan wilted under the Sharjah lights and the brilliance of the opposition captain Aaron Finch. Finch struck 116 to put his side on the brink, and just like Pakistan, had complete control over the pace of his side’s innings. Australia batted like a team well aware Pakistan were short, and chased it down without much stutter, with an over and eight wickets still in hand.
It was a surface with nothing in it for the bowlers, and frankly, not much for the viewers either. The lack of balance between ball and bat and the slowness of the surfaces meant there was little the bowlers could do to disturb the batsmen’s rhythm, and resultantly alter the tempo of the game. While Pakistan maintained a run rate well below five for the first half of the innings, Australia were proactive in the first ten, going at better than a run-a-ball. It didn’t help that Imad Wasim went for 13 in his first over; Shoaib Malik may have relied on him to contain the Australia batsmen much like Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon had done, but that lifted any pressure Australia may have felt. And from that point onwards, the game was played wholly on Australia’s terms.
Shaun Marsh may perhaps have been fortunate to be given a start today, given he managed just 29 in the three games, but he was nothing short of sublime here. Early in the innings, he smashed Mohammad Abbas for a six over long-on, settling some of the nerves. It was one of just five boundaries he struck all through his unbeaten 90, but he was perfectly content playing second fiddle to the more bellicose Finch, and happy to rotate the strike, which was just what the chase required.
If this was an audition for Yasir Shah and Mohammad Amir ahead of the World Cup, they will be glad Pakistan will play four more ODIs this series. Amir was the most expensive of the bowlers without being able to penetrate, a chronic problem for him ever since the Champions Trophy win nearly two years ago now. When he was brought into the attack just after the 40th over, Finch carted him for six off his first ball back; it was an eloquent representation of the sort of ineffectual day he had. It was off him in the penultimate over that Marsh scored the winning runs, a boundary followed by a rushed two through midwicket sealing the win.Similarly, Yasir conceded 56 from his ten while at no point threatening a breakthrough, illustrating why despite his recent struggles Shadab Khan remains Pakistan’s most valuable limited-overs spin option.
Pakistan paid the price for a thoroughly circumspect first innings. They kept wickets in hand, built partnerships and rotated the strike. Haris Sohail‘s maiden ODI hundred was the anchor the innings was built around, but there is little question Pakistan left plenty of runs out there, arguably slow to move through the gears even as Australia’s bowlers posed no discernible threat to them. The early loss of Imam-ul-Haq, who spooned the ball back to Nathan Lyon – introduced as early as the seventh over – may have contributed to the caution. Shan Masood and Sohail guided the innings along sedately before the only rash, ugly shot from Masood found off stump instead of the middle of his bat.
How Umar Akmal would perform was one of the major intrigues from Pakistan’s perspective. He was sent in at No. 4, at a crucial phase in the innings. But Umar showed he was up to the responsibility, keeping Haris company as they kept the run rate from falling too far behind. One ill-judged swipe early in the innings landed just short of the fielder, but the highlight was the treatment he meted out to Jhye Richardson. In the 28th over, with the run rate having dipped to almost under four, Umar carted Richardson for three sixes on the leg side, providing the tempo the innings had lacked till that point. The third-wicket partnership did exactly what Pakistan needed it to do, but when Pakistan might have wanted Umar to kick on, a top edge to Nathan Coulter-Nile brought his downfall. He had been two runs short of a half-century at almost a run-a-ball, and the partnership itself was two shy of three figures.
Malik and Faheem Ashraf came in for handy cameos with the ever-present Sohail content to play a supporting role from the other end. Plagued by injuries over the years, he has often looked like he could be the solution to several problems Pakistan face in the middle overs, and if that troublesome knee is kept from flaring up again, his place in the middle order looks assured for the World Cup.
It wasn’t until the 50th over that Sohail completed his hundred, but the man who ensured Pakistan got close to the 300 they must have targeted was Imad Wasim. Just as he had done against South Africa, he attacked from the moment he was at the crease, particularly strong square of the wicket on either side. His unbeaten 28 off 13 was by far the best strike rate among the Pakistan batsmen.
In the end, however, Pakistan batted with that carefree aggression far too infrequently, and Australia’s bowlers had done a good enough job containing them to a total very much within their batsmen’s reach.