Taunton: A wild, seesawing game that always seemed just a little too far out of Pakistan’s reach proved to be just that at the end, with Australia wrapping up a 41-run victory that was far nervier than the scorecard suggested. It came about thanks to a century from David Warner at the top end, coupled with generosity to the point of self-sacrifice from Pakistan both with the ball and in the field. Australia were so far on top in the first half of the first innings, talk of 350 and 400 rolled easily off the tongue, until a vintage performance from Mohammad Amircurtailed them to 307, his five-for bowling out a side that hadn’t lost a single wicket for 22 overs.
Pakistan, in response, oscillated between dismal and distinguished. Babar Azam looked princely for a knock that lasted all of 28 deliveries, before an 80-run partnership between Imam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez looked to have put Pakistan on top. Another collapse, this one entirely of Pakistan’s own making, followed, before a late rearguard by Hasan Ali and Wahab Riaz put the fear of God into Australia. They usually win such games, however, and Pakistan tend to find a way to lose them. In that sense – but strictly in that sense alone – this was business as usual.
This was such a disjointed game it’s hard to know where to pick it up and thread it all together. Was it Warner’s knock, the shackles that bound him so tightly against India (mostly) thrown off, the innings that set the tone for the day? Certainly not, in all frankness. Pakistan dropped catches, allowed overthrows, and committed errors in the field which were criminal enough to have interested the local constabulary, not just Mickey Arthur. In the meantime, they had Shaheen Afridi endure one of the worst games of his career, undoing much of the good work the excellent Amir had done at the other end with the new ball. At first change, Hasan didn’t enjoy a much better day either, and with no semblance of a plan Pakistan’s bowlers were following, Aaron Finch and Warner made hay for the best part of half the innings.
Finch benefitted the most from sloppiness in the field, which saw Asif Ali put him down in the slips. It was a position he should never have been fielding in, but Babar was deputising at point for Shadab Khan, controversially left out altogether in favour of an all-seam attack and Hafeez and Shoaib Malik in the middle order. Wahab also saw Warner put down by the same man at third man, an even easier take if possible, and with Hafeez struggling badly against Finch and Glenn Maxwell, Pakistan were running out of players to turn to.
Amir was superb, in sharp contrast to his team-mates. He seemed to know exactly what would work on this surface, and that is a trait of Amir’s that hasn’t quite been appreciated of late, with the focus more squarely on why he wasn’t picking up wickets. He managed to fulfil roles of both container and strike bowler in one – and boy did he need to. It wasn’t until his final over, where he took two wickets and bowled Australia out, that he completed his five-for, remarkably the first of his ODI career. In an innings that saw 307 runs scored, his figures read 10-2-30-5.
Pakistan might have taken heart from that second half of the first innings, but all of that seemed to have been lost in the lunch interval. Australia started tightly, save a first-ball no-ball that shouldn’t have been called. By the third over, Fakhar Zaman’s patience had run out, and he lashed out at Pat Cummins, only succeeding in slicing the ball to third man, in a similar position to where Asif had put Warner down a couple of hours earlier. Richardson on the boundary was far more ruthless, and Pakistan immediately found themselves on the back foot.
Babar was the big hope, and if shots counted for more based on their elegance and beauty, Pakistan might have wrapped this up in the 28 balls he was around. They fetched seven fours, each more graceful than the last, and it appeared as if this would be the day Babar stood tall in a World Cup game and became the de facto leader of this young side. What he did instead was painful to see, no matter who you supported, throwing away a start of that kind by pulling loosely at a short delivery that carried to fine leg.The following partnership was the last time Pakistan could aspire to win the game through normal cricketing strategy. Imam and Hafeez were well in control in the middle overs. Mitchell Starc had been seen off, and when brought back, was seen off once more. But Australia persisted with tactics they had clearly worked on, Cummins frustrating Imam down the leg side until the opener swiped at one and gloved through to Alex Carey instead. Hafeez’s dismissal was even more farcical, with the right-hander holing out off a knee-high Finch full toss on the midwicket boundary, and when Shoaib and Asif fell within the next three overs, a big defeat looked inevitable.
What followed was what will in hindsight make this game memorable, a breezy cameo from Hasan taking Pakistan to 200. Sarfaraz Ahmed and Wahab then found themselves batting out time for a while, before suddenly appearing to realise they had taken the game deep, and with run rate not really an issue, were in with a shot of winning it. That was when Wahab took the attack to Maxwell using a concoction of luck and brute force, waking the heavily pro-Pakistan crowd up to the same epiphany. The target was under 50, the asking rate under seven. Would this finally happen for Pakistan?
Australia, however, had quashed such a revolution just last week, when West Indies came much closer to threatening an unlikely win. As they had done then, they turned the ball over to Starc. In his second over back, he coaxed a feathered edge from Wahab, so faint Finch nearly didn’t review Australia’s unsuccessful appeal. Amir was beaten by a low full toss a couple of balls later, and Pakistan’s back had finally been broken. There was even time for a comedy run-out to cap off things.
It was a fitting way for things to end, with a clutch Australia having signed off the game in nerveless, ruthless fashion. The last sight for Pakistan will have been their captain stranded in the middle of the pitch, bails being dislodged by a direct hit. It might just have been 41 runs, but in that moment, the contrast look like a chasm.