England, Bangladesh and India had booked their respective places in the semifinals of the ICC Champions Trophy 2017. The last league game between Sri Lanka and Pakistan yesterday at Cardiff (Wales) was to decide who would play England in the first semifinal tomorrow (again at Cardiff). It was a virtual quarterfinal, as the winners would advance to the semifinals and the losers would head home. And truly did it live up to the expectations of a quarterfinal!
I didn’t see the first half of the match as I came home from office only by around 7 pm. Pakistan won a good toss and inserted the Lankans in, hoping to make good use of the early swing and seam movement on offer. It was a cat-and-mouse game throughout, as whenever Sri Lanka got a good partnership going; Pakistan pegged them back with quick wickets. At one stage, SL skipper Angelo Mathews (39 off 54 balls) and opener-cum-wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella (73 off 86 balls) seemed to have put their team on course for a 270-280 total – at 161/3 in 31.1 overs. Here Pakistan effected a rapid collapse (4 wickets for 6 runs) through their strike fast bowlers Mohammad Amir (10-0-53-2) and Junaid Khan(10-3-40-3); and it looked like SL would be bowled out for less than 200. However, their lower order added valuable runs; largely through a partnership of 46 for the 8th wicket, before SL were finally bowled out for 236 in 49.2 overs.
A chase of 237 should not have troubled many teams on that wicket, but – knowing Pakistan, it ain’t over till the Fat Lady sings! Left-handed opener Fakhar Zaman started like a train, smashing boundaries at will to race to a half-century in only 34 balls. It was wonderful to watch, as his stroke-making propelled even the otherwise dour Azhar Ali to come down the track and smack a straight six; sending the ball out of the ground – it had to be replaced with a new one. The best part about Zaman’s innings was three cracking drives through the off-side in an over bowled by the dangerous Lasith Malinga (reportedly playing his last ICC tournament). SL were clearly rattled by this audacious innings, and it reflected in their fielding – quite a few misfields and an overthrow by wicketkeeper Dickwella costing two runs.
However, Pakistan’s delight was ephemeral – Zaman’s weakness against the short ball resulted in a catch on the boundary line, off the bowling of Nuwan Pradeep. It was 74/1 off 11.2 overs, and Pakistan had got the perfect start in pursuit of a middling total – a run-rate of over six. The new batsman Babar Azam soon got into his stride, but got carried away flicking the ball straight into the hands of Dhananjaya de Silva (again off the bowling of Pradeep); to leave Pakistan at 92/2 in 15.4 overs. Mohammad Hafeez then had a brain-fade, flicking the ball too early and getting a leading edge high in the air right into the waiting hands of Pradeep; off the bowling of Thisara Perera. It was 95/3 in 16.5 overs, and SL had brought themselves back into the game; just when things seemed to be slipping away.
Azhar Ali had looked solid till then(34 off 50 balls), but then he too perished to a superb rising delivery from Suranga Lakmal that had him fending to first slip. It was 110/4 in 19.2 overs, and Pakistan were choking (move over, SA! 😛 ). What they needed at this stage was consolidation, and a substantial partnership. The captain Sarfraz Ahmed strode out to join the under-achieving veteran Shoaib Malik, and the pair set about taking singles and ensuring that Pakistan did not go into a shell. However, disaster struck again as Malik gloved another catch to the keeper Dickwella; Malinga proving why he is such a feared bowler yet again. The wheels were starting to come off for Pakistan, at 131/5 in 24.5 overs. In strode Welsh-born Imad Wasim into the pressure cooker atmosphere of a tense run-chase in a knockout game.
He started off fluently with a boundary, but then edged Pradeep to Dickwella to leave the innings in tatters at 137/6 in 25.4 overs. Amidst all this madness, SL had taken the game by the scruff of the neck; once again through the ability of their bowlers to choke the opposition by applying relentless pressure. Over the course of the last one hour or so, I truly understood why people say it is so frustrating to be a supporter of Pakistan. A team that appears to be cruising to victory, suddenly gifts wickets on a platter to the opposition ; and that too after such a disciplined bowling performance earlier in the day! Enter debutant Fahim Ashraf, into a situation increasingly becoming bleak. He started well, going at more than a run-a-ball; with the support of his skipper at the other end. One six even started to stir hopes of a revival.
However, Fate dealt a cruel blow as Sarfraz played a drive that was deflected by bowler Perera on to stumps at the the non-striker’s end; and Ashraf’s bat was in the air for a few seconds as the bails were dislodged. 162/7 in 29.5 overs; and the end looked near. In came Mohammad Amir who had earlier starred with the ball. The required run-rate was well below 4 runs an over, but with just 3 wickets in hand; Sarfraz was running out of partners. I had lost all hope, and just wanted Pakistan to fight this through; no matter whether they won or lost. Thankfully, Amir proved an extremely sensible partner to his captain; as the two of them set about gathering the runs through singles – avoiding airy shots.
The crucial moment (rather, defining moment) then came at 184/7, when Malinga produced a well-disguised slower delivery that Sarfraz failed to read; and spooned a sitter to Thisara Perera – who, horror of horrors; dropped it! :O The commentators were shocked, wondering if he had dropped the match (of course he had! 😛 ). To make matters worse for the poor bowler, later Sarfraz pulled a short delivery again into the hands of Perera; who managed the palm the ball out of his hands once more! In all due respect, this was a more difficult chance; as Perera had to run for it and then dive – but nevertheless one that should have been taken at the international level! The SL fielding had fallen apart completely, as there was then a misfield which was more like a schoolboy error; allowing an easy single.
From here, there was no looking back for Pakistan. Sarfraz seemed to have gathered fresh resolve following the dropped catches, and Amir continued to support him brilliantly; even occasionally scoring boundaries in a manner that would have shamed the batsmen playing above him. The two of them milked the bowling even as SL gave up all hope and leaked runs like a dripping tap. When Sarfraz steered an upper cut off Malinga towards the boundary to score the winning runs, I jumped with joy. Pakistan had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, in a manner only Pakistan can. What a fantastic rearguard captain’s knock by Sarfraz (61* off 79 balls), not to mention the fine and flawless support from Amir (28* off 43 balls) – to go with his disciplined spell earlier in the day.
Notwithstanding the dropped catches, it was one of the finest comebacks I have seen in an ICC ODI tournament. Malinga must be absolutely gutted, though. In (probably) his last ICC event, he has bowled his heart out and nearly sealed victory for his team in a knock-out game; only for the fielding to let him down so badly. SL will go home, their inexperience and inability to hold their nerve during a tight finish costing them dearly; but will take some positives from the superb run-chase against India. Pakistan, on the other hand; after such a nerve-wracking performance, will need to lift their game several notches in the semifinal – against an England side that is looking almost unstoppable at the moment. However, after the crushing loss to India; to have come so far (especially after almost blowing this match away) speaks volumes about their self-belief and strength of character – and that makes for highly compelling cricket, any day!