Truth be told, there was hardly any excitement in the lead up to this game. As per the ICC ODI rankings, India stood at the No 3 while Pakistan lied at 8th position. On paper too, the Men in Blue looked superior than their arch-rivals in all facets of the game. It was no longer the best batting line-up vs best bowling attack clash. Instead, it was an encounter between two sides in different ages. One was an evolved modern day side which aimed to keep getting better with more innovative ideas and the other was a side that was coming to terms with their weaknesses and addressing them.
Let me emphasise.
It was the 40th over of 1st innings of the 2nd ODI between Pakistan and West Indies in Guyana. Pakistan were languishing at 188/5. Babar Azam, arguably Pakistan’s most reliable ODI batsman, was batting on 76 off 102 balls. His role was to anchor the innings and by all means he was, but at a strike rate that was criminal in modern-day cricket. Babar was accompanied by Imad Wasim. The Windies had done everything right till then and ensured that the opposition’s run rate was just 4.7. It was a perfect manifestation of Pakistan’s current situation in 50-overs cricket.
However, the next 10 overs were surprisingly uncharacteristic by their standards. The duo of Babar and Imad changed gears swiftly and launched a successful onslaught against the West Indian bowlers. They scored 94 runs in 60 legitimate balls without losing a single wicket to post 282. It was a total which brought the whole Pakistan team outside the dressing room and leading them was their overwhelmed captain Sarfraz Ahmed who was clapping enthusiastically. They were celebrating an objective of finishing an innings which they must have set before the match. But the problem is teams like Australia, South Africa, India have faced and rectified these problems a few years back.
At the same time, India was raising the bar with each passing game. In Pune against England, they recovered from a difficult position of 63/4 and chased down a mammoth total of 356 with 11 balls to spare. They repeated the same in the next match, from being 25/3 they managed to reach 381 against the ‘most imrpoved side’ since 2015 Cricket World Cup.
However, a hyped up game like India-Pakistan is bound to exhilarate you at some moment of time. The banter on social media, the experts on the television sets, or the memes that circulated didn’t cease to stop and eventually the high-octane match finally got me interested. But it lasted for all but one over.
Mohammad Amir began typically. He angled a few deliveries away from Rohit Sharma before swinging a couple back in. It was a quality maiden over and perhaps the only time when Pakistan edged India in the game. Rohit was beaten thrice, forced to leave two balls alone while his willow connected with the ball only once through an inside edge onto the pads.
At the press conference before the match, Pakistan captain Sarfraz had mentioned that they had something out of the box planned against India. His captaincy after the first over was a perpetual ride to decode the new possibilities he was going to throw up.
Imad was handed the second new ball and assigned a defensive role of keeping the run flow in check against two batsmen who are slow starters. It was a negative ploy, none of the deliveries that Imad bowled (in his opening spell) were wicket taking, which instantly took the pressure off Indian openers and allowed them to build a solid platform without taking risks. Even the odd edges induced by the Pakistan bowlers fell safely owing to poor field placements and sudden change of lengths.
It took Pakistan 8 overs to realise that they need a wicket and they turned to Hasan Ali, their most successful bowler in ODIs (in terms of wickets) since 2015 Cricket World Cup. By that time Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan had played 29 and 19 balls respectively and were already looking settled and ready to take the attack to the opposition. If Rohit’s lavish defensive push off Ali’s fourth ball through point for a boundary was an indicator, Dhawan’s sweep to midwicket the next over was a caution for the things to follow. But the rain gods decided to intervene and grant another opportunity to Pakistan to regroup and return with better plans.
But when the play resumed, Pakistan’s strange strategy continued. They were bowling frugal overs but hardly a chance was created. Rohit and Dhawan were not up to the mark after the rain break but it was a matter of time before they set free as Wahab Riaz entered fray.
Wahab took all the sustained pressure off India by offering some freebies as both Rohit and Dhawan punished them duly and sent them behind the fence. Even Shadab Khan, the 18-year-old leggie, was not spared for bowling a long hop to the 30-year old Rohit, who pulled it over midwicket for a six to mark his comeback into the international arena with a sluggish yet important fifty. Dhawan, the player of the 2013 Champions Trophy, followed suit. His score at the start of the 20th over, and Wahab’s 4th, was 36 off 43 balls but he struck three consecutive boundaries and a brace to slam his 18th half century and finish the over with his score reading 51 off 49 balls. The Delhi batsman set a classic example of how to pace an innings after he dispatched a Shadab’s fullish delivery over midwicket a few balls later.
The atmosphere at Edgbaston was buzzing but when India finally lost its first wicket, cue to Virat Kohli’s entry, the fans went berserk. But Dhawan’s dismissal, itself, was comical as a slipped full toss from Shadab helped Pakistan break the brilliant opening stand.
Things slowed down after the Delhi batsman’s wicket. Between 29 to 35 overs, India scored only 19 runs. However, Rohit’s run out changed India’s fortunes as Yuvraj Singh rolled the years back – thanks to a courteous Ali, who dropped the southpaw on 8 – and slammed a 29-ball half century to take some pressure of a stuttering Kohli. It was an innings which led the Indian captain to say that Yuvraj’s batting made him ‘look like a club cricketer’.
Pakistan’s kindness on the field didn’t stop as Kohli, too, was granted a life off Wahab’s bowling though his struggle to find the boundaries continued. But he soon got into his elements as he launched a late assault on Pakistan scoring 37 runs off his final 12 balls. Hardik Pandya, selected ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin in the squad, was sent up the order for his striking ability and he repaid the faith by clobbering three successive sixes in the 48th and final over to take India’s total to 319.
The start by Indian pacers was not as clinical as the batsmen but they pulled things back soon. It helped that barring Shoaib Malik, all the opposition batsmen lacked intent. Hardik, who is supposed to be India’s weakest bowling link, constantly bowled the fourth stump line and didn’t allow room. Despite the similar bowling, Pakistan batsmen failed to counterattack him. Ravindra Jadeja was his usual self both with the ball and on the field. He made life difficult for the batsmen by bowling stump to stump line and forced them to play false shots ending up with two wickets: Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez.
Azhar’s fifty was akin to Pakistan’s innings, a pale effort to a mammoth task. Neither could he get a move on nor did his team seemed to have a plan to construct the chase. Halfway into the chase, Pakistan’s asking rate shot up to 10 per over with five wickets in hand which virtually looked impossible. But the fact that Pakistan didn’t even make an attempt to go for it was incredible. The result was almost certain and although one expected this clash to be a one sided affair, a 124-run loss was a mild shock.
At the end, the gulf between India’s improvement and Pakistan’s archaic methods proved to be the difference between both the nations. I am still wondering as to what were the ‘out of the box’ ideas Sarfraz had planned before the match The fact is that Sarfraz and Co never seemed threatening enough for Kohli’s men. They put up an insipid performance and the Men in Blue hardly had to try anything to win the match. That India managed to win this match with a shoddy fielding effort explains how far behind Pakistan are in the ODI format. The 50-overs game has certainly evolved and Pakistan should too.