It started with that beautiful in-swinger from Shaheen Shah Afridi to Rohit Sharma, and ended with an unbeaten opening partnership between Pakistan’s captain Babar Azam and the man many in that country believe should actually be the leader, Mohammad Rizwan.
It had been 29 years in the making, a period that encompassed the hurt of more than a couple of generations of Pakistan cricketers, and came at a time when very few expected this bunch of ill-prepared players to put it across perhaps the most in-form team of the moment.
It wasn’t as if Pakistan hadn’t had their chances to end this streak, which before yesterday, read 12-0 in favour of India at the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup events. In 2007, everyone recalls Misbah-ul-Haq’s brain-fade against Joginder Sharma in the final, but even before that, in the preliminary stages, he and Yasir Arafat, needing 39 to win, put on 38 together, and couldn’t score the winning run off the last two balls to send the game into that famous bowl-out, which India eventually won.
Troubled Run-Up to T20 World Cup
The preparations this time had been as far from ideal as could possibly be imagined – Pakistan's head coach Misbah-ul-Haq and bowling coach Waqar Younis had resigned from their positions, citing ‘personal matters’ as soon as the new board chairperson, Ramiz Raja, had taken over in September this year. Saqlain Mushtaq was then named the interim head coach.
They also had 10 warm-up internationals lined up for the team before the World Cup (3 ODIs and 5 T20Is against New Zealand, followed by 2 T20Is against England), but when New Zealand pulled the plug just minutes before their series was to start in Islamabad, England grabbed the opportunity to excuse themselves as well, leaving Pakistan high and dry. Frantic efforts were made to rope in a substitute opponent, but with the World Cup on the horizon, each team had made its own plans.
So, for skipper Babar Azam, variously labelled ‘selfish’ and ‘naive’ in Pakistan, and coach Saqlain Mushtaq, who had not had any time with his team, this wasn’t an ideal preparation for a World Cup.
A Plan B was hastily drawn up and the World Cup squad was asked to play the National T20, a domestic event that suddenly assumed far more importance as not only a warm-up, but also as the final selection event for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
This could well have turned into a boon for Babar. He was clearly upset with the team selected earlier and while on the surface he may appear mild-mannered, perhaps even meek, he has strong opinions, and isn’t afraid to voice them.
According to Waqar Younis, who has worked closely with him for several years, he has strong likes and dislikes. His faith in players such as Imad Wasim, Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Rizwan and Hassan Ali is said to be unshakeable
Babar is also said to have been extremely unhappy when Zaman and Shoaib Malik hadn’t been named in the initial squad. His demand was for experience over youth on such a massive stage.
A Strong Captain, With a Voice
Eventually, the National T20 did its job and Pakistan made as many as three changes to their original XV, with Fakhar Zaman, Shoaib Malik and Sarfaraz Ahmed all being included in place of Azam Khan, Sohaib Maqsood and Mohammad Hasnain. While none of the three played a critical role in last night’s victory, their inclusion did show that Babar had established himself as a strong leader, whose demands carried weight.
In Pakistan, the media and the court of public opinion seems to carry more weight than it does in most parts of the world. Take, for example, the case of Ravichandran Ashwin in the Test series in England. The whole world cried itself hoarse, exhorting Virat Kohli to pick him in the side. It didn’t happen. In Pakistan, conversely, a 36-year-old medium-pacer named Tabish Khan, who admittedly has picked up over 600 first class wickets, was picked to play a Test in Zimbabwe purely on the basis of public demand, while youngsters with a far more promising future remained on the bench. Similarly, several other players have had their career cut short because of criticism in the media or on Twitter.
In such a scenario, and at a time when there is no permanent head coach, a strong captain is a must for the team, and here, Babar seems to have grabbed his opportunity. Of course, before last night, most pundits in Pakistan were of the opinion that Babar was too defensive a captain and that Mohammad Rizwan would make a far better leader. If last night had ended in defeat, those calls would have reached a crescendo!
A Captain Setting Examples as a Batter
A cousin of the Akmals', Babar has had to plough his own furrow in the game. As talented as Umar Akmal, but blessed with a far more even temperament, the young man with perhaps the best cover-drive in the game today, has blossomed into a top-class all-format player in the mould of Virat Kohli. In fact, in recent times, his record far outstrips that of the Indian skipper.
Stepping into the shoes of Sarfaraz Ahmed, a man revered for leading Pakistan to the Champions Trophy title in 2017, hasn’t been an easy task. Questions have been raised on Babar's tempo of scoring in T20 cricket and when Mohammad Rizwan was elevated to the opening slot, the worry was that two ‘anchors’ might not be ideal at the top in this format.
Babar, though, has stuck to his guns and moulded a side in his own image – calm, steely-nerved and with the ability to not be carried away in the heat of the moment as most Pakistan sides have in the past, particularly against India on the world stage.
The fact that he is at the peak of his game has perhaps helped him lead by example. He is a young captain, one who hasn't even led his franchise, Karachi Kings, in the Pakistan Super League. So he is perhaps not tactically as good as some of his peers yet, but what he lacks in tactical awareness, he makes up for by surrounding himself with seniors he trusts, and who provide him with valuable inputs.
Babar's strength at the moment seems to lie in unifying a diverse group of individuals that haven’t always pulled together in the same direction. The youngsters all look up to Babar, while for the seniors – Malik, Sarfaraz and Hafeez – this is probably the final hurrah and they are keen to make it count.
Far too often, Pakistan have been guilty of concentrating too hard on the duel with India and losing sight of the bigger picture. The skipper is keen that this team doesn’t repeat that mistake. ”This is not an individual performance. We triumphed as a team. We must always hold on to that. This win is just the start… enjoy it, but don’t get carried away. We have many more games to go and we have to focus on those. This is over. Our focus is to win the World Cup, so we must not relax,” he said in a dressing room speech immediately after the game, to loud cheers from his teammates.
Whether Pakistan go on and build on this win, is something that will become evident only later, but for the moment, Babar Azam and his men will bask in the glory of a comprehensive demolition of a long-standing hoodoo.