Pakistan, one of the most unpredictabe sides in cricket, marched into the T20 World Cup final after beating New Zealand by seven wickets at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Wednesday.
The architects of the win, openers Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam, turned around their lacklustre performance in the Super 12 with a 105-run partnership that put the contest beyond the Kiwis.
Captain Babar and wicketkeeper Rizwan came into the T20 World Cup with a formidable reputation as one of the most destructive and effective opening pairs in T20Is.
However, after Pakistan’s defeat to India and Zimbabwe in its first two matches of the tournament left the team tottering on the brink of elimination, much of the blame, according to vocal fans, was directed at Rizwan and Babar. Both had a string of low scores as well as low scoring rates. The openers scored just 182 runs between them in five matches as the team registered the lowest run rate in the PowerPlay in the tournament ahead of the semifinal clash. Several former cricketers questioned Babar’s captaincy and his place at the top of the order.
In all earnest, Babar’s slump in form was alarming, as he managed only 79 runs in five matches, while Rizwan just had a score of 49 against Netherlands, which boosted his tally to 103.
However, come the semifinal, the duo delivered in style. Chasing a below-par 153 against the Kiwis, Babar and Rizwan couldn’t have asked for a better platform to find form. The duo had, afterall, overhauled a similar target (152) against India in the 2021 T20 World Cup to give Pakistan its first World Cup win against the Men in Blue.
Rizwan was off the blocks with a four off the first ball of the innings, slashing a Trent Boult delivery through the off-side. Babar got an outside edge off the first ball he faced, and to his relief, wicketkeeper Devon Conway dropped the chance.
The reprieve would have come as a wake up call for the skipper as, after labouring to two off seven balls, Babar slashed a wide and short delivery from Boult for his first boundary. A glorious push for four, timed to perfection down the ground and past mid-off off Lockie Ferguson would have further soothed Babar’s nerves.
Before the semifinal, Pakistan had struck at under six runs an over in the PowerPlay. Now, it had 55 runs in the first six overs with both openers at the crease. Babar had scored 25 of them off 19 balls until then. The following 25 also come off as many deliveries but, unlike the iffy first 25, had Babar’s stamp all over them.
A long-hop drifting down leg-side from Mitchell Santner was hammered to the fine-leg fence. Three overs later, he caressed a leg-spinner from Ish Sodhi behind point with surgical precision. A hip-high delivery from Ferguson was dispatched to the midwicket boundary and, a couple of balls later, Babar had a 38-ball fifty.
Rizwan had hared off in the PowerPlay, but was happy playing second-fiddle now as he watched his captain prove his critics wrong and find his rhythm ahead of the final, the road to which seemed all but clear. The conviction and authority of the 105-run opening stand was such that, when Babar was dismissed for a 42-ball 53 trying to clear long-on, it seemed only like a minor blip rather than a harbinger of an imminent collapse.
Leaving Pakistan on the cusp of victory, Rizwan eventually departed for a 43-ball 57 as he heaved a wide full toss to sweeper cover.
Pakistan’s great escape from Group 2 to the knockouts defied the adage of well begun is half done as it couldn’t have thought of a more forgettable start in the Super 12.
But as Babar’s men gear up for Pakistan’s first T20 World Cup final since 2009, they’ll bank on their openers to get more than half of the job done as they did on Wednesday. More so with a summit clash with India a possibility if the Men in Blue beat England in Adelaide on Thursday.