Babar Azam ton leads Pakistan to victory in NZ nail-biter


LONDON: It is incredible how Pakistan find ways of roaring back from hopeless situations. They were written off only a week earlier, languishing at ninth position with a solitary win in five games. They were yet to crack a chase – both above 330 – in two attempts this World Cup. Then when it seemed as if they would finally restrict an opponent to below 300 – New Zealand were 83 for 5 in the 27th over Colin de Grandhomme (64) and James Neesham (97 not out) put together the side’s best sixth-wicket stand in World Cup history to haul them back.

Then chasing 238, against two fast bowlers upfront – one who wickedly swings the ball and another who is often at their throat at 150 clicks – they lost Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq. The experienced Mohammad Hafeez played and missed, beaten on the inside and outside. Then, he was hit on the helmet by Lockie Ferguson. Who really gave them a chance?

Yet, amid the chaos, they found some calm in Babar Azam, who sealed victory with an unbeaten tenth ODI century, a pristine 101 that had a capacity crowd, a majority of it Pakistan fans, crooning with ‘oohs and aahs’. In Haris Sohail, he found an invaluable ally, the pair conjuring an unbeaten 126-run fourth-wicket stand to see Pakistan home with five balls to spare. Haris’ contribution a noteworthy 68 that built on the 89 against South Africa at Lord’s. Pakistan are now within two wins of a possible semi-final berth that will have their fans talking of the eerie similarities between 1992 and 2019 for at least another week.

For large parts of their chase, it was as if they were battling to save a game on a fifth-day surface. Hafeez had a leg gully for the short ball, deep square for the hook or pull, three slips for his open-faced pokes. This was serious pressure, and yet from time-to-time, as if to ask what the fuss was all about, he played delightful pull shots and oozed lazy Rohit Sharma-like elegance in gliding the ball behind point.

Babar showed patience early on, and exhibited enough class to keep putting the bad ball away. When he was attacked with short balls, he was happy to let go of both his ego and ignore them. The pair set out to rebuild the chase, least perturbed with the asking rate, focusing on milking runs and ensuring they wouldn’t lose too many wickets going into the last 20 overs, where teams believe they can chase down 150 if it comes to that. Here they only needed 110.

Even as this strategy played out, New Zealand kept looking to pick up wickets. Invariably, this strategy brings with it the risk of leaking runs. As Mitchell Santner came on, there was grip and square turn. Suddenly, the two batsmen, tailor-made for such surfaces, struggled and New Zealand may have just begun to wonder if they had erred by not picking Ish Sodhi, the legspinner. This was evident when Kane Williamson brought himself on, but he struck gold immediately as Hafeez had a brain fade moment and holed out to deep midwicket.

It broke a 66-run stand that allowed Pakistan to get back on track after the two early strikes threatened to blow the lid off their chase. Fortunately for them, Babar wasn’t going to give it away. At the other end, Haris attacked spin and pace alike, muscling Santner first and later the returning Boult for sixes even as Williamson tried his last roll of the dice. This partnership proved to be the ice to Shaheen Afridi’s fire earlier in the day, when he ripped the heart out of New Zealand’s batting in a searing spell after being introduced first change in the fifth over.