While the star of Pakistan’s crushing triumph over India came in with the new ball, a rousing chant erupted from the Sharjah crowd. “Afridi, Afridi, Afridi!” chanted the fans.
If anyone needed a reminder that the United Arab Emirates is Pakistan’s home away from home, Tuesday night’s victory in the T20I series in the Emirates served that purpose admirably: it was Pakistan’s 13th consecutive T20I victory in the Emirates and cemented their newly-acquired status as favourites for this World Cup.
Sunday night’s destruction in Dubai was set in motion by the three golden boys of Pakistan cricket: Shaheen Shah Afridi, the smiling killer; Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, a beautiful, small pair; and Mohammad Amir, the lanky assassin. This was the turn of two players who have divided opinion more than most in recent years: Haris Rauf, the late-blooming tearaway, and Asif Ali, the six-hitting supremo, who were perfectly suited to the move 40 miles up the main road to Sharjah’s rickety old ground with its peeling paintwork and low stands.
Known for his boundary-hitting ability, particularly at the death, Asif has long been a favourite of statistics and analytics experts. His career strike rate in all Twenty20 cricket is 148.14, and he has hit nearly as many sixes (241) as fours (206). (269). However, there has always been a perception of Asif as a flat-track bully – a local cricketing machine who lacks the temperament, skill, or power to compete at the highest level of international cricket.
The reasoning is certainly flawed. He has dominated in the PSL, where the condensed talent pool and depth of fast bowling make finishing an innings a remarkably difficult role, but his T20I numbers – an average of 16.38 and a strike rate of 123.74 heading into this tournament – were dismal. He has a strike rate of 123.74 and an average of 16.38 in T20Is. There were mitigating circumstances, such as a lack of role definition and a tumultuous year off the field, which included the death of his young daughter in 2019, but a trial by social media leaves little space for interpretation.
On Tuesday night, Asif adjusted the run chase in two balls to a different ball. Asif was demoted to No. 7 in the order, with Imad Wasim being promoted to No. 3 in order to form a left/right-hand combination with Shoaib Malik. He walked in with 48 required from 31 balls on a sluggish pitch with little bounce, which made power-hitting tough. However, it was the second and third balls of the 17th over that made the difference, as he slashed a cut off Trent Boult beyond backward point to score four runs off his first delivery.
When Tim Southee rushed in and Asif Ali gambled, Pakistan needed 36 points off 23. A slower ball was anticipated, and he prepared himself by sitting deep in his crease and crouched low in order to get beneath the ball. Despite missing his length and landing in the slot, Southee was sent back over his head and into the VIP seats by Asif.
The standard answer would have been a back-of-a-length, pace-on-ball, but Southee went the extra mile, possibly fearful of Asif’s track record against pace at the end of a game. Using another cutter, this time somewhat shorter, he pushed Asif to the back of the tractor. He swung his bat in a cross-patting motion, hurling the ball up, up, and away. Unlike in Dubai, where he would have been apprehended at long range, in Sharjah he found himself in the tenth row of the stand.
That reduced the equation to 24 points off of 21, but Southee answered admirably. While Asif struggled to make contact with his quicker balls, he was smacked in the pad by one and missed another before being top-edged into his grille by a bouncer. He was visibly shaken and had treatment on two separate occasions, but he refused to let that deter him: with six needed, he hammered Boult back over his head for six, then threaded him through additional cover and dashed off in joy.
Asif’s devastation of Southee was a fitting demonstration of the importance of Rauf’s quickness. The 32-year-old Southee has an impressive Twenty20 International record – he became only the third player in history to reach 100 wickets in the game – but his quicker ball rarely travels faster than 83mph/134kph. As Asif demonstrated, the absence of actual ball speed allows batters to feel comfortable sitting back in their creases and waiting for the slower ball at the end of the innings.
Batters, on the other hand, do not have such option when facing Rauf. After bowling Martin Guptill via the thigh pad with a 92mph/148kph length ball that was pounded into the pitch to open his stint, he finished with a devastating 93mph/149kph yorker to end the innings. Because of the fear factor, his slower balls – which were recorded in the area of 80mph/130kph, not far off Southee’s quicker balls – became deadly at the death: according to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball stats, he took three of the four slower balls he bowled for wickets.
Rauf had never bowled with a hard ball before the last men’s Twenty20 World Cup, which took place in 2016. In Sharjah, he put on a masterclass in hard lengths, demonstrating his versatility. At this pitch, length is essential for seamers because of the low bounce, which causes back-of-a-length balls to skid along the ground towards the top of the stumps. After that, Rauf altered his approach, pounding away and attempting to strike hitters in the thigh-pad region: exactly half of his deliveries were short of a good length, and those 12 deliveries yielded three wickets and cost him only five runs from the batting position.
When it comes to T20 cricket, Rauf knows better than most that slot balls are a fast bowler’s greatest nightmare: just think back to July, when he misjudged his length and flew 122 metres over his own head when Liam Livingstone cleared the football stand at Headingley Stadium. He has never been known for his slower ball, but he looks to have confidence in it enough to use it effectively; at this point in the tournament, he has taken five wickets in eight overs while allowing less than a run per ball on the way to victory.
Pakistan came from behind to win this game, both with the bat and with the ball. As of the 13th over of each innings, New Zealand was 90 for three and then held Pakistan to 75 for four until Rauf and then Asif completely demolished the opposition. However, despite the fact that they have already qualified for the semi-finals, and in conditions that they are all too familiar with, there is no need to dispute their credentials. After all, wouldn’t it be typical of Pakistan to overcome India and New Zealand before losing to Namibia and Scotland?