At Taunton on Wednesday, Australia and Pakistan exhibited the best of what One Day cricket has to offer: a continuous tug-of-war where both sides pull things in their favour only to let it slip and then begin again. After almost 95 overs worth of pulling and then giving it away, Australia prevailed over an erratic Pakistan and registered their third win in the World Cup.
Pakistan showed once again that shallow labels like "unpredictable" and "enigmatic" barely begin to describe the men in green. They are nothing but convenient explanations of the team's propensity to be in shambles one moment and roaring the next. It is a ride. And you must enjoy it.
Pakistan began in less than ideal manner, bowling inconsistently and fielding miserably to allow Australia to build a solid foundation. A 146-run opening partnership between Aaron Finch and David Warner set up the Aussies for a massive score, but the Pakistani pace attack pulled it back, bowling out Australia on 307 and ensuring their batters had a fighting chance. With the bat, Pakistan began on shaky ground a but consolidated in the middle before a collapse down the lower-middle order threatened to derail the chase. An unexpected and explosive cameo from Wahab Riaz handed them hope. And when victory was in sight, Mitchell Starc pulled it back. Australia won by 41 runs, but the margins were closer than the numbers suggest.
Here are the talking points from the game:
PAKISTAN PULL IT BACK
Pakistan are a spectrum. They are a strip of probable performances running from utter chaos to maddening brilliance and they fall at a given point on it as they please. They could chose to land on the less reputable side of spectrum on their World Cup opener and they might select the other extreme for the follow-up against the best ODI side in the world.
Sometimes, Pakistan like explore that spectrum in the course of a single game. And when they are feeling adventurous, they do so over a single inning. Against Australia at Taunton on Wednesday, Pakistan went through their whole gamut of performances, their entire repertoire of the good, the bad and the ugly. Few can switch from the inept to the ingenious in such quick time.
After winning the toss and opting to bowl first, they let Australian openers Finch and Warner put up a 146-run stand while Pakistani bowlers suffered with inconsistency in line, length and rhythm. They were abysmal in the field, dropping both Finch (twice!) and Warner. And then, when no one was looking, they pulled it back. On the back of a Mohammad Amir masterclass and a flurry of good second spells from their bowlers, Pakistan clawed back into the game little by little. Finch departed after a fine 82 off 84 and Warner struck his 15th ODI ton. But beyond them, no one really got going, largely because of some excellent death bowling from the Pakistani seamers.
Shaheen Shah Afridi, Wahab Riaz and Hasan Ali, all came back to bowl tight spells at the crucial hour and helped Amir, who was consistently brilliant, to wrap up the lower middle-order and the tail. At one point Pakistan were staring a target of around 340. They managed to halt Australia at a very gettable 307. The mood had changed and going into the second innings, the momentum was with Pakistan.
AMIR'S WORLD CUP
Leave alone bowling well, Amir wasn't even supposed to be bowling this World Cup. His World Cup selection was under a cloud following a horrendous run of form following the 2017 Champions Trophy.
He failed to make the cut for the 15-man provisional World Cup squad, only to included later alongside Wahab Riaz and Asif Ali. In 14 ODIs since the Champions Trophy final, Amir had taken five wickets at an average of 92.60. He failed to complete his quota of 10 overs even once.
But both Pakistan coach Micky Arthur and chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq put their faith in his prodigious talents to come through in big tournaments. "I still think he is an incredibly skilled bowler and has all the attributes to be successful. He has got a big match temperament and we will see how we use him going forward," coach Arthur had said of Amir's dip in form.
Leaving his miserable form and the shadow of doubt behind, Amir is now the top wicket-this World Cup with 10 wickets. On Wednesday, he became the first Pakistani bowler to take a five-wicket haul against Australia in World Cups. Amir was consistent throughout, troubling Finch and Warner from the get go. He even slipped in two maidens in his first spell. He was the one who got the first breakthrough and ended the Finch-Warner stand. Australia lost Steve Smith and Maxwell for cheap and Warner departed after completing his century, leaving an unsure middle-order with the uphill task of getting a big total of around 340 runs. Amir gobbled that lower-middle order up, picking up Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja, Alex Carey and Mitchell Starc in the death overs and restricting Australia to 307. His bowling figures at the end of innings read: 10-2-30-5. The fifer was also Amir's best bowling figures in ODIs.
THE RETURN OF DAVID WARNER
Amir's wasn't the only tale of redemption at Taunton. After spending a year out of the side, banned from the sport in the wake of the sandpapergate saga, Warner's return to his old self hasn't been smooth sailing. He started slow this World Cup; he did get runs, but he took his time settling in. His 89 not out off 114 against Afghanistan and 56 off 84 against India were far from his old self, not just in terms of run rate (those were two of his slowest half-centuries in ODIs), but also control. he just did not look solid at the crease.
Finch had said Warner needed a "mindset change. And that "mindset change" arrived in the toughest conditions possible. It was not an easy pitch to bat on. It was overcast, the wicket had been under covers for a couple of days and Amir came out firing on all cylinders. But Warner showed equal grit. He exuberant celebration following his ton showed how much this meant to him. His 107 off 111 was reminiscent of Warner of yore.
This innings felt like Warner turned a corner. It felt like he could finally leave the ball-tampering saga behind him and play with an open mind.
AUSTRALIA'S MIDDLE ORDER WOES
This is a sub-optimal Australian squad at the World Cup. The games against India and Pakistan are proof of Australia's shallow batting and also highlighted their fifth bowler problem. Against India, The Aussie middle order crumbled following the departures of Warner and Smith, falling 36 runs short of the total.
Against Pakistan, Australia were looking at a big total after a solid start by Finch and Warner. But once the two openers were sent back and Smith failed to fire, the Australian middle order and tail collapsed. Against West Indies, too, they were saved by unlikely heroics from Nathan COulter-Nile. The big worry has been Glenn Maxwell. He was supposed to be the fearless hitter down the batting order, but he has not hit his stride this World Cup. He barely got a chance to bat against Afghanistan, but in three games since his scores read: 0, 28, 20. Alex Carey has been the only silver lining in the middle order.
Maxwell also proved expensive with the ball, giving away 58 off his seven overs, underlining the failing fifth bowler combination. Marcus Stoinis was unavailable due to a side strain and he was replaced by an extra batter in Shaun Marsh. Adam Zampa was dropped in favour of an extra seamer Kane Richardson. But once again, the match showed Australia rely almost exclusively on their strike partnership of Starc and Pat Cummins to see them through.