Pakistan bat the Proteas out of the tournament

24 hours before the game, Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed was making a desperate plea to the team’s fans, to the former players, and to the commentariat. Criticize us if you must, Sarfaraz said, but don’t abuse us.

It is a commentary on the state of the media – and more particularly, of social media – that this needed saying. It is a commentary on the state of sports fandom that when Lord’s opened its gates for its first game of this World Cup, a swarm in Pakistan colors flooded through, filling the stands with color and noise – some of those fans, in all likelihood, the same folks who had been abusing their team these past few days. And it is a commentary on Pakistan cricket that when its unpredictable team and volatile fans get together, you never can tell what you are going to get – the only guarantee is that it will be memorable, one way or other.

It takes three disciplines – batting, bowling and fielding – to do well at this game. Pakistan ticked two of those boxes; the Proteas failed to tick even one. The result should come as no surprise.

Some takeaways from a game that, after the serial excitements of Friday and Saturday, proved to be the dampest of damp squibs:

 Open and shut: When Sarfaraz Ahmed won the toss and opted to bat first, his counterpart Faf du Plessis said he would have bowled first anyway. I wonder why.

This is the first game of this World Cup hosted at Lord’s. Its famous gradient is not easy for bowlers to get used to. Kagiso Rabada, with just three wickets thus far in the World Cup, is not a shadow of the bowler he can be. His partner Lungi Ngidi, playing his first ever game at Lord’s — and still running in gingerly, favoring the hamstring he pulled during the game against India — does not take wickets in the first 40 overs of an ODI. All his wickets come at the death, when batsmen are looking to hit everything out of the park. Why, with an opening attack like that, you would contemplate bowling first is a mystery. It is also moot.

The question was which Pakistan would show up — the good, the bad or the indifferent. To the Proteas’ misfortune, it was the good Pakistan that showed up — and it showed as Fakhar Zaman, with his penchant for swinging across the line, and Imam ul Haq, who when on song plays the cover- and off- drives as well as anyone, got off the blocks in a hurry.

Well as the two openers batted, the Proteas didn’t help their own cause. In the opening passages, Rabada and Ngidi bowled without a perceptible plan. Rabada kept angling across on length. Fakhar Zaman smacked the third ball of the first over through the covers; in Rabada’s next over, when the bowler adjusted his length and dropped short, Fakhar twice pulled him in front of square. At the other end, Ngidi kept pitching length and Imam drove through the covers thrice in the over.

It was that kind of day — Ngidi went for 25 in his first three; Imam and Fakhar brought up the 50 of the partnership in 43 deliveries. Cue fun stat: Pakistan wins 90% of matches where these two put on 50 or more for the first wicket.

Playing in pairs, or not: Batting and bowling teams both look to build partnerships. On the day, Pakistan succeeded with the bat; South Africa, barring one brief passage, failed with the ball.

Imam and Fakhar put on 81 off 91 balls. After Fakhar’s brain-fade against Imran Tahir, Babar Azam joined Imam to put on 17 off 34 — this being the period when the Proteas steadied somewhat. From then on it was all downhill: 45 off 57 for the 3rd wicket between Hafeez and Azam; 81 off 68 between Azam and Haris Sohail; and 71 off just 40 for the fifth wicket between Haris and Imad Wasim. The run progression tells the story of an innings that started with the wind in its sails, stalled momentarily, then rediscovered its bearings and took flight.

Against that, with the exception of overs 11-20, South Africa failed when it came to bowling in partnerships, stitching dot balls into successive tight overs. And the trend was set in the first seven overs itself, when the opening bowlers on a pitch with a tinge of green kept giving both length and width without ever looking to attack the stumps – in the opening powerplay, there were as many as eight boundaries off balls that were wide of the stumps.

If there was a small failing on Pakistan’s part, it lay in the fact that Babar Azam and Mohammed Hafeez allowed Aiden Markram to get away with a few inexpensive overs. At that point, du Plessis was under pressure with his opening bowlers going for runs and his backup options looking flat, forcing him to bowl Imran Tahir in a long spell. Ngidi’s second spell was no better than his first and Markram was brought on as a defensive measure, to sneak some overs in and reduce pressure on the regular bowlers at the back end. But until Haris Sohail came in, Pakistan allowed Markram to get away with the tactic of going around the wicket and spearing the ball on a full length on middle and off.

Two stars that shone: Imam ul Haq played with freedom at the start, then settled into a holding pattern. Babar Azam started as he finished, as insurance against a typical Pakistan collapse.

But the standout was Haris Sohail, in just his second World Cup appearance here. Which begs the question, why? He failed in his only previous outing — but that was against the West Indies in Pakistan’s first game, when the whole side was rolled for under 110. Why he was the one to pay the price, we’ll never know; what difference he could have made to Pakistan’s fortunes if he hadn’t been benched is a hypothetical.

His weight, his generally unathletic appearance, has been a talking point. What is ignored is that in 2016, thanks to a failed knee operation in Dubai, his career nearly ended prematurely; he has had to fight his way back to a semblance of fitness.

On this day, he was brilliant. The innings was becalmed when he came in to bat, the run rate having fallen to around 4.5. Haris walked in and immediately changed all that — and he did it with panache. His shots, off front or back foot, were played to near perfection; he read the Proteas plans like an open book; he rotated strike so assiduously that he never allowed any of the bowlers to settle.

Some stats: His 59-ball 89, the highest by a Pakistan batsman this World Cup, was embellished by nine fours and three sixes, but it also contained 26 singles, three twos, and one hard run three against just 17 dot balls. The 50-run partnership with the free-wheeling Imad Wasim came off 26 balls, the second fastest in this tournament after the 22-run 50 between Shai Hope and Shimron Hetmeyer against Bangladesh.

One passage of play typifies how Haris was always two moves ahead of the game. With runs leaking, du Plessis turned to Rabada for an extended mid- innings spell. In the 35th over, Rabada with field set tight on the off bowled a length ball angling into off and middle; Haris responded by slightly shutting the bat face and playing a gorgeous on-drive. The bowler plugged that gap, put a short leg in — and Haris glided back deep in his crease to the short ball he knew was coming, and upper cut the quick bowler over point.  It was the most noticeable facet of his innings, this ability to read the field and respond. He picked the gaps with surgical precision; when a particular gap was plugged, he nonchalantly adjusted to milk the new gap that had opened up.

If Haris was first among equals for Pakistan, Imran Tahir was the sole standout in a South African sea of mediocrity. He took out the two openers as soon as he was brought on. In the 12th over, he dived headlong at deep square leg to take a brilliant catch off a Fakhar Zaman pull, only for DRS to uphold the on-field soft signal of out. Why an on-field umpire has to give a signal one way or other off a catch he can’t see well enough to judge is for another day.

Having taken out Imam in the 21st over, Tahir saw de Kock drop the simplest of nick-offs in his next over; Hafeez, the beneficiary, was just 2 off 6 at the time. And yet, while much-higher rated fielders missed run outs (David Miller, Duminy) and catches (Duminy), he took a stunning reflexive catch off his own bowling, and he raced around the outfield in a way that belied his forty years, pulling off gasp-inducing saves on the boundary.

Put simply, he showed up — and in doing that with such verve and irrepressible heart, he showed up some of his mates who didn’t.

Predictably, Proteas: Mohammed Amir, with an assist from the third umpire, took three balls to sort the out-of-sorts Hashim Amla (why South Africa persists with a clearly out of form player is another debate) with one that swung across the right hander, hit middle, and straightened to leg. Not given, reviewed, gone.

Faf du Plessis, starting slow and gradually finding some rhythm, and de Kock, hitting them nicely from the outset, provided a stabilizing stand of 87 in 109, in which they were aided by some ordinary catching by Pakistan. But just when the two seemed set enough to step on the gas, Shadab Khan struck, taking out de Kock to an ambitious slog and Aiden Markram to his own inability to gauge length and line when facing spin. Faf du Plessis aimed an almighty waft at Mohammed Amir in the latter’s comeback spell and put it high up for the keeper, the only one of four possible catchers with gloves on, to take.

It’s not that the wheels came off – it is that the wheels were never properly bolted on in the first place. And a large part of the reason for this was the opening spells by the Pakistan bowlers. On a track where none of the Proteas bowlers got a semblance of movement, Amir found both swing and seam for a first spell of 4-1-9-1.

Mohammed Hafeez, who opened alongside him, kept things tight in his two overs (11 runs). Shaheen Afridi, back in the side in place of the expensive Hasan Ali, had a 4-0-18-0 first spell that gave little away. It goes back to the point made earlier – bowlers are effective when they operate in partnerships, applying pressure at both ends. The Pakistan bowlers did, in the crucial first phase of the innings, and the Proteas consequently fell behind the pace, which in turn resulted in mounting pressure.

That pressure escalated as the overs ticked by; the concomitant – fall of wickets as batsmen sought release – was predictably regular.

In a final bit of irony, Wahab Riaz – whose bowling during this World Cup gives the lie to the expressed concerns about his lack of form – gave his Proteas counterparts Phehlukwayo, Morris, Rabada and Ngidi a masterclass in the art of reverse swing with a 20-plus over ball.

Pakistan being peak Pakistan: 28th over: Shadab Khan tempts Rassie van der Dussen, then 8 off 13 (SA 121/3) into going downtown. Mohammed Amir, not the fleetest of fielders, just manages to get both hands to it and spills a chance a fitter, fleeter fielder would have held with ease.

Over 31.1: First ball of a fresh spell, Amir got David Miller’s (2 off 6, 140/4 SA) leading edge with late seam, got both hands to it on the follow through, and muffed it.

Over 36.4: Wahab found van der Dussen’s outside edge, only for a diving Sarfaraz to spill the chance. The very next ball, Wahab got extra bounce to force a David Miller miscue, the ball landed in Amir’s lap at third man, and went to ground (SA 168/4 at that point).

It’s not as if Pakistan didn’t try its best to give the game away in the field – at least six clear chances, and one sitter of a run out, went unclaimed. It’s just that the Proteas weren’t good enough to profit.

This might seem harsh, but the Proteas didn’t just lose, today – they didn’t show up.

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(A version of this article was first published on cricket.com)