Pressure at this World Cup has finally arrived as the business end of the tournament nears and with barely any margin for error left, Pakistan have finally delivered: dishing out the sublime but remaining ever vulnerable as they kept their slim hopes of a place in the final four alive at the expense of South Africa.
Ball has bettered bat so far in this tournament, meaning those able to remain patient at the crease have profited most, rather than those of the dynamic, swashbuckling variety.
Mohammad Amir continued his devilish streak with the ball though, establishing himself as the tournament’s most prolific wicket taker (15), yet the weekend’s games became so captivating due to change-of-pace innings, slamming the foot on the accelerator just as they appeared to be grinding to a halt. Haris Sohail and his extravagant 89 off 59 balls proved especially pivotal: an innings in both style and substance that the Proteas could only dream of. Trepidation remains for Pakistan though, who will still need to win out to advance and could yet be plagued by their fielding, having taken their total number of drops in the tournament to 14 – more than any other side.
The games (including Aghanistan vs India and West Indies vs New Zealand) ebbed and flowed in the manner of two heavyweights trading blows, rather than the persistent brutality of a home run derby that One-Day cricket has threatened to become. Firstly Afghanistan dared to be great, giving India a fright but ultimately succumbing to their illustrious opponents in a tense affair at Old Trafford. Despite shovelled themselves into an almighty hole, India were able to lean on a double-wicket maiden from Jasprit Bumrah and a Mohammed Shami hat-trick at the death, further demonstrating the emerging potency of bowling in this tournament.
Will the balance begin to tip back towards the bat though? Forward-thinking, aggressive innings have been few and far between in England, with David Warner, the tournament’s highest run scorer (447) remodelling himself and irking Shane Warne and others with a patient approach built on a strike rate of just 87.3. Measly bowling may be here to stay, but mesmerising innings are finally emerging: Carlos Braithwaite’s 101 from 82 balls, including nine fours and five sixes, almost handed the West Indies a miraculous win.
Braithwaite and co. fell agonisingly short after one last heave narrowly missed the sweet spot, allowing Trent Boult to pick the white ball out of the night sky and snatch victory. It sucked all of the adrenaline out of Braithwaite, with one of the most powerful sporting images of all time following. He allowed gravity to take over after learning his fate, slumping to his knees, with Kane Williamson attempting in vain to console him with a gentle pat on his head. It was an effort that deserved better, having confronted the pressure full on.
The weekend’s action culminated at Lord’s with a loser-goes-home match, somewhat simulating the tension that will surround next month’s semi-finals. Pakistan and South Africa entered the game precariously positioned, yet buoyed by Sri Lanka stunning England, with captain Sarfaraz Ahmed insisting the tournament was now “open”. Calculators were discarded for now; both sides acknowledged they must win their remaining games to escape from the group.
The game sparked into life after Imran Tahir’s heroic dive in the outfield appeared to see him cacth Imam-ul-Haq, but a soft call by the umpires of not out saw inconclusive replays during the review, which handed the Pakistan opener a reprieve. Skipper Faf du Plessis and Tahir raged at the umpires, but the latter was able to harness his anger to exact revenge soon after on Imam. A teasing delivery saw the batsman try an audacious scoop over the stumps, which Hashim Amla gleefully gobbled up. Not that Tahir waited to find out, he’d already sprinted towards the scoreboard, arms outstretched in one of cricket’s most iconic celebrations: a perfect reposte to being made the pantomime villain by the pockets of Pakistan fans that filled the ground.
The 40-year-old Tahir threatened to tighten his grip on the game, adding Fakhar Zaman’s wicket to eclipse South African great Allan Donald and become his country’s all-time leading wicket taker at the World Cup on 39. But Haris Sohail produced the sort of innings this tournament has been craving: immediately producing controlled aggression and an array of eye-catching strokes, dispatching four fours and three sixes to satisfy the boisterous Pakistani fans.
His urgency saw Pakistan record the second-fastest fifty stand of the tournament from just 26 balls with Imad Wasim alongside for the best view in the house. Sohail made a good connection (well-timed or middled) with 22 percent of his deliveries, per CricViz, helping to post 308 and surely secure his place after being drafted in to replace Shoaib Malik.
The total gave Mohammad Amir plenty to work with and the left-arm quick continued to revel as one of the sport’s great outliers. With fast bowling dominated by speed and athleticism, he is easily the slowest of those with 10+ wickets in this tournament, registering an average delivery of just under 132 kmph – approximately 10kmph less than Australia’s Mitchell Starc. Yet his deadly accuracy has seen him establish himself as one of the greats, pulling level with Starc and Jofra Archer on 15 wickets for the tournament. Amir is bowling just shy of 65 percent of his balls at a good length, per CricViz, with Pat Cummins the only other bowler with 10+ wickets able to post more than 50 percent.
Bowling of Amir’s quality will continue to prove invaluable, yet Sohail followed Braithwaite’s lead, proving from here on that the pace of a batsman’s innings and executing in the most pressurised moments will settle this tournament.