The Jekyll and Hyde, that is Pakistan cricket, couldn’t have chosen a more inopportune time to show their bad side. They haven’t won an ODI series for a year and needed just 212 to clinch a series win on a placid batting surface but combusted in a spectacular, yet in someway typical, fashion.
However, there was some great drama as just when you thought New Zealand had sealed the game, Mohammad Aamer scripted a remarkable comeback along with Saeed Ajmal but New Zealand held their nerves to clinch a series win.
When Aamer came to bat Pakistan needed 126 runs from 26.5 overs with only two wickets in hand and people were slowly emptying the stadium. Game over, surely? But what is Pakistan cricket without some more drama. And what is New Zealand cricket without that struggle to finish games without giving a sniff to the opponents. It went to the last over, bowled by Jacob Oram, with Pakistan needing eight runs to win, but Ajmal top-edged a pull in the first ball and it was all over.
Aamer’s knock initially just appeared as if he was having a lark, like a tail ender indulging himself in a lost cause. Even when he hit Vettori for three slog-swept sixes, it didn’t seem the game would go the last over. However, Aamer kept playing some fine shots, cutting and driving Mills in particular, and the game hurtled towards a thrilling finale. But you felt that the pressure would really kick in when they get very close to the target like how Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar found out in Vadodara against Australia. And in the end, they fell just short.
Though Aamer played a memorable knock to record the highest score by a No 10 batsman it only ended up showing-up his more illustrious team-mates. Credit must be given to New Zealand, of course, for their determined persistence but even they would agree that the stunning turnaround wouldn’t have been possible without more than a little bit of help from Pakistan. Some of their shots defined rashness, some reflected a muddled mindset, and some were the result of edgy nervousness. One thought surely some one will take ownership of the chase, but no one did and New Zealand kept tightening the screws with some disciplined bowling.
Pakistan were cruising at 47 without loss when Daniel Vettori introduced himself in the eighth over to trigger a stunning collapse. He trapped Khalid Latif with an arm-ball to open a small window through which New Zealand gatecrashed into Pakistan’s party. They were helped by some poor cricket from Pakistan’s captain Younis Khan. He again struggled to get going with the bat and that pressure led to him running out a settled Salman Butt: Younis ran for a non-existent single after pushing to the left of short cover and sold Butt a dummy. It was the beginning of the end.
Younis, himself, perished next ball, stabbing a bouncing delivery from Shane Bond to first slip and exposed an edgy middle-order, which lacked the cool head of Mohammad Yousuf. The line-up was full of attacking batsmen but, as they showed in the last game, they can collapse under pressure. Only Shoaib Malik had the game and temperament to hang in for a fighting knock but he was guilty of playing the worst shot of all. Shahid Afridi ran Malik close with a poor shot of his own but there wasn’t much surprise when Afridi imploded.
Pakistan were wobbling at 74 for 3 when Kyle Mills bowled a few short balls at Malik who ducked. Suddenly, in a moment of madness, he fetched a short delivery from well outside off and carved it straight to deep midwicket. Pakistan had started its freefall.
Umar Akmal edged an intended cut and Afridi tried to break free by slogging Jacob Oram down the ground but only succeeded in edging behind. Pakistan’s last hope was Kamran Akmal and Abdul Razzaq but both also found different ways to combust.
Akmal was guilty of playing an overambitious shot, under the circumstance, as he tried to pull a delivery from Tim Southee which wasn’t all that short and top-edged it to mid-on. Razzaq chose to depart via a mad dash for a non-existent single: Umar Gul had pushed to the left of Vettori at mid-off and took one step out, but Razzaq charged too far down the track and couldn’t get back in time. Pakistan’s misery was almost complete but Aamer gave the fans something to smile about with an impetuous knock.
Not that New Zealand played a perfect game. They were in a great position at 138 for 2 in 27th over, after choosing to bat, but they collapsed to be bowled out for 211. McCullum, who hit a superbly-paced 76, fell to a tame dismissal, caught and bowled by Shoaib Malik. It opened up the floodgates as Younis proceeded to suffocate them with spin.
Consider this stat: From the 18th over to the 45th, New Zealand faced only two overs of seam bowling, gradually succumbing to the slow poison. Ajmal confused them with his doosras, Shahid Afridi taunted them with his sliders and googlies, and Shoaib Malik kept them honest with his offbreaks. Most batsmen pushed and prodded with nervous uncertainty, unsure about the destination of the spinning deliveries and one felt that a wicket was always around the corner. But it was nothing compared to the nightmares that began when Pakistan began their chase.