Pak vs. Eng, 2nd T20I, Karachi

Pak vs. Eng, 2nd T20I, Karachi

The noise at the Karachi National Stadium was deafening. Babar Azam threaded David Willey through extra cover and leapt into the cool night sky, punching the air and absorbing the roar of a sold-out crowd. Mohammad Rizwan held his arms up, took off his helmet and looked up at the sky before walking over to his opening partner and wrapping his arms around him in a 200-run partnership in a T20 run chase that breaks her own record. But beyond that, after relentless scrutiny and criticism, they had reminded their fans how brilliant they can be.

For Pakistan, T20 international cricket is all about the thrill of the chase. Since Rizwan was promoted to opening batting in December 2020, Pakistan has won 15 games as runners-up and lost just three. If they hit first, they’ve won as many games as they’ve lost (10 each).

At the innings break, a 200 goal looked like a difficult task, even on ground where average scores are high and three out of five chases are successful. Pakistan’s Sear were expensive but the ball slipped deep while slower balls seemed to grab from length. “I thought it was a very good result,” said Moeen Ali, England captain.

Their method – building a platform with low-risk, outnumbered shots, then waiting and waiting for the right moment to pounce – has had Pakistan winning many games, but also losing a few. It raises the ground but can lower the ceiling: Pakistan are rarely knocked out of the tournament cheaply, but their mixed batting performance at first suggests they’ve often left runs there. Your batting assist is an outlier in a format characterized by power-hitting.

But on Thursday night, chasing a big score helped bring some clarity to thinking. Rizwan started brilliantly, shooting two of the first four balls he faced at four and David Willey at six, but received two early lives: on the 23rd he was dropped by a backward kicking Alex Hales and on the 32nd he was shot at Attack beaten Adil Rashid, but Phil Salt missed a hard stumping chance.

Babar was the slower starter, bringing his half-century to 39 balls, nine more than Rizwan. They steadily accumulated after the power play, but with eight overs remaining the required rate had risen to exactly two runs per ball, with Liam Dawson rattling off his four overs for just 26 runs.

“We don’t listen to outside snipers. There will always be criticism, and if you don’t do it well, people will be waiting to pounce. The fans always support us.”

Babar Azam

But the 13th over was the turning point as Babar saw an opportunity to bring down Moeen and seized it. He has often hit cautiously against spin in this format, but has hit Moeen twice over the midwicket and into the wire fences separating fans from the field, doubling the number of sixes he has hit against offspin in his T20I career.

After Babar pushed Moeen’s fifth ball past, Rizwan swept the sixth for a six. The over had cost 21 runs, and the required rate dropped to 10.71. “I really feel like I lost the game for us,” Moeen later said. “It was a gamble, just tried to almost buy a wicket but obviously it didn’t work. Then Pakistan won the game.”

Suddenly Babar was in control, flicking Sam Curran away through his fine leg and even crunching Adil Rashid’s Googly Over Midwicket with the venom of a man proving a point to those who questioned him. After an unusually meager Asia Cup, Babar was back in the box seat.

On 91, he swung Willey into deep midwicket only for Curran to parry the ball over the rope for a six. “Babar, Babar!” The crowd sang as one before erupting as he nudged Curran into the ceiling for the single that made him the first man to hit multiple T20I hundreds for Pakistan, just 23 balls after earning the applause for his fifty had acknowledged.

By this point, Rizwan was already playing second fiddle, but couldn’t contain his joy. He punched the air as he ran to the keeper’s end for a single, then hugged him, made up of two parts pride and one part relief. Karachi stood up to celebrate a masterful inning from Lahore’s favorite son.

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Three days earlier, Babar had gone to the national stadium’s press conference room, where he demanded answers from local media about his poor form and criticized Pakistan’s method, which unlike England’s relay race resembles an endurance test where each batsman plays his shots and then passes the baton to the next. He returned with the understated confidence of a man who knew he had silenced some of them.

“We don’t listen to outside snipers,” he said. “There’s always going to be criticism, and if you don’t do it well, people are waiting to pounce. The fans always support us. In sport, every day is different and there are ups and downs. The fans are by your side. The amount of support we’ve had has been outstanding, regardless of performance.”

This was the fifth time Babar and Rizwan have partnered with 150 or more people. They’ve opened 31 times together in T20Is and the bond they’ve forged is so strong that sometimes they don’t even bother to call each other through for runs. “It reflects the trust between us,” said Babar.

“We’ve chased big sums like this in the past,” he added. “We planned to play according to the situation and plan when to attack and when to hold back. The execution of that plan was excellent. When you have a goal in front of you, you play by it and change gears accordingly.”

Moeen had no choice but to hold his hands up and accept that England had been beaten well. “I know they get a lot of criticism for their hit rates, but I’ve never seen a problem,” he said. “Rizwan got off on a plane and Babar took his time but then nobody could stop him. They are brilliant players.”

When England last toured the country in 2005, Pakistan had not played a single T20 international; 17 years later, criticism of the short form has become a national past. Time will tell if Pakistan can win a World Cup using this method, but on nights like these it’s hard to believe there’s too much wrong with that.

Matt Roller is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98