Here are the simple facts about New Zealand. It is the only side to score 200 runs in the 2022 T20 8.com/world/">World Cup. It is the only side with two batsmen – Finn Allen and Glenn Phillips – in the list of top-ten strike-rates in this tournament. It is the only side to use five bowlers – no more, precisely five – in every outing in this tournament.That last bit tells you something, in particular, and that’s New Zealand’s plans have worked well in this tournament. And it is a fair distribution amongst those bowlers – 20 wickets for the three pacers, another 14 for the spinners. And in doing so, none of their economies have risen above 7.13.
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In fact, Mitchell Santner (economy 6.43) and Ish Sodhi (economy 6.78) have been quite successful in a tournament that has been played mostly in pace-friendly conditions. This bowling attack works and hunts in a pack, cutting off the runs, and picking up those wickets on offer. So far, only the English batting line-up has been able to get the measure of it.
Add to it, those strikes-rates – Allen’s 189.58 and Phillips’ 163.86 – and somehow it seems that New Zealand has been able to improve on its previous World Cup outing. Remember, this is the side that has made two finals in a row at ICC white-ball tournaments, three if you count the World Test Championship. It has made five consecutive white-ball tournament semi-finals. This is a squad at its very prime, and it took a weird rule in the 2019 ODI World Cup. Now, that they have improved, would you bet against them?
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Before you start betting though, take a look at the other side. It is dressed in green, with their latest jersey representing bolts of lightning. Yes, this is Pakistan one is talking about. And while their current tournament performance hasn’t really been electric, they have reached the semi-final like a bolt out of nowhere. Just like lightning!
You would think that South Africa ought to be here. You would want to say, by right, having beaten a tournament favourite like India after all. But how can we possibly think that after its loss to the Netherlands? Shocking seems an understatement here, perhaps valid more for Pakistan. It almost seems as if the second qualification spot from group 2 has gone to the side that ruined its chances to a lesser degree.
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Pakistan, like South Africa, is a habitual offender in that respect. Every time you think it has got hold of title-winning form, they hit a roadblock and collapse. Perhaps it was best seen in how its title challenge was snuffed out in the UAE last year. Having beaten India, and winning all its group games at the 2021 T20 World Cup, Pakistan seemed to be in pole position for a second title. Until it ran into Australia, and Matthew Wade, in the semi-final!
Reflecting on those last few overs as Wade taught Shaheen Afridi how to use different angles at the Dubai International Stadium, you come to the conclusion that it wasn’t really meant to be. Last year’s World Cup was following too perfect a script for Pakistan, and this is not how it was supposed to be. For, Pakistan cricket flourishes at its unpredictable best. Consistency and calculative ability are not watchwords when it comes to Pakistan cricket. You best throw them out of the window.
It is what makes Pakistan so dangerous heading into this semi-final against New Zealand. It was down, and almost out of the tournament, teetering on the edge, when South Africa went down in blistering fashion. The mathematical equation after that stupendous Dutch win meant it could be either Pakistan or Bangladesh. But did Bangladesh ever really have a chance in that game?
Ordinarily, you cage an animal and it becomes a fiery beast, fighting until the very end whether for survival or for victory. With Pakistan, you can take it a tad further. Lock it up, and threaten to throw away the key, and that’s precisely what will reinvigorate it. It’s the quintessential underdog instinct, only in Pakistan’s case, it is ascertained to be on steroids.
When on the back foot, fighting for survival, for victory, for a title triumph, an unpredictable Pakistan is a delight to watch. It allows a sense of freedom – there is no fear of losing. There is almost an acceptance of a loss, before it comes. Does it allow them to revel more in victory? You only have to look back at 1992 or 2009; it’s two title-winning campaigns in ODIs and T20Is for reference. Every time Pakistan struggles, its fans are able to revisit and glorify those triumphs, invoking a similar passion in the current setup.
How else would you define Pakistan’s win against South Africa? At 43-4, the light was going out from its campaign, before Shadab Khan played a rescuing hand and smashed 52 off 22 balls. Let it be said here, he has been among the top-five most influential players in this tournament. 10 wickets at economy 6.22 and a strike-rate of 177 when it mattered most – on any other occasion, you could say, this is title-winning form.
And yet, he is only one of the few bright sparks in that Pakistan line-up. There is also Shaheen Afridi’s revival of bowling form, or Mohammad Haris, who suddenly finds himself thrust into the limelight, or Iftikhar Ahmed, who quietly does the heavy work in the background. While we marvel at Pakistan’s sudden entry into the semi-final as another of those obnoxiously thrilling scripts, these handful players have done the hard writing.
Faced with a professional Black Caps’ set-up, Pakistan ought to be worried about its weaknesses. Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan have managed less than 150 runs in five innings between them, and a fluid middle order doesn’t work well when the openers don’t set up a base. But would you count out the out-of-form duo on this day, or follow that erratic script, and assume this is when they finally come good in this World Cup?
That last sentence perhaps best sets the stage for this semi-final then. A consistent, calculative and calm New Zealand side is mostly expected to tide over Pakistan’s storm. It is easier said, even easier written, and perhaps mostly anticipated, going solely by this tournament’s form and record.
Then again, do we really expect the storm to die out so suddenly?
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