Tamim Iqbal begins the last powerplay over with a graceful flick off Rumman Raees that goes for a boundary. His opening partnership with Hashim Amla is looking daunting as they pursue Pakistan’s 197 in the first T20I on a benign surface. Raees drags his length the next ball after he comes wide of the crease. Tamim charges down the wicket in search of another boundary, only to lose his middle-stump. Pakistan get their first wicket of the series. World XI are one down for 43.
Three balls later, Raees leaves everyone in awe. He outfoxes Amla to induce a catch for the player guarding the cover region. Just a ball earlier, the legendary South African batsman had picked his slower-one to smack a shorter delivery for four at long-on. But that didn’t put Raees on the backfoot. It shouldn’t have, given this was the variation that brought him into the limelight. Raees bowls another slower-one and this time Amla falls in his trap. World XI have both of their openers back in the pavilion in no time. They are two down for 48.
Nine overs later, the crowd is still unsure who to cheer for and the touring party’s think-tank is still scratching their heads as it contemplates the best combinations to defeat Pakistan in Pakistan.
It is the 15th over and David Miller charges down the wicket and smokes Shadab Khan for a towering six over the long-on fence. The ball lands well beyond the advertising skirting.
Before the over had begun, the World XI required 88 at 14.7 an over and with a batsman of Miller’s class at the crease, such a daunting task often turns out to be a cakewalk.
Shadab drags the next ball a bit short and bowls it a little away from the left-hander. Miller dances down the wicket to reenact the previous ball. But this time, the 18-year-old’s astuteness gets the better of the South African, who has 154 international white-ball games under his belt. The googly spins away from Miller and goes straight into the gloves of Sarfraz Ahmed who whips off the bails in no time. He leaps in joy and Shadab gives a bitter send-off to Miller.
With this wicket, the fate of the match is sealed. Pakistan win the series opener.
The series hangs in balance after Amla and Thisara Perera decimated Pakistan’s bowling in the second T20I to chase down 175 on the penultimate ball in the second T20I.
The World XI are put a 184-run target in the third and final match. Tamim gets them off to a flying start with three fours off Imad Wasim’s bowling in the first over.
Usman Shinwari, who had bowled just one over in the previous match, steps up. He has been asked to bowl with the new ball today. The left-arm bowler goes wide of the crease and angles the ball into Tamim. The ball crashes into the stumps and there’s the breakthrough that Pakistan needed. World XI are one down for 15 at the end of the second over.
Before the World XI arrived in Lahore, everyone asked when Mohammad Amir would join the Pakistan squad for the series. To counter some of the most daunting batsmen put together in a line-up, Pakistan, of course, required their best to show up. Amir, however, stayed back in England for the birth of his first child. On the eve of the first T20I, he made himself unavailable for the series. But by the time the series is over, Amir has barely been missed.
The ICC World XI coach Andy Flower was all praises for Pakistani bowlers after his side were beaten 2-1 in the landmark series. When asked which areas his side couldn’t match Pakistan, Flower said: “I think they bowled outstandingly well. They have got a nice variety in their bowling department. Yes, we hit them a bit in the second match. But in the other two games they have shown a great mixture of slower balls, yorkers, slower balls, bumpers.”
Their desire to remain in shape and adhere by the fitness standards laid out by their coaching staff has also played a role. Over the past few months, Pakistan’s team culture has revolved around fitness and the coaching staff has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards those who fail to meet the requirements in this regard.
While speaking to a senior member of the coaching staff before the first World XI T20I, I asked what had they been doing differently than the previous coaches that has led to a marked improvement in the fitness levels. He told me about the zero-tolerance policy on the matters of fitness. “You have to keep yourself in shape to play for Pakistan,” he said as he shed light on the matter. “If you cannot [keep yourself fit], you don’t deserve to represent your nation. Previously, nobody cared about the results of the fitness tests and unfit players continued to play for Pakistan. We don’t let it happen now.”
The improvements were also visible to Flower. “Our Lions team faced Rumman Raees a couple of years ago in UAE,” he remarked while speaking on Pakistan’s fitness levels, “and you can see the work that he has put in to change his physique.”
On pristine surfaces, Hashim Amla, the most sought-after batsman on the tour and arguably the best of all in the series, finished the series as the third highest run-getter with 119, way behind Ahmed Shehzad, who had piled up 171 runs in three matches. Babar Azam topped the chart with 179.
A bowling unit, which is based on nine bowlers, that had an experience of 47 T20Is before the series began made the series win happen. Regardless of what the future turns out for the return of international cricket, the future of Pakistan’s bowlers remains bright.
The writer tweets @ahsannagi