The bane of sportswriters is the editorial requirement that copy comes in “at stumps”. A previous editor once stormed up to ask what the $$#@&^%$ delay was. The players haven’t even left the field, I pointed out. “So? You are not writing about how players left the field, only what they did on it!” I mean…
So you write as you watch, and you hope that somehow, the random moments you pick to focus on will prove to be decisive, the determinants of the eventual outcome.
It can go horribly wrong. Imagine a game where for 90 overs one team is in command, and you focus on that team and its heroes, and your story is about how team A won and team B lost and then, in the last few minutes, some bloke loses the plot, another finds it, and the game turns on its head (Remember Stokes vs Brathwaite in the last World T20 final?) and team B wins and oh shit, I need to send the copy NOW…
If journalism is history in a hurry, then match reports are history on Red Bull. And in that spirit of instant comment, on the sort of freezing day that once prompted Aussie fast bowling legend Jeff Thomson to crib that “It is colder in England than it is back in my fridge back home in Brisbane,” here are bullet-pointed moments from the clash between Australia and Pakistan at Taunton, written as it happened:
#1. It was the 8th ball of the innings, the second of left arm quick Shaheen Afridi’s first over, the second ball David Warner was facing in the innings. Fractionally short. Warner swiveled into a controlled pull that rocketed the ball to the midwicket fence. Back in the hut Ricky Ponting, Australia’s assistant coach, nodded emphatically, turned to his chief Justin Langer, and exchanged a word and a smile.
History, apparently, was repeating – in the recent IPL Shikhar Dhawan, opening for Delhi Capitals, had gotten himself into a bit of a rut, scoring his runs at a Test-match pace. Ponting took the southpaw aside for a word. You have all the shots, go out and play them, was the gist of the message – and Dhawan caught fire.
In this edition of the World Cup, it was Warner’s turn to play inexplicably slow cricket at the top of the order – and Ponting, judging by his body language when Warner got off the blocks with that four, “had a word”. And Warner, like Dhawan before him, profited – to such an extent that he was fourth out, in the 38th over, for 107 off 111 balls, having anchored partnerships of 146 with Finch, 43 with Steve Smith and 34 with Glenn Maxwell.
#2. There is what happens on the field, and then there is what we perceive as happening. The other day, against India in the first powerplay, Warner batted like he was mired in molasses, right? Totally took the wind out of Australia’s sails? Ended up first frustrating, then running out, his livid partner Aaron Finch because of his inability to take singles, rotate strike? Remember?
And today Warner was on song, yes? Australia 56/0 at the end of ten overs; Warner 27 off 21, finch 22 off 39, much better, yeah? Check this chart out:
There’s more. Against India, the openers had five fours and one six in the powerplays; against Pakistan, surprise, surprise, five fours and a six (the four twos, and extras, not accounted for here).
But just stay with dots and singles for now, looking at Australia’s earlier games. Versus the West Indies, 48 dots and 14 singles in the first powerplay. Versus Afghanistan, 43 dots and 8 singles. Could it be the fact that Australia lost against India be the reason why, in our perception, Warner (and the opening partnership) was particularly slow that day?
#3. Goran Ivanisevic is the Pakistan of tennis – totally unpredictable, capable of being sublime and ridiculous, sometimes both on the same day. There is, he explained, a good Goran and a bad Goran and you don’t know which one will show up.
In course of his winning wildcard run at Wimbledon in 2001, he introduced a third version after saving a match point with two unplayable aces. “The third Goran had to come,” he said, post-match. “I had to call him. He’s the Emergency Goran. Emergency, 911 call, and he came on deuce. Calm down, two aces, thank you.”
Pakistan is the Ivanisevic of team sports, and all three Pakistans showed up in the first half of the game.
Bad Pakistan: When you insert the opposition after winning the toss in overcast conditions, having dropped star spinner Shadab for the young but green Shaheen Afridi, you don’t want your bowlers and fielders giving away freebies.
After a superb opening over by Amir, Afridi came on – and gave Aaron Finch the perfect sit-up delivery to shovel over midwicket for a pressure-releasing six; the left arm quick’s first two overs went for 24 and negated Amir’s good work at the other end.
The field seemed full of holes; three catches went down and of those, two – the first in the 13th over, when Finch (then on 28 off 45) was let off at slip by Asif Ali off the hard-working Wahab Riaz; then again in the 37th over when Asif, proving he is a versatile doofus, let him off at third man off an upper cut, again off the luckless Wahab.
Good Pakistan: At the end of 30 overs Australia was 191/2, with Warner on 83 off 86 and Glenn Maxwell just in at the fall of Smith’s wicket to up the ante. 350 was on, maybe more. That is the sort of situation where fielding sides – particularly if they’ve let down catches and given away a good 30 or so through misfields – begin to wilt. Pakistan’s bowlers, Wahab Riaz, Amir, and even Shaheed Afridi, came back focused, on point, and sharp – and for the most part, the fielders held on to their chances. And they ended up bowling out Australia with an over left to go.
Emergency Pakistan: Pakistan’s in-case-of-emergency-break-glass option was Mohammad Amir.
In his opening spell he bowled like an angel. An unlucky angel, beating Finch on the outside edge, the inside edge and every other way possible without finding the edge. Against him, Finch personified Fred Truman’s famous description of his own batting: “I’m all right when his arm comes over, but I am out of form by the time the bloody ball gets here.”
Finch faced eight Amir deliveries before he could sneak a single and get off the mark; he managed just 3 runs in the 17 balls he faced of Amir in a first spell that read 4-2-11-0.
As Australia’s opening partnership neared the 150 mark, he was brought back as a 911 call, and he struck with the first ball to remove Finch. At the death, he took out Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Alex Carey via a superb yorker, and Mitchell Starc to end his spell, and the innings, with a five-for.
Throughout the innings, he alone consistently hit the fuller length that allowed the ball to move in the air, producing a bewildering variety of deliveries in a bewitching display of fast swing/seam bowling. And every time he turned a batsman inside out and roundabout, he smiled that trademark smile, the one where the gap between his upper incisors catches the eye, like a gap in a newly-painted white fence.
#4: Barring his discomfiture against Amir, Finch played a near-perfect innings. He was shrewd in his selection of which bowler to target and when; he played the field like a violin, picking the gaps at will and matching the rabbit-like Warner in his running between wickets. Warner, too, was close to perfection: Off the blocks quickly, allowing Finch the space to negotiate Amir; then, when Finch began cutting loose, able to turn the strike over to his captain, and once Finch went, buckling down to the job of anchoring without getting comatose. Barring that, though, there was nothing worth noting about the rest of the Aussie batting – a gorgeous shot here, another there, and total lack of application in between.
#5: These days, Fakhar Zaman is like the motorcycle outrider clearing the way for the VIPs; the innings only begins after he gets himself out (it took him three balls to pick out deep third man placed for the inevitable slash).
The VIPs who follow, though? They can bat. Imam, with his glasses and his pedantic defense, plays like an escapee from high school. Babar Azam is the real eye-opener. For over a decade since the retirement of the legends, Pakistan appeared unable to produce batsmen who had even seen, much less mastered, the grammar of batting. Azam is a throwback: easy stance, no fidgets, plays impossibly late and under his eye, slight trigger movement of the front foot into the line, and his cover drives in particular are worth framing and hanging in a museum. And behind them comes Hafeez, whose carefully controlled belligerence makes him the ideal number four behind those two classy players. None of the three seem particularly troubled by pace, of the Cummins-Starc variety – Imam cut, Azam drove, and Hafeez slashed them at will.
Two partnerships had the Aussies on the backfoot. 54 off 52 between Azam and Imam, then 80 off 86 between Imam and Hafeez. The two premier quicks had been negated; Kane Richardson and Nathan Coulter-Nile had been handled, and when Glenn Maxwell came on as a fifth bowling option, Hafeez in particular took to him, his four overs costing 27. At the end of 25 overs, Pakistan were 126/3 and, or so you thought, in control of the chase.
#6: Cue bad Pakistan. First ball of the 26th, Imam went out of his way to feather a ball that was going way wide of leg stump – had he left it alone it was a wide, and an extra ball. Still, Hafeez was going good, Sarfaraz can bat, Finch decided was not an option, so he brought himself on to bowl right arm something-or-other. The last ball of his over, the 27th, was a full toss and Hafeez unerringly picked out deep midwicket. Third ball of the 28th, Cummins seamed one back at pace, and Shoaib Malik got the inner edge through to a diving Carey. Last ball of the 30th over, Kane Richardson in the channel, getting elevator lift outside off with a cross seam ball and Asif Ali nicked off as he tried to run it to third man. In short, 30 balls, 24 runs, four wickets. Or, in contemporary argot: Peak Pakistan.
#7: More peak Pakistan: Hasan Ali decided to have himself a party. Two sixes off Richardson in the 32nd. Two fours off Maxwell in the 33rd. Two fours off Richardson in the 34th, while his captain watched bemused at the other end. And then another cross seam Richardson bouncer, hooked unerringly to deep fine, 32 off 15 and Ali’s little party ends prematurely. Here is the number that should make Pakistan cringe, assuming it does cringe after such implosions: When Ali was out, Pakistan needed just 108 off 96 balls – a doddle, really, except they were 7 down.
#8: Down, but not out, though, not yet. Wahab Riaz came out, wore a couple of short ones from Starc on his body, got pissed off, and began smacking the Aussies around. Finch, having bowled out Cummins before the 40th, tried to sneak in a Maxwell over and Riaz took him for 14; then smacked Coulter-Nile over square leg… more peak Pakistan, just when the fat lady was beginning to sing.
#9: With a second left on the DRS clock, Australia challenged for a nick off against Wahab Riaz, and hot-spot found a faint, incriminating spot to end an eye-catching 49 off 39 cameo from Wahab that powered a 64-run 8th wicket partnership, leaving Pakistan needing 44 off 34 at that point. Two balls later, full in-swinging yorker from Starc castled Amir. And, typically, a run out ended the innings, with Pakistan still 42 shy of the target.
Australia won, just – or, more accurately, helped Pakistan commit suicide. But the more you see of this Australian attack, the more you realize it doesn’t have the quality to go the distance, particularly against a good batting lineup capable of seeing the opening Starc-Cummins burst off. Vide India, three days ago.