Two days before the eighth anniversary of one of the great World Cup upsets, Pakistan knew that there was no margin for error against Ireland in the final Pool B World Cup clash on Sunday (March 15). When William Porterfield, the Irish captain, helped himself to a composed hundred, the nerves would have been jangling. But magnificent slog-overs bowling from Wahab Riaz (3-54) and Sohail Khan (2-44) prevented a late run glut, and Pakistan chased down the tricky target of 238 with the composure that had been missing from their batting earlier in the tournament.
Leading the way was Sarfraz Ahmed, the wicketkeeper-batsman who had been on the bench for the first four matches. His unbeaten 101 wasn’t the most fluent innings, but the unflustered manner in which he went about his work meant that the result was a formality long before the winning runs were struck.
For Ireland to have any chance of defending a modest total against opponents who had crossed 235 with the bat only against the United Arab Emirates, they needed early wickets. Alex Cusack was accurate and John Mooney gave it everything, but the lack of pace allowed Ahmed Shahzad and Sarfraz to settle down quickly enough. There was no dawdling from either, and when Porterfield turned to George Dockrell in the tenth over, he lasted just one over that went for 17.
A sweep from Sarfraz upset his length, and there were three subsequent fours as he dropped either too full or too short. To Ireland’s dismay, the half-chances didn’t stick either. Sarfraz was on 37 when Gary Wilson failed to hold on to a thick edge off Kevin O’Brien’s bowling.
Shahzad, with only one innings of substance in the tournament (against the UAE), eased to his half-century off 52 balls, but was then guilty of throwing it away. Having clipped Stuart Thompson for four earlier in the over, he then went for an ambitious pull that only looped as far as Ed Joyce at mid-on. Shahzad faced 71 balls for his 63, and the first-wicket partnership produced 120 in 136 balls.
Sarfraz was then guilty of yes-no-yes-no as poor Haris Sohail was stranded mid-pitch and run out for just 3, but with Sarfraz working the ball into the gaps in every direction and Misbah-ul-Haq showing real intent from the outset, the sort of collapse that Pakistan fans have had recurring nightmares about in recent times never materialised.
On a placid pitch, there was nothing wretched about the bowling. But there was little to commend it either. The runs accumulated steadily, save for the odd explosion as when Misbah deposited a Dockrell delivery beyond the rope at wide long-on. A disdainful pull for six off Kevin O’Brien summed up the unequal nature of the contest, and though Misbah trod on his stumps soon after, the result was never in doubt.
Sarfraz struck only six fours in his hundred, including two cuts for four in a Cusack over, but his restoration to the top of the order has been behind the rejuvenation of a moribund line-up. As has the reliance on pace bowling, which again paid such handsome dividends.
Pakistan had been dealt a massive blow before the game when Mohammad Irfan, their towering left-arm pacer, was ruled out with a hip problem. But Ehsan Adil, who came into the side in his place, reaped immediate reward when he trapped Paul Stirling in front in the fourth over.
Porterfield was pulling and driving fluently, but with Joyce taking his time, the run-rate didn’t sneak past five till nine overs were bowled. Wahab, so impressive in previous games, started poorly, but soon made amends with the wicket of Joyce, who was never in control of a pull to a ball that rushed on to him.
Niall O’Brien, whose unbeaten 72 was the fulcrum of the Irish win against Pakistan at Sabina Park in 2007, came in and played a couple of gorgeous strokes, but then miscued one to Umar Akmal at short cover. It was what Rahat Ali deserved after a fine opening spell that slowed Ireland right down.
Porterfield and Andy Balbirnie added 48 in 78 balls, but could never really dominate. Shahid Afridi, leading wicket-taker at the last World Cup along with India’s Zaheer Khan, had taken only two in this competition. He went wicketless again, but a tidy spell in which only 38 were conceded piled the pressure on.
Porterfield periodically broke the shackles with some well-placed drives and deflections, but Balbirnie fell once Haris Sohail was brought on to bowl his left-arm spin, as Afridi caught a top-edged sweep at short fine leg.
Gary Wilson also added 48 with Porterfield, and the captain received a standing ovation as a straight biff off Rahat ricocheted off the bowler’s outstretched fingers and down the ground to give him the two runs that raised three figures.
But once again, Ireland couldn’t build on a promising partnership. This time, Porterfield was the man to go, mistiming an attempted loft over mid-on. Afridi ran in quickly and snaffled the chance. Porterfield’s 107 had spanned 131 balls and included 11 fours and six off Sohail.
Wilson’s 38-ball 29 ended with an upper cut to third man that Wahab took quite nonchalantly, and the expected explosion from Kevin O’Brien never materialised on a surface that appeared a little two-paced. Ireland lost 6 for 58 in the last 12 overs, as Wahab, Sohail and Rahat showed what a difference genuine pace can make.
Pakistan’s ground fielding was dreadful at times, but unlike against West Indies, they held on to the crucial catches. Having made a mess of two previous chases at this World Cup, the pressure was squarely on the batsmen. Fortunately, in Sarfraz, who has become one of the stories of the tournament, they found the batting hero they so needed.