The moment that encapsulated what Pakistan thought about the contest against England came right at the end after they clinched a memorable win by 14 runs, quelling a serious challenge by the hosts. The bowler, Wahab Riaz, was still angry at a misfield that had the last ball, inconsequential to the match result, run away to the boundary. He was almost in a trance, staring at the fielder on the boundary and had to be yanked out of his reverie by Mark Wood, who hugged him.
This wasn’t a reaction of a team that had even contemplated that it would be an upset if they won; there weren’t any over-the-top reactions from anyone. Shaking hands with each other – a nice little moment was Mohammad Hafeez enveloping Sarfraz Ahmed with a hug, and both walking towards another veteran Shoaib Malik. Sarfraz the captain, Hafeez who first played for Pakistan 16 years ago, and Malik who outdates him, the only player in the tournament who played international cricket in the 1990s.
A day before, an English scribe had asked whether a Pakistan win would be considered an upset and Azhar Mahmood, the bowling coach, made sure he repeated the word upset as a question before he answered in the negative.
If you are a pop-psychologist, Pakistan’s triumph would be a win-win situation for both the victors and the vanquished — and as a result for the tournament. Pakistan needed this to shrug off the first-match blues, and England needed it to stub the hype building around them that could cause insane pressure later. A blessing in disguise, perhaps. Now, yet again, the tournament remains open.
Pakistan could have surrendered to the pre-match hype. They didn’t. England too could have given up when they were 118 for 4 in the 22nd over – still 231 runs adrift with Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan, and Ben Stokes in the hutch. They didn’t either.
There is no doubt that Jos Buttler is a star. Despite the frenetic style of play, he exudes a calmness rare with such hitters. The run rate kept climbing away from him but he kept reining it in. In the past, he has talked about how in the last couple of years, he has cracked the code of what works best for him in terms of technique and, importantly, in his head: he strives to be in a “meditative state”. Bang, Crash, and a gentle smile or an impassive face stares back when the camera zooms in.
Unlike most top-order batsmen, Buttler holds his bat a touch low, almost thigh-high and sort of crouches in his stance as he peers across. Steve Smith and Rohit Sharma hold their hands pretty high but not Buttler, and it’s one of the key factors in the way he bats. The first thing he looks across isn’t the bowler running in but the top of the off stump at the other end as he believes it helps him get his head and balance right. Somewhere later, he shifts to the bowler even as he begins to move back as his first step.
Then a forward movement, sometimes aligned with a hip-swivel ala a baseball hitter, and those low hands with that cocked wrist help him punish deliveries of varied lengths. If it’s a yorker, he drops his hands pretty easily and meets the ball almost close to the middle of the bat (a lot closer to it than most batsmen) and calmly threads the gap on the off-side. It also helps in his scoops over fine-leg.
If there was a mistake – it’s silly to even contemplate it – but perhaps he would look back at the overs from Shadab Khan and Hasan Ali after the fall of Joe Root, who played a wonderfully composed hand but fell to trigger not a collapse, but a lull that proved to be costly for England.
Shadab’s leg-spin proved to be the difference in the end, among other things. As many as 35 runs had come in four overs before the 39th, but Shadab gave away just two and picked up Root, who had missed two cuts off back-of- length turners and chose the wrong one to cut – too full and was swallowed at backward point.
Buttler crashed Riaz for 10 runs next over but then began the lull. With Moeen Ali, out of sorts, (the left-hander was expected to take on the leggie), Buttler too decided to play the spinner out. Bu there were still three overs in him. In that vital spell, Shadab gave away just 13 runs. Hasan Ali too skidded in two tight overs and suddenly England required 65 from six overs.
Until Root was there, and especially in the latter stages of their partnership, it seemed England had it covered but now, they were staring at a huge ask, especially with Ali struggling. Buttler had begun to manufacture shots, he sent one in the air just wide of the lunging mid-off and perished next ball, cutting a Mohammad Amir slower one that bounce straight to backward point.
Again, just before that ball, Malik had a mini-chat with Amir to calm him down. Despite Chris Woakes’ valiant attempt, the task proved beyond England. A day before the game, after the media interaction, a member of the Pakistan camp had leant over and whispered into the ear: “Upset? Bhai, the cup isn’t coming home!” It still might but Pakistan’s win has certainly spiced up the tournament.