On paper, then, the only team capable of stopping Australia is perhaps Australia themselves. And the ODI World Champions seemed to be doing precisely that in their first two matches: the loss against New Zealand in Dharamsala, and the unconvincing win against Bangladesh in Bangalore.
On those two slow turners, the general feeling was that Australia had erred in their strategy, sending Smith at No.3 ahead of David Warner. And, in the first match, promoting Ashton Agar over Faulkner at a tricky time. Moreover, in both of those outings, they left the World No.1 T20I batsman Finch on the bench, playing the all-rounder Mitchell Marsh in his place.
While the Australian players defended the game-plan, they did admit the team wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
The normally refined Aussie engine was lacking efficiency. It was running significantly lean.
“We haven’t been as clinical as we wanted to be, but this game against Pakistan is a good opportunity. A lot of guys in the change room will be really looking to turn it on and put some big performance,” wicket-keeper Phil Nevill said on Wednesday.
Smith echoed the same sentiment a day after. “I don’t think we have hit a 100 per cent just yet. But I think that’s good in the tournament. You want to play your best cricket at the back-end of the tournament… Hopefully, over the next two games, we can play to our potential,” he said.
They perhaps didn’t play to their true potential on Friday either, but still trumped Pakistan by 21 runs after nearly scoring 200. In the process, they set up a virtual quarterfinal against India to be played here on Sunday.
On a strip that had a bit for both bat and ball, Smith showed the right intent by picking Finch over Marsh and sending him to open alongside Khawaja.
Khawaja missed a few against Mohammad Amir and hit a few off an erratic Mohammad Sami before dispatching Wahab Riaz over the deep square leg boundary. But the latter had his revenge right away when he fired a 92-mile yorker-length ball that sneaked under the left-hander’s bat and splayed his stumps.
Few bowlers in the world can generate more hostility than Riaz in full flow, and Australia had been exposed to his unrestrained malice during the ODI World Cup last year.
It felt like round two of that battle when Riaz packed off Warner, who was batting ahead of Smith this time, with an even faster ball that nipped back from just short of a length spot.
So, even as Smith came down the order here, at 5.1 overs, his entry on Friday was at an earlier stage of the match than on the previous two occasions. Shortly, Finch too exited, leaving Australia at 57 for three in the eighth over and Pakistan on the ascendancy.
One of the finest batsmen around today, Smith has had a curious T20I record.
Before Friday, he was averaging a shade over 19 in this format. Just to put it into perspective, his average in Test cricket is 60 and in One-Day Internationals, it’s 40.
It was an anomaly – a remnant of his early days when he was considered more of a leg-spinner than batsman.
Smith set about reviving the Australian innings in a methodical fashion.
Two deliveries off Riaz separated by 14 overs sum up how his innings veered from being calculative to downright audacious.
Early on, as the Pakistani bowlers were threatening to take the game away, the Australian captain focused his energies on running between the wickets.
On the fifth ball of Riaz’s second over, he flicked one from outside off to mid-wicket region and made a mad dash.
Chasing the ball was the 35-year-old Sami. Actually, he wasn’t as much chasing it as he was strolling after it.
Smith and Finch had converted what would have been a comfortable two into three runs by the time Sami picked it.
And they sneaked in one more during the time Sami’s lazy throw reached the pitch.
On the final ball of the 19th over, Smith, who has already scored a half century by now, stood outside off exposing all three stumps as Riaz steamed in.
As the bowler approached the crease, Smith teased him even more by walking further towards the off-side wide marker.
Riaz ignored the stumps and took the bait, and bowled wider still, a fullish delivery that almost landed on the edge of the pitch.
Smith picked it from there and flicked it over mid-wicket for four.
Along the way, he shared brisk partnerships with Maxwell (62 off 6.2 overs) and then Watson (74* in 6.2 overs).
The retiring Watson, who came at No.6 today after opening in the first two matches, in fact outscored his captain, making an unbeaten 21-ball 44.
There was speculation on how he would handle Riaz after their duel in Adelaide.
Any hopes of an encore were swatted away by Watto between square leg and fine leg.
However, it was against Amir that Watson was at his fiercest, plundering 21 runs off the six balls that he faced.
It included a four and a six in the last over.
Shahid Afridi’s shoulder drooped further.
Boom, boom, out It was an improbable chase, and Pakistan needed a miracle to pull it off.
Sharjeel Khan ought to begin from where he left off against New Zealand on Tuesday night.
But Josh Hazlewood gave nothing away in his first over, making the task even harder. Khan did cut loose briefly against Nathan Coulter-Nile.
However, at the other end, Hazlewood removed Ahmed Shehzad, forcing him to conjure something out of nothing by playing across.
James Faulkner then made Khan drag one onto his stumps.
Umar Akmal hit a quickfire 30 before losing his middle stump to the leg-spinner Adam Zampa.
Afridi walked out to the chants of ‘Lala, Lala’ and first hit Maxwell for a six over long-on before he later stepped out to smoke a huge six over the sight screen off Zampa.
He attempted an encore, Zampa pinged it short and beat his outside edge.
An alert Phil Neville removed the bails. Seven balls, 14 runs, two sixes. 0, 1, boom, 0, 1, boom, out. It was Afridi’s career in a nutshell.
Khalid Latif and Shoaib Malik delayed the inevitable, but Faulkner bowled the former through the gate with a slower one.
Latif top-scored for Pakistan with 46 off 41 balls. He played 17 dot balls. Smith’s unbeaten 61 came in 43 balls and he played only seven dots.
It was critical because it’s between their top-scorers that the biggest difference between Australia and Pakistan lay. Australia’s top six scored 180 runs among them, as against 163 by Pakistan’s.
If you subtract Smith and Latif’s scores, we are left with 119 and 117.