Pakistan have made it through to the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy where they will meet England on Wednesday in Cardiff, but they refused to take the easy route.
Chasing 237, after a fine bowling performance dismissed Sri Lanka inside their 50 overs, they proceeded to keep their supporters on the verge of insanity for most of their innings until their captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, struck the winning boundary in the 45th over.
Sarfraz, who scored an unbeaten 61, was crucial to the nervy three-wicket win but was twice dropped when the match was poised on a knife edge. Indeed, England could just as easily been playing Sri Lanka on Wednesday, something the latter will rue for some time to come.
Big moments decide big matches and not many this tournament will exceed the size of the one that came Thisara Perera’s way in the 39th over, when Pakistan still needed 41 runs for victory.
That was when Sarfraz, on 38, miscued a drive off Lasith Malinga to mid-on where Perera should have completed a simple catch. Instead, he floored it, the gravity of his drop causing Malinga to contemplate any number of murderous thoughts before he was able to bowl the next ball.
If that miss almost certainly cost Sri Lanka the match, the next one, two overs later but also off Malinga, meant Pakistan would probably win. Although Sarfraz only added two more runs, Mohammad Amir, who joined his captain in the 30th over when the score was 162 for seven, was growing in confidence. In fact, Amir finished unbeaten on 28, a knock that drew praise from his captain.
“I said to Amir not to worry and play your game,” said Sarfraz. “If he scored 20, which he did, we would win. In fact, he stayed calm while I was nervous.”
Victory should have come more easily, especially after Pakistan’s openers had put on 74 by the 12th over. Fakhar Zaman had raced to 50 and a ball Azhar Ali had struck out of the ground for six, had to be replaced after it was pocketed by a passing cyclist. But Pakistan can turn a cakewalk into a crisis and a mixture of ill-conceived shots and the odd good ball suddenly saw them facing meltdown, at least until their captain steadied matters.
Earlier in the day, Sarfraz, who’d dropped Rashid Khan his leg-spinner for seaming all-rounder in Fahim Ashraf, won the toss, and put Sri Lanka in to bat. Many felt the omission of Rashid to be a mistake but it was more than justified after the pace quartet of Junaid Khan, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir and Fahim took all 10 wickets as Sri Lanka were dismissed for 236 in 49.2 overs.
Like South Africa in their match against India the previous day, Sri Lanka batted themselves into a position to post a total in excess of 280. Indeed, when Niroshan Dickwella, who top-scored with 73, and Angelo Mathews were in tandem, they looked destined for even bigger things, the pair’s 78-run partnership in 16 overs seeing them to 161 for three in the 32nd over.
But a fine spell by Junaid and Amir, after the pair had switched ends, cut a swathe through the middle order with Junaid especially rampant as he took three for 40 with his left-arm seamers.
Four emotionally sapping hours later, Pakistan’s batsmen fashioned the win, their mix of brilliance and blunder set to meet England’s controlled aggression for a place in the final.
On current form it shouldn’t add up top anything less than an England win but Pakistan, the eight-ranked ODI side in the world, have been written off before in this tournament and here they are still, a walking contradiction yet one win away from a global final.