Pakistan made a scintillating start to their home tour of England last night. Virtually prohibited from playing in their own country because of the dire political circumstances, they were greeted ecstatically by their expatriate followers in the first of two Twenty20 internationals in Birmingham and responded with an emphatic victory by 23 runs against Australia.
If it could not quite compensate for their bitter semi-final defeat in the World Twenty20 two months ago, when Australia came back from the dead to secure a victory that had looked not so much improbable as impossible, it still had its own joyous significance. There must have been times – not least in that recent match in St Lucia when Mike Hussey scored 60 from 24 balls – when Pakistan thought they would never again beat Australia.
In each of 13 matches between the sides in all forms of the game spanning three Tests (in the second of which Pakistan had a first-innings lead of 206), six one-day internationals and three T20s, Australia had prevailed. When they had Pakistan at 48 for 4 last night, with the crowd silenced, it seemed the sequence would continue.
But a glorious innings of 64 in 31 balls from the 20-year-old Umar Akmal dragged Pakistan back into the match. His batting was mature, audacious and instinctive. He hit big shots but he also improvised delightfully with impeccable timing.
Australia still must have been confident of making 168 to win on a blameless pitch with a lightning outfield. They started at a gallop which was reduced gradually to a canter, a trot, a walk and finally a halt. The sight of Umar Gul's fast, full reverse-swing was compelling and Saeed Ajmal's doosra was not far behind. As for the 18-year-old Mohammad Aamer, a wonderful future seems assured based on the lethal nature of his left-arm fast bowling in the present.
Although Australia were dismissed for 144 in the 19th over, it was not quite a complete victory. Pakistan, as too often before, were slow to take sharp singles and slower to stop Australia taking them.
There was also the sad sight of the fast bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, who recently returned to the team for what must be the last time after a gap of more than a year, trying and failing to recapture old glories. He is still quick at 35, though not as quick as once he was, and it was wilful stuff, short, wide, too full. There was no rhythm and he went for 34 in his two overs, his first five balls being struck for four.
But it mattered not eventually. Marshalled with unfettered zeal by the unlikely leadership figure of Shahid Afridi, who cajoled, encouraged and chatted, Pakistan had enough.
Umar, the younger of the brothers in the side, rescued their innings after they got into as needless mess. They lost a wicket in the first over, two in the seventh and another in the eighth. Their followers clearly feared the worst.
But Umar, as he has demonstrated so often lately, possesses not only boundless talent but also has no fear of failure. Maybe he knows the talent cuts down the percentages. He stamped his mark with two straight sixes of Steven Smith's leg-spin but showed his class with lovely glides, one to fine leg, another to third man.
Australia still seemed in control and, though they kept losing wickets, as late as the 18th over it was impossible to write them off with Hussey still there. Pakistan probably knew it as well. But this time they had Gul, so telling in their World Twenty20 triumph in England last summer but missing with an injured shoulder when they defended the title in the Caribbean in the spring.
He probably made the difference. Following Shaun Tait's exhibition against England at Lord's on Saturday it was the second time in three days that proof was offered of the continuing mastery of the rapid, swerving ball.
Gul removed Hussey's leg stump with a late reverse inswing – offering more evidence that lightning does not strike twice – and then swung it the other way to remove the hapless Tim Paine. Ajmal mopped up, Pakistan were home. It was Birmingham on a balmy July evening, but it must have felt like Lahore or Karachi, such was the reception. They do it all again tonight.Reuse content