With fire in their bellies and ice in their veins, a magnificent Pakistan team spectacularly snatched England’s aura from them. On a chilly day in Nottingham, one of those days where the wind seems to scorch rather than chill the skin, where the noise of the crowd seems to focus the mind rather than disrupt it, Sarfraz Ahmed’s band of brothers claimed their first win of the World Cup with the sort of clinically aggressive cricket we assumed was the preserve of their opponents.
Indeed, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this game was the way that Pakistan played like England and England played like Pakistan. From the ruthless enterprise of Imad Wasim and Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order, to the supreme hitting of Mohammed Hafeez and Sarfraz in the middle, to the relentlessly accurate bowling and immaculate fielding, this was a complete performance from Pakistan, a team bundled out for just 105 at this very same venue just three days ago.
But then, what other team could have crashed England’s party like this, at their favourite venue, having lost 4-0 to them just a few weeks ago? It had to be Pakistan: bold, maddening Pakistan, who on a good pitch with a quick outfield seized the initiative with a big score and then, roared on by their sizeable support, never let it slip. The tournament favourites are favourites no longer: five wins out of seven is the equation probably required for Eoin Morgan’s side, who know now, if they didn’t already, that tournament cricket is a wild animal.
For all the buzzwords and maxims and wins in the formbook, this wasn’t fearless cricket. This wasn’t playing without consequences. It was cricket with the gravest of consequences, and as England leaked runs in the field, and then slipped fatally behind the required run rate, you couldn’t pretend the fear didn’t exist. Joe Root and Jos Buttler, scoring the first and second centuries of the tournament, gave them flickering hope. And though this is their first big setback, on a wider level that hope remains.
Yet it was a curiously disjointed performance from them, particularly in the field, bookended by errors from two of their most reliable performers: Morgan’s uncharacteristic misfield in the first over, and Root’s wild shy for four overthrows in the 46th. In between the bowlers failed to bowl to their fields, the fielders failed to support the bowlers, and despite losing regular wickets Pakistan were never truly tethered as a result.
The most costly error, meanwhile, was Jason Roy’s elementary drop of Hafeez just before the halfway mark. Hafeez was on 14 at that point, Pakistan 134-2, and after a loose start England had just about managed to peg them back through the careful spin of Moeen Ali and the awkward, splice-juddering bounce of Mark Wood. But now Roy inexplicably spilled a high catch off the bowling of Adil Rashid, and Hafeez’s 84 off 62 balls swung the momentum decisively towards Pakistan.
With Babar Azam also clicking into gear, and captain Sarfraz continuing the assault after he departed, Pakistan went on to dominate the middle overs. Rashid struggled for rhythm and was given only five overs. Jofra Archer had his worst day in an England shirt, offering too much hittable length at either end of the innings. Chris Woakes took four good catches, including a terrific running effort at long-off, but bowled too many boundary balls and went at almost nine an over.
The excellent Wood returned to pick up Hafeez and the dangerous Asif Ali late on, but even given England’s excellent record batting second, it felt like they had leaked a few too many. With no side ever having chased more than 327 in a World Cup, the margin for error was small, and further reduced when Roy was LBW to the leg-spin of Shadab Khan in the third over.
Sarfraz, like South Africa’s Faf du Plessis on Thursday, had decided on leg-spin as the best riposte to England’s rampant top-order, and though Jonny Bairstow put Shadab back over his head for six, the opening overs were fraught with danger. Root edged a four past his stumps and then edged to Babar Azam at slip, who dropped the catch. It was a drop that would cost Pakistan 98 runs.
Meanwhile, the wickets continued to fall. Bairstow feathered a catch behind trying to run Wahab Riaz down to third man. Hafeez, his confidence soaring after his earlier heroics, skidded one past Morgan’s ugly slash and clattered his stumps. Ben Stokes, England’s hero at The Oval, played one sumptuous straight drive but never really got going, and feathered a catch behind off Shoaib Malik.
With England’s lower-order batting curiously out of nick, England’s hopes realistically rested in the supple hands and succulent forearms of the man striding out at No 6. Buttler. And over the course of a thrilling, shirt-wetting hour, Root and Buttler widened their gaze, tightened their grip and set about plotting a path back into the match. Root knocked singles and twos with impunity. Buttler brought up his 50 from 34 balls but otherwise exercised caution, allowing the required rate to rise as England manoeuvred themselves into position.
But Pakistan never wavered from their task. With their attack a bowler light, pace off the ball was going to be the key for them. Hafeez and Malik twiddled their way through 10 relatively painless overs. The magnificent Shadab was a python with the ball and a mamba in the field. Root reached his century off 97 balls but departed soon afterwards, slashing Shadab to backward point. Their stand was 130 and had given England hope where there was none. But they still required 91 off the last 10 overs.
Suddenly, the boundaries were beginning to dry up. Five overs went without one, before Buttler drilled Mohammad Amir through the cover gap to bring up his own century off 75 balls. But the required rate was above 10 by this point, and when Buttler carved the very next ball straight to Wahab at short third man, the waving green flags and the leaping Amir told their own story. The decisive blow had been struck.
The game leaked slowly away from England after that. Hassan Ali’s final over, a confectionery box of slower bouncers that Moeen could scarcely lay a bat on, left England needing 53 from the last four. Woakes and Moeen carved a scruffy 15 off the 47th over to keep them in it. When Woakes smashed Wahab over mid-off for six, England needed 30 off 15. Moeen’s dismissal, a horrible bunt straight into the air to end a horrible innings, was about the best thing that could happen to England at that point. But when Woakes edged a cut through to Sarfraz off the very next ball, England needed 29 off the last two overs.
It was always going to prove too much for them. And the fear now is that in preaching their own virtues so loudly in advance of the tournament, they were in danger of putting the horse before the cart. Defeat against a strong, surging Bangladesh side on Saturday in Cardiff is now unthinkable. They may yet have to do so without Morgan, if he is censured by the International Cricket Council for England’s painfully slow over rate. Winning a first World Cup in 12 attempts was never going to be a walk in the park. But in a tournament as dangerously open as this, England learned that the weight of expectation can bow even the sturdiest of shoulders.
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