The images the match produced would blend into World Cup folklore. Mohammad Rizwan limping and stumbling, compiling a hundred of infinite courage, running the winning run maniacally, before ecstatic teammates swarmed in. The distraught Kusal Mendis gazing pensively into the skies, his disconsolate colleagues walking half-dead. The tale that unfolded this sweaty night in Hyderabad, where Pakistan chased 345 in the most heroic fashion, would be retold a hundred times and reshape into bedtime stories that would fill the imagination of generations. The thriller — at last one, almost a week in — could lift the detachment towards the World Cup. Pakistan’s six-wicket win, hauling down Sri Lanka’s 345, could finally awaken the forgotten joys of ODI cricket. It was ODI cricket as it is meant to be—bending the thrill of T20s and the flowing drama of a Test match.
The fight of Rizwan would live long in memory. Towards the end, he seemed to move relatively freely. Perhaps, it was the kick of the knock, the sight of victory twinkling. A few overs ago, though, Rizwan could barely move. After he struck Dhananjaya de Silva for a six, he slumped into the ground, throwing his kit around in a fit of pain. The team of physios would scamper to relieve the pain. As they stretched his legs, he winced in pain.
Yet, he staggered back to the ground, biting pain, beating pain, seeing but just the path to victory. He is no stranger to playing with pain; a lung infection and doctor’s advice did not come in the way of him playing in the 2021 T20 World Cup final. It was, in the end, a triumph of self-belief rather than a magic of painkillers, of bravado and will than any skill of technique. He did not even have the energy to celebrate his hundred. He just threw his bat away, knelt on the ground and offered a silent prayer into the flood-lit skies. The pain could have only aggravated, but he did not miss a single opportunity to steal a single or two. And he completed the most memorable win for his country in recent times.
In any other script, Abdullah Shafique would have been the chief protagonist. His hundred was a treatise in stress-free batting under extreme pressure. His introduction would not have been better-scripted. Pakistan chose the ripest time to blood him in, patchy as the form Fakhar Zaman had been off late. Irresistible as the temptation would have been to give him another go, they packed Shafique in. His previous five innings read: 2, 7, 19, 52. His strike was a measly 72. Stereotyped as a Test specialist — though his first note to fame was for a 55-ball hundred in the National Cup three years ago — a few eyebrows would have been raised. But just as he serenely transitioned from first-class cricket to Tests, commanding an average of 50.83 in 26 innings, the opener asserted that he has the flexibility to adapt his game to the ODIs, and specifically to the demands of a wild chase. There, though, was nothing wild about his knock. Rather it was an exhibition of cultured technique and an unflappable mind.
Him completing his hundred was that precise moment, when the eventuality of Pakistan pulling off the chase became a throbbing possibility. Pulling a short ball emphatically to the fence, Shafique crouched down, curled his forearms, let out a shriek that could be heard as far as the deserted Survey of India quarters in the neighborhood, and then exploded into the air. At the end, Rizwan teed off into his own round of celebrations, as Shafique soaked in the sheer joy of completing his maiden hundred in this format. Shafique’s effect was like slow but deadly poison, seeping insidiously into the system. It owed to his utterly risk-free batting, honed by his father Shafiq Ahmed, a former first-class player from Pakistan, coaching in the Emirates, and his uncle Arshad Ali, who has represented the UAE in four games. The required run-rate was nudging into the eight-plus region, but Shafique breathed hope, even assurance. Things began to go awry for Sri Lanka. Dilshan Madushanka’s wayward projectiles were being hoisted to the fence. He leaked 15 more in that over, and Sri Lanka began to wither.
Thereupon, Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka sent an SOS to Matheesha Parthirana. He evicted Shafique straightaway, thanks to the agility of the substitute fielder Dushan Hemantha. But there were no more wicked twists and turns as Rizwan steered them to a victory that could transform Pakistan into a ruthless winning machine. Contrastingly, it could devastate Sri Lanka.
The most striking aspect of their stand was that they seldom panicked, except for the occasional harum-scarum running between the wickets . No stroke birthed from desperation, none from frustration either. They batted as though they were chasing a sub-300 score, watchful and measured, yet ticking the run-rate along. Even the risks they undertook in the initial phase were not wanton gambles. Exceptional were their single-stealing methods, subcontinental in essence, dropping the wrists to the leg-side and strolling for singles, stepping down to spinners and playing them down the ground, usually over the mid-off’s head. Both were decisive with their ideas as well as execution.
In the past Rizwan has exemplified that he has the heart and skill to orchestrate a chase. But seldom has it manifested so tellingly. He would meander along in a sense of ennui, before suddenly exploding in bursts. There was no haste about him, but a laidback assurance. He broke the 20-ball boundary drought with an elegant straight drive off Pathirana. In this phase, he would even forgo boundary balls, so that Pakistan have the assurance of wickets. This, in essence, was their method. The old-fashioned way of preserving wickets and dragging the match as far as possible, before shifting through the gears at the end. In the next phase, though, he left no loose ball unpunished. There, Sri Lanka too lost the game’s drift. Maybe, the ghosts of Kotla were still gnawing in their head. They turned outright defensive, sloppy fielding kicked in, and most decisively ran out of ideas. Shafique and Rizwan sensed the wave of nervousness creeping into Sri Lanka’s fielders and bowlers and asserted themselves, lifting the momentum without their opponents even realising it.
Even towards the end, they kept dropping catches. Saud Shakeel was twice spilled in a Theekshana over. Edges fell in no man’s land; mishits evaded the fielders. Sri Lanka might grouse that they were unfortunate, but the only misfortune was that they stumbled onto Rizwan, a limping, stumbling wall of courage.