Amir triggered a middle-order collapse to keep Australia to 307 with his fifer. ©AFP
“I don’t think Pakistani people are doing like that. Pakistan people love cricket and they love support and they love the players.” Sarfaraz Ahmed’s response when asked whether he would do a Virat Kohli if the Pakistani fans would turn on Steve Smith was candid if not bordering on cute. Perhaps it was just the Pakistan captain backing up his compatriots in the crowd, or the more cynical might even look at it as Sarfaraz taking a subtle pot-shot at their Indian counterparts. But you couldn’t disagree with him. For, when your own team keeps you so involved with their performance, how can you find to time to even bother about the opposition, even if it is Steve Smith.
And you couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the predicament of being a Pakistan cricket fan than Wednesday’s (June 12) loss to Australia at Taunton. At any given point during the day as Sarfaraz & Co went from looking hapless to hopeful, they ensured their baying, partisan supporters who’d filled up the Taunton County Ground were feeling the same. It’s just an integral part of being a Pakistan cricket fan. You are made to live every ball because the team makes sure you’re always holding your breath when you’re not catching it back. And through dropped catches and fielding lapses, a box-office spell from a Pakistani pacer, a batting collapse and a late-order assault which threatened a miracle, that was certainly the case in Taunton. It was a dramatic day out in the scenic and serene climes of Taunton, and the thousands decked up in various shades of green around the idyllic cricket ground felt every bit of the drama.
The day started with expectation as Sarfaraz won the toss and chose to bowl just like he’d said he would on the eve of the match. The skies were gloomy and overcast and both Pakistan and Australian duly dropped their respective leg-spinners and fortified their pace arsenal. There was swing in the air and movement off the pitch and Mohammad Amir was nipping it around like the Mohammad Amir of old. There were plays and misses at his end keeping the Pakistani fans at the edge of their seats. At the other end though Shaheen Afridi was having a shocker and he kept letting Aaron Finch and David Warner off the hook. And in a manic period of play, the Australian openers either kept finding the boundary or seeing balls flying past their bats.
Then came the despair, as Asif Ali let go off a straightforward catch at slip off Finch, who at that point had looked edgy while reaching 25 off 43 balls. And the team and their fans sat back with their heads in their hands as the burly Australian skipper smashed 57 off the next 40 balls he faced. By the time he fell, Australia looked set for a massive total, with 350 seemingly very much on the cards.
But it was Australia who strangely panicked. Smith walked in and played a bizarre knock, where he kept looking to bat like Glenn Maxwell, and got out with his trademark audacious fashion too. Maxwell was then sent in ahead of Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh to play like Maxwell, and he got out in his trademark audacious fashion. And once Warner, who looked at his free-scoring best during his 111-ball 107, was out, Australia were ironically left with their slowest scorers in the middle when they needed to score the fastest. Eventually they collapsed swinging, losing their last six wickets for 65 runs, amazingly with an over to spare.
It was the period of elation for the Pakistanis in the crowd, and the only time when they were allowed to stay on their feet, jumping up and down in joy, as Amir ran through the middle-order as part of this throwback spell to finish with 5 for 30. So much so that hope had returned to the Pakistani camp, as fans shouted, “we are back in it” to each other at the innings-break.
The first 10 overs of the run-chase were a muddled mixture of delight and disappointment in equal measure for them though. Fakhar Zaman was out flashing at a rising wide delivery from Pat Cummins while Babar Azam regaled them with four of the most elegant drives you’ll see in the tournament. But just like that, he threw his wicket away while attempting a hook shot off Nathan Coulter-Nile.
The partnership between Imam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez though brought back expectation and hope, and even for a time filled the Pakistanis in the crowd with the confidence that they might just pull their highest World Cup run-chase off. Just like while they were batting, it was the Australians again who were feeling the pinch. Their gamble of playing Maxwell as the fifth bowler was proving to be expensive as Hafeez went after him, and it ended up in Finch having to bring himself on. At the end of the first drinks break in fact, Alex Carey and the slip cordon lined up at the wrong end. The pressure was beginning to show, and it was the defending champions feeling it.
Then came despair again as Hafeez slapped a teasing full-toss from Finch straight to Mitchell Starc at deep midwicket soon after Imam had fallen to a meek pull shot at a bouncing delivery past his leg-stump. Shoaib Malik fell soon after, and as the noise around the ground filtered out, so did the hopes for those in green.
Not like the Pakistani fans were left to watch the rest of the game in apathy. Out came Hassan Ali and Wahab Riaz swinging their bats like never before, and with skipper Sarfaraz at the other end, they ended up injecting hope, expectation and a lot of excitement around the stands. But just like that, on came Starc to break their hearts one final time.
In the end it was the perfect day to be a Pakistani fan, even if the final result made sure it wasn’t the best day to be one, but that quandary is what sums up what it is to be a Pakistan cricket fan.