2021 – The Highs and Lows for Pakistan Cricket
Another exciting year of Pakistan cricket has come to an end, with some memorable moments across the year’s span.
Arguably, no cricketing nation provides more ups and downs to their followers than the Pakistan cricket team does – so let’s look back at some of the most memorable moments from 2021; the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
Pakistan End the Streak!
Parents, if you ever need to explain to your kids not to believe everything you read on the internet, then the build-up to the Pakistan India match in the T20 World Cup is a perfect example.
The World Wide Web would have shoved it in your face that Pakistan have never beaten India in a World Cup. The World Wide Web would have highlighted that Pakistan came into the marquee event in turmoil, with matches being canceled, coaches being replaced, and last-minute panic changes while their Indian counterparts came off a month in the UAE playing the IPL. And the World Wide Web would have told you that once again, the blockbuster clash would fail to live up to its usual pre-match hype. What a load of rubbish.
What actually happened is that Pakistan broke the streak in emphatic style and in the most unPakistani way possible. There were no blunders in the field, there was no embarrassing run-out, and there was no chance of a choke once the victory line was in sight. It was pure domination from start to finish for Babar Azam’s boys.
Shaheen Shah Afridi did the initial damage, removing the dangerous Rohit Sharma and Lokesh Rahul with two pearlers with the new ball. While there was a brief recovery in the middle overs, there was never a time in the match where India looked on top.
With a required run rate of less than 8 per over, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan approached the chase in a calm and collected manner, seeing off the new ball, building a partnership, and then capitalizing on a physically and mentally exhausted Indian team. And that plan was executed perfectly as Pakistan romped to a ten-wicket victory! Cue colorful celebrations amongst Pakistani fans all around the world, and a special place in the hearts of all Pakistan cricket followers for the number 152.
A Historic Test Series Win!
Not many people like Mondays. But for Pakistan fans, Monday 8th February 2021 was a historic day. Just like the 1st Test of the series, the series decider at Rawalpindi ebbed and flowed, with neither Pakistan nor South Africa being able to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
When the hosts were reduced to 143-7 in the morning of the penultimate day, with a lead of 214, the Proteas would have been hoping to wrap the innings up quickly. It seemed the door to victory was slightly opening before Mohammad Rizwan seemingly slammed it shut – shepherding the tail magnificently and eventually scoring his maiden century at a time when his team needed it the most.
South Africa were set a massive target of 370, and when Dean Elgar was dismissed early, it seemed the victory would be just a formality. But then Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen threw a spanner in the works. Shaheen Afridi had bowled a testing spell with the new ball before the runs eventually started to flow for Markram – who was ably supported by Rassie van der Dussen, before they both switched back into defensive mode to close the day, ensuring they would both be at the crease on the final day, after a night’s rest.
Going into Day 5, all four results were still possible. While South Africa still needed 243 more runs for victory, they needn’t have looked further than events just 2000km away in Chattogram for inspiration, where an inexperienced West Indian side had just pulled off a stunning chase of 395 against Bangladesh.
Pakistan started the final day perfectly, with Hasan Ali dismissing van der Dussen and Faf du Plessis early on. But Aiden Markram wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, and he found an ally in Temba Bavuma. As the partnership reached triple figures, Pakistan fans no doubt began anxiously calculating approximately how many overs were left before the light would begin to fade; time was running out for the hosts to take the remaining six wickets.
They needed a moment of magic, and Hasan Ali provided two. He dismissed Aiden Markram for a well-made 108 before having the dangerous Quinton de Kock nicking to the slips on the very next ball. With the game having been on a knife-edge for the majority of the day, South Africa were now in free-fall mode. The tail could not provide much resistance, and when the leg-spinner knocked back Wiann Mulder’s stumps, Pakistan had their first Test series win over South Africa in more than 17 years, and the week couldn’t have started on a better note!
The Day of Babar Azam
14th April 2021 started with the news coming through that Babar Azam had officially usurped one of the greatest players to have ever played the game, Virat Kohli, to reach the summit of the ICC ODI batting rankings. It ended with Babar Azam delivering a strong message that he also had the numero uno ranking in the shortest format in his sights – a title that had been snatched away from him by England’s Dawid Malan seven months before.
Babar Azam being announced as the #1 ODI batsman was a moment to savor. For a nation blessed with fast bowling talent, a genuine world-class batter had eluded them for several years, and Pakistan cricket fanatics wondered if they would ever produce a batter that could be considered among the world’s best ever again.
It’s not that they didn’t have players with the potential. It could have been the guy that scored three consecutive centuries against India. But he got involved in some dodgy stuff off the pitch. Or it could also have been the guy that, at the age of just 19, scored a maiden ODI century in only his 3rd international match and followed that up three months later with a debut Test century in New Zealand. But, amongst other things, he had fitness issues.
Perhaps Pakistan just didn’t have the right coaches, system, or management to allow a batsman to reach their full potential. But then along came Babar Azam. Earmarked for greatness since his Under-19 days, Azam, unlike many other Pakistani batters before him, didn’t fade away. It was fitting that the announcement came after a series in which he captained Pakistan to just their second away win in South Africa, in which he was named Player of the Match in the two games the Green Shirts won.
And how did he celebrate becoming the number 1 ranked ODI batsman? By playing one of the all-time great T20 knocks. Just two days earlier, Azam was the subject of heavy criticism after a run-a-ball 50 as Pakistan were trounced by South Africa in the 2nd T20I. And things weren’t getting any easier for him, as Pakistan conceded 203 runs in the 3rd T20I after electing to field first.
At the halfway stage, it seemed very likely that Pakistan were about to go 2-1 down to a team missing several of its star players, who had jetted off to India for the IPL. Babar Azam definitely couldn’t afford to play at a strike rate of just 100 again, with the visitors requiring more than 10 RPO from the get-go. So he decided to score his runs at a staggering strike rate of 206.77 instead.
It didn’t take him long to get going, tearing into Beuran Hendricks in the Powerplay; at one point, he had hit the left-armer for four consecutive boundaries! South Africa would have been hoping to slow things down once the fielding restrictions ended, but there was no respite for the hosts. Babar Azam continued motoring along and was at his destructive best, making a mockery of what was viewed by many as the crucial match-up against then ranked #1 T20I bowler Tabraiz Shamsi.
In the spinner’s third over, Azam deposited him over the backward square leg boundary for a maximum before reaching triple figures the next ball with a powerful drive that beat the fielder at cover to spark animated celebrations – not something typically associated with Pakistan’s all-format captain. He would be dismissed for 122 off just 59 balls and walked off to a standing ovation.
His 197-run partnership with Mohammad Rizwan all but secured Pakistan’s highest ever T20I successful run chase at the time, giving the Green Shirts an unassailable 2-1 series lead. He ends the year as the #1 ODI batsman and joint #1 T20I batsman.
Pakistan Thrashed 3-0 by an England C-Team
While Pakistan are no stranger to playing against second-string teams, the circumstances this time were different. How could this England team, assembled at the last minute, a large amount of whom had never played ODI (or international!) cricket before, possibly just leave their respective County Championship matches halfway through and adjust to the change in intensity from domestic cricket to international cricket?
Before the news of the COVID outbreak in the initial England squad, those poor bowlers taking part in red-ball cricket in front of a handful of spectators could not have even possibly imagined they would be running in to bowl to the world’s number 1 batsman in just a couple of days’ time. And spare a thought for the Phil Salts and the John Simpsons, receiving the news that out of nowhere they would have to face a bowling attack spearheaded by none other than Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Suddenly, Pakistan had become strong favorites due to the inexperience in the hosts’ squad. Then disaster struck. And Pakistan had become a global laughing stock. Imam-ul-Haq being trapped in front of Saqib Mahmood with the first ball of the series set the tone for what was a nightmare series for the visitors. They were to be bowled out for 141 in 35.2 overs, with England having no hiccups in the chase.
A couple of days later, Pakistan had another horror show with the bat, crumbling to 195 all out in 41 overs, chasing 248. In the dead rubber, despite Babar Azam playing a magnificent innings, it was the visitors’ awful performance in the field that grabbed the headlines, as England chased down 332 to seal a 3-0 drubbing. A whitewash to a team featuring the likes of Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, and Joe Root may have been acceptable, but losing to a team heavily depleted by its main players was definitely less so.
Fans were calling for Azam to be removed as captain, lamenting the domestic system and claiming that Pakistan cricket was going the same way as Pakistan hockey. But the same Pakistan team would win our hearts back not too long after that…
Australia Crush Pakistan Hearts… Again!
If someone had told you before the T20 World Cup started that Pakistan would beat India by ten wickets, that ‘tape-ball bowler’ Haris Rauf would be player of the Match against New Zealand, that ‘domestic bully’ Asif Ali would seal two crucial chases, that arch-rivals India would hilariously be knocked out, that Pakistan would be the only unbeaten team from either group at the end of the Super 12 stage, and that they would be the team everyone wants to avoid, you might have laughed in their face, questioned their sanity, taken a moment to process what you just heard, before double checking they hadn’t suffered a recent head injury.
But that apparently impossible scenario eventually proved to be very, very real, and Pakistan fans were in dreamland. To make things better, a day before their semi-final, England – the only team many fans and pundits alike felt that could stop Pakistan from getting their hands on the trophy, were beaten by the less fancied New Zealand – a team that Pakistan beat in the group stage, and have dominated in the UAE overall.
Not to mention their own semi-final was against a nation that takes T20 cricket so seriously the majority of their international stars don’t even bother playing in their own country’s premier tournament. And when you consider that the tournament was only held in Pakistan’s adopted home for the best part of a decade due to the small matter of a global pandemic, you could be forgiven for thinking that somewhere in this world, there was a cricketing higher power that had already decided this was Pakistan’s tournament. But ultimately, it just wasn’t meant to be.
Perhaps the game was already lost before a ball was bowled – throughout the tournament, the odds were heavily stacked against the team setting a target. Pakistan’s total of 176/4 seemed about par, but when Shaheen Afridi trapped Aaron Finch for a golden duck in just the second ball of the chase, Pakistan fans were on cloud nine.
The partnership between David Warner and Mitchell Marsh changed the momentum quickly before Shadab Khan seemingly turned the match back in Pakistan’s favor with arguably the best spell of the entire tournament, and Babar Azam’s men were on their way to a 17th consecutive victory in the UAE.
But Matthew Wade and Marcus Stoinis had other ideas. The same fans who were sent into a state of delirium when the Australian skipper was dismissed by ‘The Eagle’ were silenced when the same bowler was hit for three consecutive sixes by Australia’s wicket-keeper to seal victory for the Men in Yellow.
Pakistan fans can point to the missed run-out chances, the lbw not given against Mitchell Marsh that would have remained out had the on-field umpire raised his finger or the dropped catch by Hasan Ali. But we can’t forget, Pakistan had enough things go their way. Rizwan being dropped a couple of times, Steve Smith – one of the most reliable hands in world cricket – dropping an absolute sitter that kept Fakhar Zaman in the crease before he tore into Mitchell Starc in the final over and David Warner walking and not even considering a review despite replays suggesting the ball was nowhere near the bat.
It seems unlikely that Pakistan will ever get a chance as good as this to win a world tournament in the near future, but never say never in the world of Pakistan cricket.
Years of Hard Work Undone?
In a world full of travel restrictions, lockdowns, and social distancing, we all need a little escape from reality. For a few billion people around the globe, that escape from reality is watching 22 men try and hit a cork-and-leather ball with a wooden bat.
With Pakistan’s tour of the West Indies being heavily marred by rain and the series against Afghanistan being postponed, Pakistan fans were counting down the days until their limited over home series against New Zealand began. The Black Caps were in town for a historic series – their first on Pakistani soil since 2003, and not even a severely depleted line-up for the visitors was going to reduce any hype around the 3 ODIs and 5 T20Is.
So, when New Zealand pulled out from the tour hours ahead of the 1st ODI, Pakistan fans, rightfully so, felt aggrieved. But of course, the repercussions of the series abandonment go far beyond the fact you and I had to find something else to do with our free time. Not even the fact that Pakistan’s preparations for the T20 World Cup were in turmoil distracted us from the bigger picture of the last-minute pull-out.
After PCB had invested so much in trying to ensure top-flight cricket comes back to full time, with great success, suddenly, the future of international cricket in Pakistan felt very uncertain, thanks to the so-called ‘nice guys’ of international cricket pulling out because of a security threat that, to this day, remains a mystery.
Almost inevitably, England followed suit in stabbing PCB in the back by withdrawing both their men’s and women’s teams from scheduled tours of Pakistan, just a year after they had toured them in the middle of a global pandemic.
Although the recent West Indies tour ran smoothly (from a security point of view, that is!), Pakistan are not out of the woods yet. Australia are set to visit Pakistan in March-April for an all-format tour, England have agreed to add a couple of T20Is to their next tour, while New Zealand have lined up two series in Pakistan. However, fans know by now not to get too excited yet.
What were your best and worst cricketing moments in 2021?