Pak vs Eng, 2nd T20I, Karachi

The noise inside Karachi’s National Stadium was deafening. Babar Azam threaded David Willey through extra cover and jumped into the cool night sky, punching the air and soaking in the roar of a sold-out crowd. Mohammad Rizwan held his arms aloft, took his helmet off and looked to the heavens before walking over to his opening partner and wrapping his arms around him.

They had just completed the biggest 10-wicket win in T20 history and became the first pair to put a 200-run partnership in a T20 run chase, breaking their own record. But more than that, after relentless scrutiny and criticism, they had reminded their fans how brilliantly effective they can be.

For Pakistan, T20 international cricket is about the thrill of the chase. Since Rizwan was promoted to open the batting in December 2020, Pakistan have won 15 games batting second and lost only three; when batting first, they have won as many games as they have lost (10 each).

At the innings break, a target of 200 looked like a stiff task, even at a ground where average scores are high and three chases out of five are successful. Pakistan’s seamers were expensive but had the ball skidding through low, while slower balls seemed to grip from a length. “I thought it was a very good score,” Moeen Ali, England’s captain, said.

Their method – building a platform with low-risk shots in the powerplay, then biding their time and waiting for the right moment to pounce – has won Pakistan plenty of games, but has also lost them a few. It raises the floor but can lower the ceiling: Pakistan are rarely bowled out cheaply but their mixed record batting first suggests they have often left runs out there. Their batting template is an outlier in a format characterized by power-hitting.

But on Thursday night, chasing a big score helped to provide clarity of thought. Rizwan started brightly, rifling two of the first four balls he faced for four and slog-sweeping David Willey for six, but received two early lives: on 23, he was dropped by a backpedalling Alex Hales and on 32, he was beaten when charging Adil Rashid but Phil Salt missed a tough stumping chance.

Babar was the slower starter and brought up his half-century off 39 balls, nine more than Rizwan. They accumulated steadily after the powerplay but with eight overs remaining, the required rate had climbed to exactly two runs per ball, with Liam Dawson rattling through his four overs for just 26 runs.

“We don’t listen to those from the outside sniping. There’ll always be criticism, and if you don’t do well, people are waiting to pounce. The fans always support us”

Babar Azam

But the 13th over was the turning point, as Babar sensed the opportunity to take Moeen down and seized upon it. He has often batted cautiously against spin in this format but twice clobbered Moeen over midwicket and into the wire fences that separate the fans from the field of play, doubling the number of sixes he has hit against offspin in his T20I career in the process.

After Babar had nudged the fifth ball of Moeen’s over, Rizwan hit-swept the sixth for six. The over had cost 21 runs, and the required rate dropped to 10.71. “I genuinely feel my over lost the game for us,” Moeen said later. “That was a gamble, just trying to almost buy a wicket, but it obviously didn’t work. That’s when Pakistan won the game.”

All of a sudden, Babar was in control, flicking Sam Curran away through fine leg and even crunching Adil Rashid’s googly over midwicket with the venom of a man proving a point to those who have questioned him. After an uncharacteristically lean Asia Cup, Babar was back in the box seat.

On 91, he swung Willey out to deep midwicket, only for Curran to parry the ball over the rope for six. “Babar, Babar!” the crowd chanted as one, before erupting as he nudged Curran into the covers for the single that made him the first man to hit multiple T20I hundreds for Pakistan, only 23 balls after acknowledging the applause for his fifty.

By that stage, Rizwan was playing second fiddle but could not contain his delight. He punched the air as he ran through to the keeper’s end for a single, then gave him an embrace composed of two parts pride and one part relief. Karachi stood to celebrate a masterful innings by Lahore’s favorite son.

Three days previously, Babar had walked into the press conference room at the National Stadium facing a local media demanding answers for his poor form and criticizing Pakistan’s method, which resembles an endurance test in contrast to England’s relay race, each batter playing his shots then passing the baton onto the next. He returned with the understated confidence of a man who knew he had shut a few of them up.

“We don’t listen to those from the outside sniping,” he said. “There’ll always be criticism, and if you don’t do well, people are waiting to pounce. The fans always support us. In sport, every day is different and there are ups and downs. The fans stand by your side. The amount of support we got has been outstanding, regardless of performances.”

This was the fifth time that Babar and Rizwan have put on a partnership of 150 or more. They have opened together on 31 occasions in T20Is and the connection they have formed is so strong that, at times, they don’t even bother calling each other through for runs. “That reflects the level of trust between us,” Babar said.

“We’ve chased big totals like this in the past,” he added. “We planned to play according to the situation, and planned when to charge and when to hold back. The execution of that plan went brilliantly. When you have a target in front of you, you play according to that and change gears accordingly.”

Moeen had no choice but to hold his hands up and accept England had been well beaten. “I know they get a lot of criticism about their strike rates but I’ve never seen an issue,” he said. “Rizwan got off to a flier and Babar took his time a little bit, but then nobody could stop him. They’re brilliant players.”

When England last toured this country in 2005, Pakistan had not played a single T20 international; 17 years on, criticizing the short-form set-up has become the national past-time. Time will tell if this method can win Pakistan a World Cup but on nights like this, it is hard to believe there is too much wrong with it.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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