It is not the setting that you expect for two big teams to go at it in the format of the game most popular according to ICC market research findings last week. As Australia got into their work on Thursday after sending Pakistan in, just 75 patrons watched on around the Harare Sports Club.
It didn’t grow any larger than that, understandably in freezing midwinter conditions in which this game was played. Once again, not the image that comes to mind when thinking about the African continent. Both sides warmed up in their official-looking beanies as if it were a county championship fixture in the opening weeks of April. The bitter gale made it that much worse for all involved.
The grim setting was matched by an equally lifeless performance by the Australians, by far their worst in T20 Internationals this year. After the fact, the size of the missed opportunity was revealed: had they won the fixture it would have actually pushed ahead of Pakistan atop the official table, contrary to earlier advice that they needed a clean sweep this week to so do.
But Andrew Tye, the most productive bowler of the tri-series so far, was not going to let the chill stand as an excuse for what he called a “sloppy” performance with the ball and in the field. “A lot of the guys are county cricketers with experience in these conditions,” he said after the 45-run defeat. “You can rock up one day and it could be 40 degrees so you don’t complain that it is too hot so you don’t complain it is too cold. We expected it and knew what we were getting into.”
Far happier was Shaheen Afridi, who starred in his second international. The 18-year-old seamer agreed it was “by far the coldest” game he played in. But he was a man on a mission. You see, last night, so went his story, he decided his first two international wickets would be Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell. That they were, cutting the first in half and slipping an inswinger through the second. Et voila!
With his press conference translated from Urdu to English, Afridi went on to giddily detail the time he was hit for six by his namesake Shahid in the Pakistan Super League before knocking him over next delivery. No, the two aren’t related, but the young man speaks with the sort of beaming smile you could expect from the retired hero.
What he and his colleagues did was keep the ball full and attack the stumps, something the Australians found harder. As Tye continued: “We didn’t execute our plans. We probably set out fields a bit wrong at times as well. They knew what we were going to do and attacked pretty hard at the start and once they got away we found it hard to bring them back.”
Admirably, after getting rolled for 115 by Australia on Monday, Pakistan had backed themselves to bounce back. They had afterall won 21 of their previous 24 fixtures in the format. However lazy the stereotype, this is not a green machine that breaks down at the first sign of stress.
Grant Flower, the side’s batting coach, told Cricbuzz that the progress they have made under Mickey Arthur is a result of better preparing for difficult moments. “I think probably practicing harder and talking about the game amongst ourselves and just trying to create pressure situations,” he said. “Slowly but surely I think our guys are getting better at that.”
That responsibility to bounce back now shifts to Aaron Finch’s side, who get a chance to fine-tune against the winless Zimbabweans in their final group game on Friday before again facing Pakistan in the final on Sunday. What puts them in a better position to do so is that they have already played nine T20 internationals this year alone, unheard for them in non-World T20 years.
As Tye concluded, a new sense permanence in the squad bolsters their internal belief. “We have found a pretty stable team,” he said. “So we’re more settled and really enjoying the cricket we are playing. We have a lot of freedom to do what we do and the coaches and the captain always back us to do that. Some days it is not going to come off but other days it will and we can beat any team.”
If in the decider they do beat the best, it will be the top of the world Finch’s men will go in the shortest format for the first time. After the winter that was in Australian cricket, such an achievement would be a lot more than cold comfort.
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