When Australia’s men tackle Pakistan in the Twenty20 World Cup semi-final, they will come up against a purring cricket machine. If we’re swayed by the latter team’s longer-term history, then it would be entirely feasible for Pakistan to surge unbeaten through the group stages and still bomb out in a semi-final. The success in this tournament though hasn’t been down to players randomly producing brilliance. It has been a collective in which the tasks to be done are clear and in which almost every player is firing.
T20 being T20, a team can still have a bad game in a knockout. But for this Pakistan side it would be an aberration, not a likelihood. Their success starts at the top with Mohammed Rizwan and Babar Azam, wicketkeeper and captain making the opening stand. Rizwan always plays with a beaming smile, and bats with the same joyousness, taking on the bowling whenever afforded the chance, one of the cleanest strikers in a format full of them. Twice in this tournament he has made 79 not out, denied more by completing a run chase that he began. Babar alongside has four half-centuries from five starts, making himself the core around which the innings coheres, with a range that depending on need can go from collecting runs at six per over to thrashing them at closer to nine.
Fakhar Zaman at first drop has been the weak link, and his underwhelming national record in T20s is partly masked by his excellence across 50 overs. But prowess when batting long makes him a backstop should others slip early, and his teammates won’t forget that his batting delivered their last world prize with the 2017 Champions Trophy. As the middle-order buffer below him, Mohammed Hafeez and Shoaib Malik had their inclusion questioned by all and sundry on the basis of advanced sporting age – nearly 81 between them – but they have batted selflessly by taking on the bowling whenever asked to finish an innings. Malik’s 54 from 18 balls in the final group match against Scotland was the most striking example.
Rounding out the batting is Asif Ali, a power-hitting finisher who is especially adept at smashing pace bowling, where Malik has the edge against spin. Both for Pakistan and across Asif’s broader T20 career, over 38% of his runs comes in sixes – that’s two sixes on average in every 30 runs. He’s the sort of player who turns good scores into great ones or, as he did twice in the group stage, finishes off chases just when they’re starting to look a bit sticky.
The bowling is just as varied and powerful. Shaheen Shah Afridi might be the world’s most exciting bowler right now, with left-arm swing at extreme pace from a player who has been on the scene for three and a half years but is still only 21. His new-ball dismantling of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul on the opening weekend set in train India’s early departure from the World Cup.
He forms an unlikely opening partnership with left-arm spinner Imad Wasim, who is less frightening but becomes almost unhittable by bowling a perfect length and targeting the stumps. Haris Rauf and Hasan Ali back them up by testing out the upper range of the speedometer, before Shadab Khan comes on with confusing leg-breaks and googlies. Throw in the fact that the two spinners are both very good with the bat, and that Hasan can bomb a six as far as anyone, and that Hafeez can bowl off-spin when required, and the Pakistanis have all the bowling they need while being sorted down to No 9 for runs.
This is what the Australians are up against, in a less convincing configuration after a less convincing campaign. That may seem churlish given they qualified for the semi with four wins out of five, but they nearly lost what should have been a stroll against South Africa, got thrashed by England, then beat the eliminated Bangladesh and West Indies who had one foot on the plane. Australia have the quality to beat any team if their best players light up that day, but it will take something special.
The pace trio may be the most likely to provide that, with Josh Hazlewood, Patrick Cummins and Mitchell Starc getting better together as the tournament goes on. Leg-spinner Adam Zampa has the equal most wickets in the main tournament draw. Aaron Finch and David Warner have had moments opening the batting, Steve Smith is Steve Smith, and Glenn Maxwell has ended his last two innings on 0 not out without facing a ball. Let him face a dozen and he might win a match with them.
Pakistan have had fortune in this World Cup, with Babar winning four tosses out of five. He chose to chase against India and New Zealand so his bowlers could put them under pressure, he was pleased to be invited to chase when Afghanistan won the toss, and he chose to set a target against Namibia and Scotland to let his batters swing. But given how his charges are running now, it will take something more than luck to upset them. Pakistan are favourites, and deserve to be.