Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 July 2019

Cricket World Cup 2019: Babar Azam keeps Pakistan's semi-final hopes alive after crushing win over New Zealand

Top-order batsman guides 1992 champions to six-wicket win after Shaheen Shah Afridi's spell devastates Kiwis batting

Babar Azam top-scored for Pakistan against New Zealand at Edgbaston on Wednesday. Alex Davidson / Getty Images
Babar Azam top-scored for Pakistan against New Zealand at Edgbaston on Wednesday. Alex Davidson / Getty Images

Sarfaraz Ahmed might as well phone ahead to the Pakistan prime minister’s residence in Islamabad to let the staff know he will be moving in.

Maybe not anytime soon. It did, after all, take the current incumbent the best part of 26 years to make it into office after his own World Cup glory.

But, given the way his side are tracking at the moment, it seems only a matter of time until Sarfaraz follows Imran Khan into office.

The sequence was already uncanny. In 1992, Pakistan’s results in their first six matches at the Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand read: lost, won, no result, lost, lost, won.

Then they played a hitherto unbeaten New Zealand at the business end of the pool stage, and won that, too, before ultimately marching on the MCG to take off all the spoils.

And so to today. Pakistan’s supporters were already excited when it was announced the format of this competition would be the same as 1992 for the first time since.

That fervour has only been accentuated the more the pattern of results has followed.

It is remarkable. Just as they did 27 years ago, they dispatched New Zealand, this time by six wickets – it was seven back then – to keep the flame burning.

They must continue the sequence – by winning their final two group matches against Afghanistan and Bangladesh – to stay alive in the competition, although even that would not guarantee a place in the last four.

Pakistan’s Class of ’92 were, of course, entirely different characters to the current crop. These players are less established than the household names of Imran, Wasim Akram and Javed Miandad.

But these are still talented. And they have also been fighting like cornered tigers – in a very 2019 way, at least, as this lot were were wounded by barbs sent on social media.

This game at Edgbaston contained arguably the best bowling spell of the World Cup so far – and a couple of its finest batting displays, too.

There was a time, no so long ago, when crowds wearing green flocked to cricket to catch a glimpse of a firestarter called Afridi.

Anyone who thought those times were gone with the retirement of the enigma of Shahid Afridi might be pleased to discover there is a new incarnation.

Shaheen Shah Afridi’s talent is already well past the point of being a secret weapon. But this felt like the day he arrived on cricket’s top stage.

As the 19-year-old left-armer was tying the New Zealand top-order in knots, the 25,000 crowd made up mostly of Pakistan fans bayed their new hero on.

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Even yesterday’s hero was moved by the scene, as namesake Shahid took to Twitter to acclaim: “Afridiii.” The towering quick bowler’s 3-28 off 10 overs was spellbinding.

At one point, it appeared certain to guarantee victory, but that was before Jimmy Neesham played a dogged hand for the Black Caps, ending on 97 not out to carry New Zealand to 237-6.

It felt competitive. Then as Mitchell Santner started turning his left-arm spin around corners, it felt like a huge total. Maybe to everyone of a nervous disposition, anyway.

Or anyone not named Babar Azam. The jewel in Pakistan’s batting line up marshalled the run-chase just as well as Miandad, or Inzamam-ul-Haq, or anyone else from the country’s storied past, could have managed.

He made it to a hundred in 124 balls, and shared the decisive partnership with Haris Sohail, whose brilliance in making 68 once again proved the folly of him being left out of the side at any point in this competition.

Updated: June 26, 2019 10:32 PM

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