Babar Azam’s century fires Pakistan to 10-wicket T20 win against England

No one left the National Stadium early on Thursday. Two days earlier, fans had poured out of the ground in the final few overs of England’s win. This time, every one of the 30,000 fans stayed right until the very end of a famous victory. Between them Pakistan’s openers, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, chased down England’s formidable total of 199 with three balls to spare. It was the highest chase in men’s T20 cricket without losing a wicket. There’s been a lot of talk in Pakistan about the weakness of the team’s middle order. Truth is, it doesn’t matter how everyone else bats when you have openers who can play like that.

Moeen Ali said that the game turned when he brought himself on to bowl the 13th over, at which point Pakistan were 104 for none. Azam pulled him over mid-wicket for one six and drove him down the wicket for another. By the time Rizwan slog-swept a third over square leg off the last ball, the over had cost 21. “I genuinely feel my over cost the game for us,” Ali said. “It was a gamble on my part, I was almost trying to buy a wicket, and it didn’t come off.” It’s true that England seemed to run out of ideas about how to drag the game back after that, but still, he was being generous to his team.

The real turning point came in the fifth over of the innings when Rizwan, on 23, cuffed the ball to mid-on off Liam Dawson and Alex Hales dropped the catch. Rizwan gave another chance in the very next over, when Phil Salt missed a stumping off the first ball of Adil Rashid’s spell, and a third much later in the game, when Ali dropped a hard chance at cover. “We take our catches and it’s a different game in my opinion,” Ali said. Maybe. But Azam’s innings was immaculate. His first 30 runs came a little better than a run-a-ball, but he ended up with 110 off 66. It was a breathtaking innings, full of hurried singles, vicious cuts and wicked pulls. Rizwan finished on 88 off 51.

Dawson had replaced Richard Gleeson, which meant England ended up in the unusual position where they had an attack of three-spinners and three left-arm seamers. All that variety didn’t do much for them. “There were a few other things we should have tried,” Ali said ruefully. “Nobody really bowled a bouncer.” It was a bit late to think of that now. Only Dawson and Sam Curran had any real control over the scoring rate. Pakistan were particularly severe on David Willey, who’s now bowled 7.3 overs for 85 runs in two games, and will surely drop out of the team for Friday’s game.

Ali says England will “make a couple of changes”, and hinted that some of the injured players in the squad, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Gleeson himself, may be available. Olly Stone may be more likely. Like Ali said , “in T20 cricket you want people who can bowl 90mph” and England badly lacked that. Ali will know better what to expect from the pitch, too. He admitted that he had misread this one, which played surprisingly well given that it looked so dry and cracked, although he said he didn’t regret his decision. England had, after all, batted pretty well themselves.

It was built around an opening stand of 42 between Hales and Salt, an inventive 43 off 22 balls by Ben Duckett full of scoops and sweeps and glances, a blistering 31 off 19 by Harry Brook and, the cherry on top, a 23-ball fifty by Ali. He had said earlier in the week that what he really wanted to do while in Pakistan was help raise funds for the floods affecting the south of the country. He did exactly that by hitting four glorious sixes, each of which cost the sponsors a $1,000 donation. His partnership with Brook was worth 59 off 27 balls.

But all their efforts were put in fresh perspective by the way Pakistan batted. Azam and Rizwan hit 16 fours and nine sixes. Their bowlers provided their share of entertainment too, especially Haris Rauf and Shahnawaz Dahani, who took two wickets each. Dahani, who plays for the local province of Sindh, lit up the ground when he bowled Hales and Dawid Malan with consecutive balls.

Dahani celebrated each wicket by spinning on his heel and sprinting back the way he came, wagging his finger and shouting madly like he was chasing after someone who had just pinched his bicycle. Which was all very entertaining, but led to an unfortunate moment later in the innings when he set off all over again to celebrate having Ali caught in the deep. He made it most of the way to the boundary before he finally realised, after he heard Azam shouting out, that Khushdil Shah had dropped the catch. Funny as that was, Hales’ drop meant it was Dahani and his teammates who had the last laugh.