KARACHI: The fervent crowd was back on its feet. There was a deafening roar at the sold-out National Stadium.
Babar Azam roared too. The Pakistan skipper had asked his batters to step up in the second Twenty20 International against England. He led from the front with his vice-captain Mohammad Rizwan on Thursday night.
This was an emphatic answer to the critics who were questioning the Pakistan openers’ scoring rate.
Babar announced his return to form with a century and Rizwan cracked yet another half-century as they chased down an imposing target of 200 with consummate ease to level the seven-match series with five more matches to come.
Pakistan became the first team to chase down a target of 200 without losing a wicket as Babar and Rizwan set the record for the highest partnership for the opening wicket and it was a timely boost for the side after they were outplayed in the opening game — England’s first in the country in 17 years.
More importantly, with the series being a warm-up for next month’s T20 World Cup, Babar being back among the runs with his second century in the shortest format of the game was a big positive.
The 27-year-old jumped with joy and punched the air after completing his century with a push to short cover and then looked skywards. It was relief at last after he struggled with the bat during the Asia Cup where Pakistan lost to Sri Lanka in the final earlier this month.
At that point, Pakistan were 21 runs away from victory with three overs to go and Babar, who finished with an unbeaten 56-ball 110 featuring 11 fours and five sixes, fittingly sealed victory for his side with a four on the third ball of the final over.
It was Rizwan, whose 88 off 51 featured five fours and four sixes, who set the tone for the victory; being the aggressor early on as Babar took his time to settle. Once he got going, there was no stopping Babar.
“Credit to Rizwan who set it up early on,” Babar said at the post-match ceremony. “The discussion at the start of our innings was that we should keep believing as we’ve chased such scores in the past.”
On his own form, he added: “There are ups and downs but you have to keep believing in your ability.”
Having elected to bat, England had gathered pace on what looked like a slow surface only after pacer Shahnawaz Dahani rattled opener Alex Hales (26 off 21) and Dawid Malan’s stumps on consecutive deliveries in the last over of the powerplay with the score reading 48-2.
Ben Duckett (43 off 22, seven fours) owned Pakistan spinners Mohammad Nawaz and Usman Qadir before captain Moeen Ali launched an onslaught to guide his team to 199-5, returning unbeaten with 55 off 23, smashing four fours and as many sixes.
Duckett’s arrival had coincided with the introduction of Usman and Nawaz and the English southpaw looked prepared for a big one, when he chipped Nawaz cheekily over wicket-keeper Rizwan for his first boundary in the eighth over.
The left-hander, who played for Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League this year, continued to improvise, slapping one off Nawaz past square-leg and reverse sweeping another for two fours in the 10th, which saw England reach 80-2.
Duckett ended the Pakistan spinners’ first spell with a two fours off Usman, who conceded 13 runs in the 11th over. Hales’ opening partner Phil Salt (30 off 27), who had been watching Duckett’s crafty work against the Pakistan spinners on the other end all this time, was cleaned up by Haris Rauf, as pace returned for Pakistan in the 12th over.
Nawaz then got a revenge of sorts against Duckett in the next, when the batter finally miscued another improvised shot to get castled, only after scoring his seventh and last boundary. From that point for England, it was all about making the most of the stage set by Duckett. The arriving Harry Brook and Moeen did it with perfection.
Brook’s first boundary was a maximum of Dahani in the 14th, the right-hander pulling to clear square-leg. Moeen joined the party in Usman’s last over — which went for 19 runs — as the left-handed batter smashed the leg-spinner for a four through the off-side before bludgeoning him for a maximum.
The following over saw pacer Mohammad Hasnain concede 18 runs, thanks to a combination of wayward bowling and Brook and Moeen’s brilliance with the pair scoring two fours and six, bringing up their 50 partnership in just 21 balls.
After Haris returned to get Brook at 31 off 19, Moeen was granted a second life when Khushdil Shah dropped him at wide long-on off Dahani in the 18th over, with the left-hander then at 32. Moeen then added insult to injury when he launched two more sixes in the last over off Hasnain to reach his 50.
The target meant Babar and Rizwan had to score quickly and they obliged.
The first over from David Willey went for 12 runs as Rizwan showed his prowess of hitting through both sides of the wicket, striking the left-armer for a whip off his legs and a cut through the offside.
Two overs later, Babar took on Sam Curran for as many boundaries, pulling the pacer past long-on and clubbing one over his head.
Rizwan then hit Willey for the first six of Pakistan’s innings before Babar slashed the bowler for another four.
The luck that the Pakistan opening pair needed to regain their mojo came when Hales dropped Rizwan off Liam Dawson with the right-hander miscuing an attempted big hit at 23. Rizwan celebrated his new life with six over long-on before Babar punished a half-tracker from the slow-left-armer with a four, taking Pakistan to 59-0 by the end of the powerplay.
Leg-spinner Adil Rashid’s was welcomed with two fours by Rizwan and Pakistan were 87-0 halfway through their innings.
It was in the 13th over that Pakistan took whatever chance England had, away from the hosts. Babar bludgeoned Moeen for sixes over mid-wicket and long-on before Rizwan launched the off-spinner towards the stands at backward square.
Be it England’s spinners, or pacers, the carnage by Babar and Rizwan continued before a 17-run 19th over all but settled the contest.