This article first appeared on DAWN.
Pakistan entered this World Cup having lost an entire bowling attack. Junaid Khan, Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, and Mohammad Hafeez were all ruled out before Pakistan even stepped on the field. A bowling attack that had relied on spin for the past 4 years looked entirely transformed as rookies in the form of Sohail Khan, Ehsan Adil, and Rahat Ali joined the relatively experienced Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz in pace-heavy attack. Going into this World Cup, this lot of Pakistani pacers was the most inexperienced pace attack among all test playing nations.
The first two games of this World Cup further highlighted Pakistan's problems with the inexperienced pacers as India and West Indies both posted totals in excess of 300. Within a week of the tournament, Pakistan found themselves in an all familiar situation of having to win every game from thereon to qualify to the next round.
The first of their must-win games was against Zimbabwe. The batting, which still remains sketchy, posted only 235 against a team that had scored over 270 in each of their previous three matches. A top bowling effort was required to defend the sub-par total, and Pakistan's pacers turn it on and how! 4 wickets apiece for Irfan and Wahab and Pakistan romped to victory by 20 runs in a classic old fashioned come-from-behind win scripted by Pakistan's fast bowlers.
Pakistan's batsmen took the game away from a weak UAE side and Pakistan had 2 important wins under its belt going into the all important game against South Africa.
Once again, Pakistan's batsmen disappointed despite an aggressive start by Sarfraz Ahmed and a typical Misbah innings. With only 222 on the board, South Africa were given a DL revised target of 232 in 47 overs. For a team that had posted 400 plus totals in each of its previous two matches, 232 would have seemed like a walk in the park. It should have been like a walk in the park for AB De Villiers and his batting army.
It even looked like a walk in the park as Hashim Amla and Faf Du Plessis dismissed everything bowled at them to the boundary. At one stage, Amla was batting on 28 and all his runs had come in boundaries! 67-1 after 9 overs and once again it looked like curtains for Pakistan. However, what followed was pure magic. In the span of 38 deliveries, which went for 10 runs, Rahat Ali and Wahab Riaz removed Faf Du Plessis, Amla, Rossouw, and Miller. Wahab's first 2 overs yielded no runs and 2 wickets. And Pakistan was back! AB De Villiers put on a lone fight as wickets continued to tumble around him.
Irfan, who had given Pakistan a breakthrough with the second delivery of South Africa's innings, Wahab Riaz, who has lifted his game up multiple levels, and Rahat Ali, who is improving with every game, combined to take 3 South African scalps each. While Sohail Khan, who had picked up a 5-fer in his first World Cup match (against India), captured the prized wicket of AB De Villiers who threatened, albeit briefly, to take the game away single handedly.
Once again, not many expected Pakistan's bowlers to run through South Africa's mighty batting line up the way they did. But for the second time in one week Pakistan's pacers produced performances that Pakistani fans had become accustomed to in the 90s era of Wasim and Waqar. In the excitement of the win, not many realized that Pakistan bowled South African out in a mere matter of 33 overs! That included a batting line up of 5 centurions in this World Cup alone.
The most inexperienced pace attack in this World Cup now stands as the pace attack with the second most number of wickets in this World Cup.
* Does not include today's England vs Bangladesh match
The average, economy, and strike rate are also impressive, even though they are not right up there with the likes of New Zealand, Australia, and India. The stark improvement in performance of Pakistan's pacers can be seen by comparing their collective figures from before the World Cup to their collective figures during the World Cup.
From conceding 300 plus totals twice in the first week of the tournament to defending totals of under 240, twice in one week, is one grand achievement by Irfan, Wahab, Sohail, and Rahat. One that Waqar Younis and Misbah must be proud of. One that the fans must be over the moon about.
For perspective, Pakistan's 235 against Zimbabwe and 231 (DL adjusted) against South Africa are the two lowest totals that a team has defended in this World Cup. The only other score below 300 that has been defended successfully in this World Cup is Bangladesh's 267 against Afghanistan.