After two convincing wins, Pakistan fell short of securing a series win in the third T20I against New Zealand.
The first was a rout, twin 47s from Fakhar Zaman and Saim Ayub and a late-order flourish pushing Pakistan past 180, before the bowlers ran riot. Haris Rauf cleaned up, taking 4-18, while five other bowlers took at least one wicket. In the second, a century for Babar Azam was the headline act, and while the Black Caps performed better with the bat, the result was never significantly in doubt.
The third was a different story. Batting first, 64 from opener-captain-keeper Tom Latham helped the tourists scramble up to 164 – a competitive total, though less than what Pakistan managed in the first two games.
In reply, however, it looked for a time as if New Zealand would secure a win to rival Pakistan’s in the first game, reducing the hosts to 88-7. Then began a spectacular fightback, with Iftikhar Ahmed and Faheem Ashraf adding 61 in 4.2 overs for the eighth wicket. With 15 needed off the last, Iftikhar hit six and four to bring the equation down to five off three, but fell attempting the winning hit.
The partnership was a notable one, sitting joint-third on the all-time list of eighth-wicket T20I stands among Full Member nations. Ordinarily, such performances are unexpected, a tail-ender having a day out. But in this case, there was little surprise that the two managed to stage a fightback. Iftikhar’s heroics have been so frequent that the phenomenon has earned a name: Ifti-Mania. And Faheem developed a reputation as one of Pakistan’s most reliable finishers at the Pakistan Super League?
So why did they only come in at No.8 and No.9, when hope was all but lost? First, Pakistan’s is an all-rounder-heavy XI, with Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim – two frontline bowlers – in the top six. But in this case, Shaheen Shah Afridi was promoted above both Iftikhar and Faheem as well.
Shaheen’s batting improvement has been stark of late, and he regularly promoted himself above more established batters during the PSL. During the final, David Wiese could barely believe it when Shaheen charged down the stairs to overtake him in the batting order, and yet it paid off handsomely.
In this case, the effect wasn’t as dramatic. Shaheen made six off six balls, leading some Pakistan fans to wonder what Iftikhar could have done with another over at the crease.
However, this line of thought ignores a significant reason for such promotions after an early collapse. Doubtless, some part of the thought was that Ish Sodhi and Rachin Ravindra would turn the ball into Shaheen, allowing him to hit big. But just as key was the fact that their stock balls would both turn away from Iftikhar, who has a far superior strike rate against pace bowling than to spin.
It is possible that had he come in earlier, Iftikhar would have ended up 70 not out and Pakistan would have won with an over to spare. But it is just as possible, in the counterfactual, that we would have been dismissed trying to hit Sodhi. Ideal entry points are regularly analysed by teams at the top level, and Iftikhar’s success can be seen as a vindication of them.
In the end, Iftikhar faced just six balls of spin, compared to 18 of pace, and just one from dangerman Sodhi. But there was more going on tactically than just batting positions. Iftikhar took a risk, attacking Ravindra early on in his innings, and it paid off, with two sixes clearing the ropes. There was a bigger impact too. New Zealand didn’t bowl another over of spin after Ravindra’s mauling, despite both Iftikhar and Faheem scoring significantly faster against pace than spin in their careers. While pace is generally the preferred option at the death, it’s also possible Iftikhar’s early success spooked them.
Equally, when looking at the cause of Pakistan’s defeat, it’s hard for any tactical masterstrokes to overcome innings of 17 off 22 from your No.3 and 16 off 19 from your No.5, as Fakhar and Shadab contributed. They still rely heavily on the two openers, and both going for single figures inside the first four overs was a significant blow. This top- and middle-order struggle is the bigger cause for the defeat, rather than the specific order of the lower-order hitters.