Pakistan knew that they had to bat first to keep their hopes of a semi-final place alive and they managed to accomplish step one of Mission Impossible without a ball being bowled.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, Fakhar Zaman was no Tom Cruise; the scratchiness of the usually belligerent left-hander meant that a sedate start put to bed hopes of an earth-shattering total that could allow Pakistan fans to dream for just a little bit longer.
But then arrived Babar Azam to lift the mood, ready to give their fans a deserved farewell. The right-hander has and continues to be a writer’s dream; the aesthetic of his strokeplay demands descriptive fervour.
At the Home of Cricket, he got off the mark with a leg-side whip. Soon arrived a back-foot punch that was luscious, but the marvel of Babar comes in the elegance of the little things he does. There was a ball he dropped into the leg-side for a single that he guided with rubber wrists, a demonstration of his need to stay classy on every occasion.
The rest of his innings was a blur of sorts; with all his glamour, he retains the ability the greats possess, to creep along to a half-century without you really noticing. The latter half of his innings was characterised by some immense pull shots – brutality to go with the beauty.
Perhaps Babar recognises that he is both cricketer and artist. When on 96, he looked to whip the ball through the leg-side in near-identical fashion to how he’d got off the mark, perhaps searching for some symmetry in reaching his ton. It proved an error as the bustling Mohammad Saifuddin darted the ball into his pads to end his 98-ball stay. Babar reviewed immediately, but the three reds emerged to send him on his way.
While Imam-ul-Haq was the man to raise his bat and helmet for three figures, it remains a difficult task to not pour your focus upon the magisterial qualities of Mr Azam. The 24-year-old leaves his maiden World Cup with a few handy records to his name, but this one stands tall: his 474 runs are the most by a Pakistani batsman in a World Cup.
Now, a flight home awaits, but Babar is the beacon of an emerging generation that can target more tangible success in four years’ time. Today’s centurion Imam is just 23 years of age, while 19-year-old Shaheen Afridi was magnificent in collecting the best figures by a Pakistan bowler at a World Cup with his six-wicket haul.
After the match, Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur rammed home a simple message: “These young boys are going to be very, very, very good”.
“[Babar’s] batting through this tournament has been superb. Imam-ul-Haq gets better and better and better. Shadab Khan is going to get better and better. Shaheen Afridi, coming back, is getting better and better. I’m so passionate about these young boys. These young boys are the future. These young boys need time.”
The old guard is beginning to move on; Shoaib Malik has ended his ODI career and more will fade into the background. But while Pakistan must now bid farewell to this tournament, their fans have plenty of things to smile about. Babar Azam is most certainly one of them.By Taha Hashim