Pakistan, a historically unpredictable team specialising in theatrical comebacks, remain in World Cup contention after overwhelming previously unbeaten New Zealand in a group match which will revive unwelcome memories for the Kiwis.
Imran Khan’s 1992 side, famously enjoined by their captain to fight like “cornered tigers” after only two wins in their first six matches, an identical record to the present team, beat another hitherto undefeated New Zealand side in the semi-finals.
Pakistan went on to defeat England in the final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the current Pakistan president’s farewell match.
Seven years later Shoaib Akhtar bowled at lightning speed in Manchester to reduce New Zealand to 241/7 in another semi-final, a total Pakistan exceeded for the loss of just one wicket.
Now Pakistan, with seven points from as many matches, can still quality for the semi-finals if results go in their favour after an exuberant performance with bat and ball greeted by full-throated applause from an overwhelmingly Pakistan crowd on a misty, cool day in the English midlands.
Shaheen Afridi, the towering 19-year-old who is the third youngest player at the tournament, set the tone for Pakistan with a marvellous spell of 3/11 from seven overs, including three maidens. Bowling over the wicket at high pace, Shaheen hit a perfect length after Mohammad Hafeez had opened with two overs of exploratory off-spin.
Another left-arm fast bowler Wahab Riaz was also swift and hostile and spinners Hafeez and Shadab Khan kept the brakes on in the middle of the innings.
After initial struggles against the speed of Lockie Ferguson and the left-arm spin of Mitchell Santner, who got some abrupt turn and lift, the Pakistan batsmen cut loose with Babar Azam and Haris Sohail scoring at will against one of the tightest and most disciplined attacks in the tournament.
New Zealand went into their penultimate group match with an unchanged side but with question marks over their top-order batting after relying on consecutive centuries from captain Williamson to get them over the line against South Africa and West Indies.
Williamson recorded his 14th consecutive score over 40 in one-day internationals in England dating back to 2013 but his dismissal one run later threw the struggles of the other top-order batsmen into sharp relief.
Martin Guptill, so prolific in his team’s advance to the final four years ago, again appeared to be pressing too hard, dragging the first ball from Mohammad Amir in the second over of the day on to his stumps while aiming an extravagant drive though the off.
The restricted footwork of his opening partner Colin Munro in conditions assisting the bowlers through the air and off the pitch was again exposed and after Ross Taylor, the most consistent New Zealand batsman after Williamson fell early, the out-of-form Tom Latham continued to struggle and he was caught behind pushing tentatively forward.
Williamson’s dismissal, also caught behind this time from an extravagant leg break from Shadab Khan reduced New Zealand to 83/5 from 26.2 off their 50 overs. Despite his comparative failure, Williamson retains the highest percentage of runs by any batsman at the World Cup with 31 per cent.
New Zealand reached a competitive total solely through the efforts of all-rounders James Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme, who posted their country’s first century partnership for the sixth wicket at a World Cup.
Left-hander James Neesham, one of the cleanest strikers of the ball in the New Zealand side and a man now determined to enjoy the remainder of his international career, after seriously contemplating retirement 18 months ago following a form slump, played sensibly, using his long reach to good effect to knock the ball about for singles.
De Grandhomme struggled initially before clumping some emphatic boundaries through the onside. Neesham started to loft the ball and finished with a flourish, hitting a six off the final ball to end three runs short of a century.
With daunting final group matches against defending champions Australia and home team England, New Zealand will give serious thought to selecting Henry Nicholls in place of Munro to open the innings and recalling their vastly experienced pace bowler Tim Southee ahead of Henry. Pakistan, by contrast, with potentially easier fixtures against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, looked a team for all seasons in Birmingham and will be full of confidence that they can continue to defy the odds.