Asif Ali is Pakistan's designated finisher. His ball-striking pedigree was apparent when he hit four sixes on the trot with 24 needed to win against Afghanistan in the T20 World Cup. India, hence, knew there was trouble brewing as Arshdeep reprieved Asif on nought, the simplicity of the catch having lulled him into a false sense of security. The consequence? A 19-run penultimate over that all but settled the Indo-Pak scoreline in the ongoing Asia Cup at even stevens.
It wasn't the only dolly that was dropped, however. Fakhar Zaman spilled one too at sweeper cover, the guilt of a costly misfield on the previous ball clouding his judgement as Ravi Bishnoi sneaked 8 off 2, a contribution as handy as his figures of 1/26. With a delivery that lost 22% of its pace after pitching, the leg-spinner drew a chip from Babar Azam, whose last three innings have been a blot on an otherwise prolific year.
Another catch that seemed destined to make its way through butterfingers onto the ground was remarkably taken by Khushdil Shah, even though Fakhar's hopeless dash from backward point almost knocked his teeth out in the process. The sight of two Pakistani fielders converging underneath a skier transported the mind to the comedy of errors featuring Shoaib Malik and Saeed Ajmal, but the fact that the chance didn't go begging this time around was testimony to their improved groundwork. While Haris Rauf moved as fast as flash at third man to cut certain boundaries, a direct hit from Asif prevented Virat Kohli from completing the ninth brace of his 44-ball 60.
During the second half of his innings, Kohli evoked memories of a glorious past. Be it his trademark bottom-handed whip over cow corner or the shimmy down the track to thump a length ball past cover, there were surefire signs of the champion batter rediscovering his mojo. His hustle between the wickets is always a treat to watch, but it was more noticeable tonight due to the longevity of his innings. Kohli is still a few good knocks away from getting back to his peak, but the successive fifties must come as a huge relief to a nation yearning for his resurgence.
''Kohli's form is brilliant. Needed someone to bat long when the others were getting out. He batted with that tempo as well. Virat getting that score was crucial from the team's point of view because we lost a couple of wickets in the middle,'' Rohit assessed.
That India couldn't maximise the middle overs after the sprightly opening stand was down to the decisive dovetailing of spinners. Mohammad Nawaz and Shadab Khan picked up three wickets between them for 56 runs. On the contrary, Pakistan amassed 78 in overs 8-15 thanks to the freewheeling strokeplay of Mohammad Rizwan and Nawaz, a southpaw who was promoted up the order to have a go at India's twin leggies. The plan worked like a charm for Pakistan as Nawaz bludgeoned 42 off 20 to leave Hardik Pandya and Yuzvendra Chahal with unenviable economies.
"For a left arm spinner, it's important to stick to the basic line and length. The turning ball puts doubt into the batters' minds. We needed 10 runs per over when I walked in to bat so I knew I had to attack every chance I got. Leg-spinners were in operation and there was one short boundary as well. My mind was clear that I'd hit out at every ball in my zone,'' Nawaz reflected on his game-shaping exploits.
Babar was effusive in his praise for the all-rounder. "I thought they had an edge after the way they utilised the PowerPlay. But the bowlers came back to restrict them. I didn't fire today but Nawaz and Rizwan's partnership was outstanding. I had a hunch Nawaz would be key because they had two leg-spinners operating. Our spinners and fast bowlers at the death set the stage for us."
India's campaign might have hit a roadblock, but Rohit took the narrow defeat in his stride. ''It's a good learning for us. I thought it was a good score. We understand the pitch gets slightly better in the second innings. Any pitch, any conditions when you get 180 it's a good score. We got to learn a lot today – what sort of mindset we need to have when defending a score like that. Like I said you've got to give credit to Pakistan. They've played better than us,'' Rohit added, taking the learnings out of a match wherein the momentum was as volatile as nitroglycerin.