Fever pitch hit an hour before the game. It was Leeds, but just as easily could have been Lahore, the streets awash with green and skies filed with flags waving hypnotically in the air. Supporters holding signs ranging from ‘Déjà vu it’s 92’ to ‘Sarfraz’s cornered tigers’ roared loudly: ‘Pakistan, Pakistan’.
Then came the horn, echoing from an open-top bus filled with supporters whose vuvuzelas poked from every space and could be heard all the way from Headingley to the city centre, escalating the already deafening noise.
Among the crowd, five Afghanistan supporters waved their own flags, heralding a spirited contest with their Pakistani counterparts. It confirmed World Cup fever had officially hit. “It’s quite amazing,” former Pakistan skipper Rameez Raja tells ICC. “The fans had almost disowned the team after the India loss, but have rallied behind them. They can sense this rhythm and urgency from the last couple of matches.
“You get the best from Pakistan when their backs are against the wall, and I hope the momentum carries on. It’s like playing at home; it felt great in Birmingham and has been the same in Leeds."
By the conclusion of the toss, the party moved inside. The quiet roars of some early Afghanistan boundaries countering chants of ‘Amir, Amir’ as Pakistan’s pace ace steamed in from the Kirkstall Lane End. Amid the fire, the underdogs – who belied such a status to win this contest in the warm-ups – were justifying their decision to bat first with some beautifully timed drives.
Shaheen Afridi, introduced after Afghanistan milked two Imad Wasim overs for nine, illustrated the mounting frustration among Pakistan by throwing down the stumps after Gulbadin Naib drove back to him. Annoyed as he was when the two overthrows were sandwiched by boundaries, he was positively furious next ball, his wild celebrations cut short by umpire Nigel Llong’s decision not to raise the finger.
Skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed, showing the cool head that has led a very typical Pakistan revival in this tournament following a hammering at the hands of West Indies to kick off their campaign, took his time and, with five seconds left, motioned for a review.
The process was a calm one until, of course, Snicko showed the faintest spike mark. The crowd erupted once more and Naib, having nicked off attempting an expansive drive, was marching off. Quickly followed by Hashmatullah Shahidi, who – next ball – attempted to turn one to leg and saw his leading edge spoon to Imad at mid-off.
Shaheen’s hat-trick ball was a damp squib, too far down leg, but the same couldn’t be said of a match that captured the imagination like few ever have. Afghanistan were every bit a match for their illustrious opponents throughout, scratching and clawing to their 227/9 before unleashing a battery of spinners.
When Mohammad Nabi followed up Mujeeb Ur Rahman’s wicket off the reply’s first ball by removing Imam-ul-Haq and in-form Babar Azam, Afghanistan were scenting an upset. Their spinners – Rashid Khan, Nabi, Rahman and Samiullah Shinwari – continued to wheel away, and Pakistan’s case looked hopeless when they slipped to 156/6 with the required run-rate mounting.
But the kings of lost causes rallied once more, Imad Wasim striking 49 not out and Wahab Riaz delivering a cameo of 15 to see Pakistan home by three wickets.
The spirit of 1992? You betcha. Raja, a member of that title-winning team, adds: “I sort of called it during the Champions Trophy two years ago too. Once they get into that mindset, they’re difficult to defeat. I am feeling that same sense of drama. Once they're on track, it’s tough to knock them out.
“It’s like 1992 in the sense we’re finding new heroes too. In that tournament, it was Wasim Akram; now it’s the likes of Babar Azam and Shaheen Afridi. It’s all looking in good shape. They have the combination of that spirit, talent and the fans behind them. They have to just express themselves.”
From here, the supporters’ bus rolls on to Lord’s for a meeting with Bangladesh, following the runaway train supporters hope with roll through to the Home of Cricket once again on July 14. “I’m getting that feeling of invincibility with this team,” concludes Raja. “And that’s bad news for the other teams.”
Pakistan must pray other results go their way prior to meeting Bangladesh but, should that happen, few would bet against international cricket’s most unpredictable team giving their electric supporters a couple more glorious days out.