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Cricket news - Pakistan put meaning behind the 'M-word'

Pakistan did what Pakistan does in big tournaments... make bonfire of conventional cricketing wisdom

That tick you're feeling in the back of your brain. That impulse you're thinking of indulging. Specifically, the word you're thinking of saying.

It's understandable. Like popping bubble wrap or blowing the seeds off a dandelion, it's an urge indulged that doesn't really do any harm. After all - what's in a word? It's not one of the bad ones, either. You can feel it, working its way down, onto the tip of your tongue. You can almost taste the "Mer..."

How did it get there? Well, it's been in your mind for a while, and - it's OK, we're all friends here - you've definitely said it before. Nothing to worry about, though. We get it. If you watched Pakistan get blown out for 104 in 21.4 overs by West Indies and then saw the same side reach 123 for two at the same stage and on the same ground against the favourites for the competition, you'd have thought it. Maybe it popped into your head before this match entirely.

After all, Pakistan had lost 11 completed ODIs on the bounce coming into this fixture, including four in a row against this very same England side just a couple of weeks ago. Badly, too. So badly that Junaid Khan was binned from the squad and reacted by posting a photo of him with his mouth taped up. To be fair, his figures of one for 79, one for 57 and one for 85 said enough. Anyhow - One game into the tournament, Pakistan were steamrolled before most of the spectators made it into the ground. How could you give them a chance against the number one ranked one-day side?

"Well, Pakistan are unpredictable", they said. And you nodded along. "They lost their first game in the 1992 World Cup and ended up winning it," comes the follow up. Oh no, here you go. At this point, don't fight it, just give in: "Yeah," you start, "they're just so *mercurial*". There it is. They thought it, but you said it. Heck, we all did. We're only human.

Are other teams so deeply wedded to one specific adjective? Certainly not one so backhanded as "mercurial" when levelled at Pakistan.

Think about it: in what facet of your life would you seek mercurialness - that sense of rapid, unpredictable volatility? A mercurial doctor is a walking lawsuit. More than a decade ago, mercurial bankers plunged the global economy into a darkness it still has not quite emerged from. Even a mercurial toaster could kill you.

What's important to distinguish first of all is it is in not meant as a slight. There are parallels to the "Calypso Cricket" label given to the West Indies side of the late 1970s who had the same greats of the 80s without any of the consistency.

But similarly, the connotations are not flattering: success is lauded by negating the hard work put in by those respective players. It's arguably more destructive when things go south, often trivialising issues that are the root cause of the defeat which, even with a little consideration from the wider world, could be rectified to provide a more level playing field. But this isn't a column on the ICC's skewed economics. We're here to talk about the M word.

And yet, of course this Pakistan side are mercurial. Because who loses 11 ODIs and then out-guns and out-field the favourites?! Scratch the surface of the cliche, though, and you realise this Pakistan side does this kind of thing on a regular basis, and they achieve it through periods of concentrated work and an ability to learn lessons when the pressure is on. Conventional cricket wisdom says tournament time is the worst time to be changing tactics and trying to improve on the basics. Yet this team seem to do their most progressive work when the world is watching.

Let's take the last three days. A bouncer problem was exposed by the West Indies and so the remedy was for batsmen to go into the nets and the bowlers to steam in and serve everything in their half. But this wasn't a job designated to club net bowlers who might come in and send down some "sit-up and slap me" nonsense, nor was it for a coach to catapult a few down with his dog-thrower. It was Shaheen Afridi pushing for selection and trying to turn Micky Arthur's head. It was Hasan Ali trying to ensure that same head did not turn at all. And it was Wahab Riaz in a sleeveless shirt, arms glistening, bounding in with the menace of a 33-year old who realises a man can only come back from the wilderness so many times.

Such was the fury on offer that Mohammad Hafeez complained his teammates were overdoing it. But the results were clear to see. England picked Mark Wood to accompany Jofra Archer as another 90mph-plus option and bowled 88 short balls to Pakistan's batsmen. They might have reaped two wickets, but they were also blitzed for 102 runs. That's no coincidence as, according to CricViz, Pakistan left only 16 of those deliveries.

Even Babar Azam, maligned for a perceived selfishness when it comes to attacking, took a number of high-risk options, such as continually coming down the wicket to the spinners. That he, such an aesthetically pleasing operator, was dismissed in such farm-like fashion - charging and hacking Moeen Ali to the leg side - was as laudable as dismissals get.

Away from the training pitch, a handful of team meetings took place, including a session of positive reinforcement in the 24 hours before this fixture. Of the topics for discussion in those meetings was a sense that even a big score, such as the 348 they were able to post after being asked to bat first, would be tough to defend without full commitment in the field.

The drills were persistent throughout the build-up, on the day before the game and right up until the toss. In fact, the only time their focus dropped was when a football bounced through their training drills from a wayward shot in England's kick-a-bout on the morning of the match.

Maybe that did not translate fully given Babar Azam dropped Joe Root at first slip with just nine to his name, Sarfaraz missed what turned out to be both a caught behind and stumping chance against Moeen and then Asif Ali couldn't get to a high chance at deep cover from Chris Woakes's over-the-top drive. But while the hosts matched that first costly drop with Jason Roy shelling Hafeez on 14 (he went on to top-score with 84), Pakistan bettered them on the ground which, against this England side, is like out-riffing Jimi Hendrix.

With the ball, cues were taken from South Africa's tactic of leg spin up front to England's openers. Of course, repeating that trick with Shadab Khan was no great leap, but after conceding consecutive boundaries in the first over, Sarfaraz held firm and was rewarded with Roy's wicket off the first ball of the next over.

Even as Jos Buttler threatened to do what Jos Buttler does, there was a calmness out on the field not echoed among the throngs of green in the stands. Mohammad Amir held his nerve to bowl the perfect slower ball to England's only hope, and even someone of Butter's class could not do better than find the hands of Riaz, up in the ring at third man.

Soon, those short balls Riaz had honed against his own, accounted for Moeen and Chris Woakes in successive balls. A steepling catch at deep third man from the veteran capped off a professional all-round display. His first wicket - angling across Jonny Bairstow and doing him for pace - was his first ODI wicket since Kieran Powell of the West Indies back in April 2017.

So here we are. Pakistan on the scoreboard in emphatic fashion, as many predicted but few could explain why. Well, now we know.

Perhaps the last word should be given to the England captain: "Not much surprises me when playing against Pakistan. You expect everything." It wasn't a dig. It wasn't a slight. It was almost a: "Seriously, if you haven't come across these guys before, you really have no idea."

Unfortunately for Morgan and England, Pakistan brought everything.

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