ICC cashes in as India versus Pakistan delivers a New York nail-biter | Tahar Hashim

    The Mets were playing the Phillies in Stratford, east London, as the former’s ballpark in Queens, New York, hosted thousands of fans for a big-screen watch party. Not for the baseball, but the cricket taking place a half-hour drive away at Eisenhower Park. As part of this surreal role reversal, India’s match against Pakistan began with rain delaying the toss of a coin. Yes, America, this is the game we’re trying to sell you.

    Four World Cup fixtures had graced this venue over the week, but this marquee contest was what the US leg of the tournament had been centred around, offering a number of guarantees to the International Cricket Council: serious crowd numbers, a diaspora served, fine timing for the subcontinental television audience and, with all that, a wonderful sound for the suits: cha-ching.

    What couldn’t be promised was the thing that actually matters most: a genuinely compelling sporting face-off. The much‑proclaimed biggest game in the sport has rarely been the most thrilling, particularly since this fixture became restricted to being a tournament-only affair, bilateral series between the two extinguished by political wranglings since 2013.

    When these teams meet at a World Cup, whether 50-over or T20, an India victory is the usual result; when Pakistan finally triumphed in 2021, ending a winless run dating back to 1992, it was no nail-biter, the win sealed by 10 wickets. It took until the previous T20 World Cup for the occasion to match its billing, a final‑ball win for India under lights at the Melbourne Cricket Ground brought about by Virat Kohli and featuring a staggering straight six off Haris Rauf.

    Pakistan’s recent haplessness – with their defeat by the USA an amalgamation of poor form, selection and administrative incompetence – added to the sense that another routine India win was incoming. And then Babar Azam won the toss. On a square that had caused the ICC consternation earlier in the week because of two low-scoring contests, the Pakistan quicks had something to believe in, Shaheen Afridi some momentum to feed his full, swinging delivery into Rohit Sharma’s pads.

    The India captain offered a nerveless and balletic third-ball riposte: a flick for six off the left-arm quick. Kohli began with a delicious cover drive off Naseem Shah. It was a return to normalcy: Indian dominance. But this surface was always going to bring some success, so Kohli and Rohit – the biggest names present – came and went before Mohammad Amir had even entered the attack.

    Virat Kohli reacts after losing his wicket early. Photograph: Adam Hunger/AP

    The long locks of Amir’s teenage years have gone, that venom in his wrists never as potent as it was in his youth – a five-year ban and a bit of prison time for spot-fixing will do that to you. In 2020 he retired from international cricket, claiming he had been “mentally tortured” by team management. It is, however, long known that a retirement in Pakistani cricket means nothing. So he inevitably returned ahead of this tournament, helped by some useful work in the Caribbean Premier League, making his way into the XI for their opener against USA. In a microcosm of his career, he was initially the hero, bowling an excellent penultimate over as the tournament co-hosts edged closer to victory. Within minutes, he was the villain, wides making him bowl an expensive nine-ball not so-super over.

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    Weaker minds would have folded after such a display; Amir instead looked a man who had firmly put aside the events of Dallas when he bowled in New York – again, prison time probably gives you a bit of perspective. He found shape, a touch of nip and, initially, little luck, with two Rishabh Pant edges evading collection at slip and another drop all in the same over. But two wickets in two balls when he returned later in the innings – nothing flash, just good areas – brought the dismissals of Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, his celebrations briefly taking the mind back to the 2017 Champions Trophy final, when Amir delivered a masterful new-ball spell.

    Despite India being bowled out for 119, Amir was measured when speaking at the halfway mark, acknowledging India had a decent total on a tricky pitch and a fine batting effort was required. It sounded like an experienced Pakistan international who knows his side forever lives across the street from self-implosion. A slow-burn thriller awaited.

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