Shaheen Afridi offers Pakistan an edge in the familiar final showdown with England

Wwhen England played Pakistan at the MCG in the 1992 World Cup final, it was only the teams’ fourth meeting in almost five years. When the same teams meet at the same venue on Sunday with the T20 World Cup on the line, it will be their ninth match in a shade in seven weeks.

It may be true that cricketers, unlike footballers for much of the sport’s history, have always been familiar with the key players from other major nations at World Cups, but this is something else. As Alex Hales put it, “both teams know each other like the back of our hands”.

Last week, Shan Masood spoke about spending time during England’s seven-match T20 series in Pakistan in September with his future Yorkshire team-mates Harry Brook, Dawid Malan and Adil Rashid. “I think that’s the beauty of the game,” he says. “It connects people, it connects everyone.”

This stage is set for an unusually friendly finale. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and a lot of respect between the coaching staffs as well,” said England manager Matthew Mott. “We know each other quite well. It won’t take anything away on the pitch – both teams will go out there determined to do their best and win that World Cup final – but definitely the two teams mix very well.”

In all this, Shaheen Afridi somehow manages to be both Pakistan’s most famous threat and their secret weapon. The 22-year-old suffered knee ligament damage in July which ruled him out of England’s 4-3 series win in his homeland in September – he spent much of that time receiving specialist treatment in London – and bowled just two overs when the teams met for a warm-up match in Brisbane on the eve of the tournament. He hasn’t exactly been hiding from the English of late – six months ago he was playing in the County Championship for Middlesex – but only one player who will be involved on Sunday faced him in that period, and that was his compatriot Mohammad Rizwan.

It already takes him two hours to warm up for each match. But Shaheen’s participation in the World Cup was never in doubt. “Shaheen is Pakistan’s best bowler and if he has to play on one leg, he can play on one leg,” Masood told the Guardian. “And if he had a leg, Pakistan would still prefer him to anyone because he is one of the best bowlers in the world.”

He felt back in action in the first two matches of the World Cup, where his eight overs yielded no wickets at 7.9 runs each – Pakistan lost them both – but has rallied with his team, taking 10 wickets over the next four matches, while leaking just 5.27 runs an over, and he approaches the final close to his irresistible best.

Encouragingly, he is not alone. Like 2019, when they beat Australia at Edgbaston in the 50-over tournament, England go into a World Cup final with renewed confidence. And this time, after the stunning demolition of India in Adelaide on Thursday, they actually got to enjoy it.

When England celebrated in Birmingham in 2019, their Australian coach, Trevor Bayliss, produced the mood-killing post that “this is why the Aussies think the English can’t win anything – you celebrate winning the semi, real winners win the final”. This year, another Australian coach let the players enjoy the occasion.

“I never try to rein it in after a win like that,” Mott said. “I think you have to enjoy it. That’s why you play the game, and you can enjoy it in its own kind of compartment and then move on. I think we did it pretty well. It was a good locker room to hang out in in, there were some nice scenes, guys sitting around talking and chatting and reflecting on the game that we’ve all been running for a while. There was a realization that we still have unfinished business. We didn’t just come here to get to final, we’ve come here to win it, and I got a clear sense that everyone was motivated to do that last night.”

England manager Matthew Mott arrives in Melbourne, where the weather is expected to affect Sunday's final.
England manager Matthew Mott arrives in Melbourne, where the weather is expected to affect Sunday’s final. Photo: William West/AFP/Getty Images

These are circumstances that Mott knows particularly well. In the 20- and 50-over formats, he has already won three World Cups and this could be his second of the year, joining the one he led Australia’s women to in April. “I think in many ways the final is one to enjoy,” he said. “Sometimes you get more nervous in semi-finals trying to get there, and the final is almost an opportunity to go out, have fun and let the best team win. You have to let the players enjoy it. Sometimes the fear of failure comes in if you build it up too much.”

One of the most impressive things about the semi-final result was the number of injured players who were not required to achieve it, such as Jonny Bairstow, Jofra Archer, Reece Topley and the last two dropouts, Dawid Malan and Mark Wood. Malan and Wood will be assessed before the final but neither looks likely to be fit.

“The moment I took over the squad, looking through the roster I was pretty impressed with the talent that’s there,” Mott said. “Every time we lose a player we just find another way to put the team together. There hasn’t been any thought about players missing out – we feel sorry for them, especially when they’re fit – but we know there’s players who can come in and do a very good job.”

The only thing that can dampen England’s spirits ahead of the final is actual humidity. If the weather forecast is anything to go by, there will be torrential rain in Melbourne on Sunday, and on Friday England looked at the fine print of the tournament rules.

If the match cannot be completed on Sunday – and in the knockout stages both innings must be at least 10 overs for a result to be achieved – play will resume on Monday at 05:00 GMT, the start of a maximum four hours of extra play with rain potentially still an issue. If the match is not decided by then, the teams will be declared joint winners.

“It’s in the lap of the gods,” said Matthew Hayden, the former Australian batsman, who has been Pakistan’s team mentor during the World Cup. “Who knows about the weather here in Melbourne? It’s the start of the season so it’s variable and we’ll have to deal with it.”

There was no doubt that for the tournament organizers an India-Pakistan final was very much the dream; nor is there any doubt about what would become the nightmare.

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