Pakistan defeated New Zealand by six wickets with five balls to spare, in an epic Cricket World Cup encounter in front of a partisan crowd at Edgbaston in Birmingham.
The Man of the Match was Babar Azam with his unbeaten 101, as he was roared on by the sea of green which had engulfed all parts of the stadium.
Earlier, Shaheen Afridi ruthlessly tore through the New Zealand’s top order, 3-28 from 10 overs was the most economical performance by a Pakistani bowler in the last five World Cups.
Reduced to 83-5 in the 27th over, a spirited fightback on a tough pitch by James Neesham (97 not out) and Colin de Grandhomme (64), who together compiled 132, and propelled the Black Caps to 237-6 to give them a fighting chance.
New Zealand’s lethal pacemen took early wickets and put Pakistan’s top order in peril. However, Babar alongside Haris Sohail, the hero from the victory against South Africa, saw the Men in Green home.
For young Pakistani players like Babar and Shaheen, it was their first experience of playing in front a real home crowd for their national team.
With the Spirit of 92 very much alive, Pakistan have a real chance of qualifying for the semi-finals.
Kane Williamson won the toss for the fifth time in six games, and chose to bat first. He found himself at the crease much earlier than he would have expected though.
Mohammed Amir, the one consistent stand out performer for Pakistan at this World Cup, struck with his first ball.
His victim, Martin Guptill, was stuck on the crease and his minimal footwork was exposed as a thick inside edge took the ball back into the stumps.
On this auspicious occasion however, the superstar performance was delivered another left-arm paceman, Shaheen Afridi.
He cut the New Zealand top order to shreds with a scintillating first spell of four overs, in which he finished with two wickets for eight runs, including two maidens.
The 19-year-old maximised his 6ft 6in frame as he bowled the right length to entice edges behind from opener Colin Munro and run-scoring extraordinaire Ross Taylor.
Shaheen’s second scalp would not have been possible without the spectacular one-handed diving catch by Captain Sarfaraz Ahmed.
The skipper pounced like a Panther at full stretch to his right and grabbed the ball moments before it was about to hit the deck.
Kane Williamson is not one of the best batsmen in the world for no reason. One thing he does particularly well is that he adapts to the conditions and plays in the most appropriate way to succeed.
The New Zealand captain played in a calm and measured manner. He knocked the ball around and accumulated. He left balls that were pitched up and outside his off stump. If the ball was too short and there to be hit, he cashed in.
A masterstroke by Sarfaraz was to bring back Shaheen for a fifth over to maintain pressure and momentum. And it paid off as Shaheed as wicket keeper-batsman Tom Latham became his third victim to be caught out after edging behind.
Another benefit of Shaheen’s incredible bowling performance was the stranglehold he exerted over the New Zealand run rate. At one stage he conceded only two runs from 25 deliveries.
There was a period of 13 overs in which New Zealand did not score a boundary. This barren run only came to an end when a Kane Williamson inside-edge, which could very easily have hit the stumps, ran away for four.
The skipper had worked hard for his 41 runs off 68 balls. However, a deceptive delivery from the multi-talented Shadab Khan did for him as he helplessly edged behind to keeper Sarfaraz.
New Zealand had been to 83-5 by the 27th over. Sarfaraz had the chance to go for the kill by bringing back strike bowler Mohammed Amir.
He however decided to go with the less threatening option of left-arm spinner Imad Wasim, which allowed the game to drift away from Pakistan.
The pro-Pakistani Edgbaston crowd had been causing seismic tremors from the moment that Mohammed Amir had bowled Martin Guptill with his first ball.
However, the growing partnership between James Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme was starting to quieten the Army of Green.
Neesham, after seeing off the threat of the pace bowlers, waited on the backfoot in anticipation of slower balls which he hammered.
De Grandhomme, selflessly reined in natural six-hitting instincts and batted patiently alongside Neesham.
The pair aimed to reach the milestone of the final ten overs without losing their wicket. Then in that final powerplay, they really put their foot on the accelerator, scoring at ten runs or more an over.
De Grandhomme’s innings came to an end in the 48th over when took the risk to run a second but was run out by Mohammed Amir at third man.
Neesham batted through to the end and finished with a six on the final ball of the innings to take New Zealand to 237-6.
Pakistan had thoroughly dominated the first 30 overs but the momentum was now very much with New Zealand after that gutsy fightback by the Kiwi middle-order pair.
Taking into consideration that this was a slow, variable pitch as a result of the wet weather earlier in the week in the Midlands, 238 was not going to be easy to chase.
Pakistan would need to get off to a good start. The trouble was Trent Boult was steaming in at the other end and it was he who got the early breakthrough for New Zealand.
Fakhar tried to flick a Boult outswinger through the leg-side against the movement through the leg. Inevitably it found the leading edge which went high up in the air and was gathered by Martin Guptill.
Just when you think you have dealt with the threat of Boult and Neesham in the opening powerplay, you then have one of the quickest bowlers of the World Cup ready to knock your head off.
Lockie Ferguson’s brutal 90-plus mph bouncer brushed the handle of Imam-ul-Haq’s bat and the opener was caught at point by Guptill for his second catch.
Mohammed Hafeez was warmly welcomed to the crease with a Ferguson bouncer which hit him on the helmet.
The problem for Ferguson though was that his deliveries were so good and so fast that they kept defeating the outside edge.
The ball was gripping and turning square on this slow, low and flat Edgbaston pitch, which resembled the sort played on by Pakistan in the UAE.
Nevertheless, Babar Azam and Hafeez struggled against the brilliant bowling of Santner. He however did not manage to take a wicket, as he too, like Ferguson, repeatedly beat the edge of the bat.
It became apparent that New Zealand might have missed a trick by not going with Ish Sodhi. So to mitigate for this, Captain Kane Williamson brought himself into the attack.
It seems that the Professor does not do well against part-time bowlers. In a moment of madness, his shot went straight to the fielder, bringing to an end his partnership of 66 with Babar.
On this day though, Babar was too patient and too classy to give his wicket away. He fought valiantly to overcome the pace and bounce of Ferguson, the speed and swing of Boult, and the spin and turn of Santner.
Furthermore, he had the presence of mind to put away the bad balls, with the crowd at Edgbaston witnessing some glorious drives by the Pakistani number three.
Alongside the calm and intelligent Babar was the skillful and aggressive Haris Sohail, who often took the aerial route, powerfully hitting Santner and Boult over the rope for maximums.
When Babar needed a partner, Haris stuck in there with him. In the context of this match, the pair constructed a match-winning partnership of 132.
Coming off a notable 89 against South Africa at Lord’s, Haris Sohail’s 68 run-knock means that his name must be one of the first on the teamsheet in the remaining matches at this World Cup.
When Babar got his century, Edgbaston erupted with such noise that it could have caused a tremor registered on the Richter Scale.
It was an emotional moment for Babar. A player who has demonstrated such fine abilities in his career thus far, with his skill and his ability to consistently score runs, put together an innings in a moment of huge pressure when it mattered most for his team.
Babar said afterwards: “I think this was my best innings because it was a must-win game.”
With Haris run out the penultimate over, it was fitting that it was Captain Sarfaraz who hit the winning runs to take his team home.
This victory might be the beginning of the road to redemption for Sarfaraz. He was reportedly called a ‘fat pig’ by a fan during a recent trip to a shopping centre.
The shaming that would have maybe hurt more however, was being called ‘brainless’ by Pakistani former bowling ace Shoaib Akhtar.
In this match however, he was certainly not brainless. In the past he might have been happy to sit back and allow games to drift away after an early breakthrough.
Against New Zealand, he attacked on front foot and maintained the pressure. One of the best examples of this was bringing Shaheen on for a fifth over, in which he took the wicket of Latham.
If Sarfaraz was being attacked for his lack of athleticism, then he responded with a diving catch that was top-class, as he led by example in a team in which fielding must improve.
For many of the young Pakistani players, they are too young to have played in a home match for the national team. This might have been the first experience for many of playing in front of a fervent home crowd.
As we have said previously on many occasions on the Cricket World Cup Experience, the twelfth man factor will be massive in this late surge towards the semi-finals.
Despite losing convincingly to India, West Indies and Australia, their victories against England, South Africa and now New Zealand mean that only one point separates them from fourth place.
Pakistan will hoping that they can channel the Spirit of 92 as they aim to emulate Imran Khan’s Cornered Tigers who lifted the trophy in 1992 in a memorable final the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
As many have pointed out, their results in this tournament so far mirror those of the 1992 World Cup-winning side.
Pakistan must win their final two matches against Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
But with the team playing the way that they are and the momentum that they have as a team, they look as likely as any team to clinch that hallowed semi-final spot.