Shakib Al Hasan hit Iftikhar Ahmed for three fours in three balls in a passage that revealed plenty about both teams, writes Ben Gardner.

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The boring middle overs, they call them, and sometimes that’s what they are. But sometimes, it can seem as if nothing is happening when really everything is, a game decided by the choice of when to attack and when to sit back. Look close enough, and this can be where the real gems lie.

When you get two teams fighting to stay afloat, with plenty going wrong desperate for something to go right, the flaws can crystallise into one pure moment. Take Shakib Al Hasan’s three-ball takedown of Iftikhar Ahmed, three consecutive boundaries struck off virtually identical balls, to three different areas. The first, stroked through cover; the second, smashed through mid-wicket; the third, launched down the ground. It was the briefest of bursts. It will likely have little outcome on the final result, or the destination of the World Cup. But it was fascinating in itself, and had been hours, days, and weeks in the making.

Let’s start with the main man, Shakib. He came into this World Cup as the captain ready to drive his country’s best ever chance at a semi-final charge. He had been the star of the 2019 tournament, caressing 606 runs and taking 11 wickets. But this time, he has been a pale shadow of that dominating force. A pre-competition spat with Tamim Iqbal has served as a distraction, and his own batting form has suffered, with an average of 12 and just one score above 15 before today.

Bangladesh had won one from six. Their tournament is effectively over, and with one more defeat, it will be officially so. Earlier in the tournament, he briefly left the camp to spend time back home under the watchful gaze of his mentor, Nazmul Abedeen Faheem. He came in desperate to scratch his way back into rhythm, with his team in trouble at 102-4, and nudged his way to 26 of 53.

This explains Shakib’s caution, but Pakistan’s strategy is also curious. After four defeats on the spin, this is effectively a must-win. Off the field, somehow things are even worse. The resignations and accusations have already started. No one is safe. Fakhar Zaman, dropped after one World Cup game, is back in place of his former opening partner Imam-ul-Haq. Imam is nephew of Inzamam-ul-Haq, the chief selector who stepped down after allegations of a conflict of interest, and these did not involve the picking of his relative at the top of the order. Shadab Khan, the vice-captain, is out with concussion. Mohammad Nawaz conceded the match-losing boundary in a thriller against South Africa and is now carrying the drinks.

Pakistan’s change in tack is, therefore, only partly through necessity. In place of Nawaz, they called up not Hassan Ali, a specialist bowler, but Salman Ali Agha, an extreme part-timer, with four wickets and an average touching 90 from 18 ODIs. This lengthened a struggling batting line-up, but left them with just four frontline bowlers – Usama Mir, Mohammad Wasim, Haris Rauf and Shaheen Shah Afridi – and left the responsibility for the rest of the overs on Iftikhar Ahmed.

The temptation was there for Bangladesh to target that fifth bowler. If they could get on top of Iftikhar, perhaps they could conserve against the rest, or even put more pressure on them. The issue is, Iftikhar has shown his finger-spin to be serviceable. A career economy rate of 5.61 is decent, and earlier in the tournament he stood out with an economical spell against Australia. His second over went for 15 as Mitchell Marsh and David Warner raced to 82-0 in the powerplay. But his remaining seven cost just 22, and he went boundaryless in his last five. Australia looked set for 400 at one point, but were limited to 367-9.

So Babar Azam had to juggle Iftikhar’s overs, but Bangladesh could not attack him with abandon either. Babar snuck a couple through with the new ball after a pair of Shaheen strikes, and then later, when Litton Das did try to play him across the line, some turn and bounce enticed him to spoon to mid-wicket. Iftikhar’s first eight overs, all bowled inside the first 30 overs, cost just 27 runs.

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Pakistan were well on top, but the last two Iftikhar overs still presented a challenge. Mahmdullah, Bangladesh’s one form player, had crafted a half-century, so keeping him on may have been dangerous. Instead, Shaheen was summoned, and got a vital breakthrough with a corker. Usama Mir ended Towhid Hridoy’s three-ball counterattack next over. Babar sensed blood, and stuck with his two main strike bowlers, Shaheen and Rauf, and the leg-spin of Usama.

Four boundaryless, wicketless overs passed. The death overs were approaching. The later Iftikhar was held back, the more likely he’d be attacked, but the more likely there would be no one there to attack him. Babar threw him the ball. Shakib sensed his chance.

At this point, Shakib had one boundary in 53 balls. But with only two non-frontline overs left, he had to go. Iftikhar was dispatched in stunning fashion. Then Shakib took a single, and his partner took another. The over had cost 14, the second-most expensive of the innings.

But if Shakib won that mini-battle, it was Pakistan and Babar who won the war. Iftikhar was whisked from the attack, and Wasim and Rauf returned. Rauf bounced out Shakib. He had made 43, his highest score in the competition, but nowhere near enough. Iftikhar returned. His last over contained just three singles. His final figures read 1-44 in 10 overs. He had conceded three boundaries in three balls, and two in his other 57.

Pakistan had gambled with their XI, and gambled with how to cover for the gamble. The result was bowling Bangladesh out for 204. Apart from three Shakib beauties, it had paid off.