Pakistan had needed 46 off 30 when Gulbaddin Naib decided to bring himself on to replace the talismanic leg-spinner Rashid Khan. Their innings was completely devoid of momentum and the required run-rate was climbing at an alarming rate—from 7.37 after 42 overs to 9.2 after 45.
Shadab Khan was batting on six off 15 deliveries and Imad Wasim was on 23 off 37. Neither had been picking the spinners properly. Now, there was to be some reprieve in the form of pace.
Five overs remained. Five overs that would define Pakistan’s World Cup, five overs that would shape the careers of these men, five overs that would resonate forever through the rest of their lives.
Both men had taken their time out in the middle and in that moment lived through one of the rare unenviable moments of an elite athlete’s life. Win from here and it would only be Afghanistan and it would only be a chase of 228. But suffer the ignominy of being knocked out by the minnows and you will let down an entire nation that would never let you hear the end of it.
There is no room for error, one false move and what you’ve trained for your entire life disappears right in front of your very eyes. Win and you live to fight another day. Lose and millions will tear you apart with their jibes and their vitriol. No pressure.
Fire erupts from the stands; the Pakistan and Afghanistan fans had been at each other’s throats right from the word go. Pakistan holds its breath, Afghanistan holds its breath, England holds its breath. Imad merely surveys the field.
He fetches a ball so far outside off that it’s almost a wide and sweeps it for four. The floodgates open. It takes some good fortune, some street smarts, some unbelievably good luck and some poor fielding, and when all else fails it takes the sheer force of will needed for a man to get up and hit back-to-back boundaries right after suffering from cramp. But in the end, Imad and Pakistan plunder 18 off that over.
After the game when Imad was asked about targeting Naib, there was a brief smug smile before he answered the question. He admitted he was struggling to read the spinners so he knew he needed to target the pacer but there was certain arrogance in the way he had reacted when the question was first posed to him. He was great out there and he knew it.
It is perhaps this arrogance that often alienates Imad from the general public. Perhaps that is why he doesn’t command the same adulation that others around him seem to do so effortlessly.
Imad’s transformation to an elite-level lower-order hitter makes it seem incredible that his spot in the team is still questioned.
The left-hander now boasts an average of 42.71 and a strike-rate of 107.55. Those numbers are scarily good. The average is propped up by the high number of not out knocks but that just highlights his ability to play out the 50 overs. Those numbers aren’t just good, they are world-class levels of good.
Of batsmen to play at least 500 deliveries, only 14 have had a better career strike-rate than Imad’s 107.55. None of those 14—which include the likes of Sharjeel Khan, Shahid Afridi, Glenn Maxwell, Hardik Pandya, and Jos Buttler—have a better average than his 42.71.
This year, Imad has averaged 52.12 at a strike-rate of 127.91 and he has taken that form into the World Cup.
He made just one as Pakistan were dismissed for 105 by Pakistan but followed it up with an unbeaten 46 off 39 against India, 23 off 15 against South Africa and a match-winning unbeaten 49 off 54 deliveries against Afghanistan.
He averages 59.5 in the World Cup so far, a figure bettered only by Babar Azam’s 63. Next on the list, Haris Sohail is more than 10 runs lower with an average of 48 while Mohammad Hafeez is in fourth at 32.28. All of this at a strike-rate of 107.2.
Imad’s bowling has regressed with every passing year. His average was 22.57 in 2015, 27.66 in 2016, 50.55 in 2017, 62 in 2018 and it has been 66.16 in 2019. His economy has also suffered, going from 4.49 in 2015 to 5.32 in 2019. His two wickets against Afghanistan were his first of the tournament.
But Imad has grown leaps and bounds as a batsman and is arguably up there with Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman as the most important batsmen in the side, especially considering how poorly Asif Ali has fared. It bears reminding that the next clear alternative for Pakistan for the finisher’s role after these two is Umar Akmal.
In Headingley, when Pakistan flirted with disaster and people with better reputations were losing their heads around him, Imad stood up to be counted once again—the coolest man in all of Leeds. It’s time to give Imad the credit he deserves, it’s time to start recognising Imad as the premium batting all-rounder he has quietly morphed into.