Australia cricket
WHAT A RELIEF: Australia's players celebrate after defeating New Zealand in the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match in Dharamsala on October 28, 2023. Australia had to weather the onslaught of Kiwi batsmen in pursuit of 389 for a win. They won by five runs. Image Credit: AFP

Where are the thrillers? That was the plaintive cry after the first 25 matches in the Cricket World Cup 2023. The question was not without merit since the matches were won comprehensively. For spectators so used to the edge-of-seat clashes and last-ball finishes in Twenty20 games, One-Day Internationals turned out to be a tame affair.

Cricket cognoscenti enjoyed the cat-and-mouse games, the subplots within the scripts and the multiple turning points. The forward defence didn’t seem like an anachronism in white-ball cricket, and spinners pulled back the powerplay flourishes to set up exciting and intriguing slog overs. The matches reminded us that ODIs have a place in modern cricket as a blend of Test match skills and the slugfest of T20.

There have been upsets: the Netherlands authored two, defeating South Africa and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka stunned England, who seemed trapped in a quicksand. And Afghanistan, who have threatened to beat Pakistan in previous encounters, finally did it. That wasn't surprising since they had downed England. All these added plenty of spice to the World Cup. Who doesn’t like the triumph of underdogs?

Pakistan’s thrills and spills

One key ingredient was lacking: The thrill of white-knuckles rides and final-over finishes. Topsy-turvy games make white-ball cricket entertaining. We haven’t seen much of that until Thursday. Most matches were decided by the halfway mark of the chases; the rest was a formality, more like last rites.

Pakistan changed the trend in Chennai on Friday. Fighting with their backs to the wall to stay alive in the tournament, the Babar Azam-led team made a fist of the match by defending 270 against the batting might of South Africa. With Aiden Markram and David Miller in control, the Proteas were cruising to the target when Shaheen Shah Afridi gained Pakistan a toehold with the dismissal of Miller. That lifted the spirits of Pakistan bowlers who sent the Proteas into a tailspin, requiring the last-wicket pair of Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj to see South Africa home after several heart-stopping moments.

New Zealand stop Australian hearts

Unpredictability is the soul of white-ball cricket. The Pakistan game provided plenty of that, although the team’s prospects of making the semifinals look bleak.

A day later New Zealand produced the chase of the World Cup. In the clash of trans-Tasman rivals, the Kiwis refused to roll over and die when Australia posted a massive 388. Rachin Ravindra’s ton and Daryl Mitchell’s fifty kept New Zealand in the chase, and later Jimmy Neesham took over the baton. Captain Pat Cummins and Australia overcame some nervewracking moments to wrap up the Dharamsala game by five runs.

Phew! A five-run win, that was close. It’s just a hit away for New Zealand. Pakistan’s loss was even more heart-breaking: one wicket is as close as you can get; you need just one ball to get it. They didn’t.

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Tight matches are never flawless. Pressure wreaks havoc. Take the case of New Zealand, one of the best fielding sides. They dropped Travis Head twice before he reached his century. Cummins was dropped twice in an over when Trent Boult was hammered for three sixes. When a reliable fielder like Glen Phillips drops catches, you get an idea of the tension out there. If the catches were taken, we may have had a different result.

But this is white-ball cricket, where adrenaline rush provides the key moments. What’s limited-overs cricket without thrills and spills? Hopefully, these two matches will be the beginning of many more spellbinding finishes.

Hold on to your hats!