There is a mystery surrounding the Pakistan cricket team which continues to confound the cricketing world. One day they would make a mockery of themselves with an embarrassing show and on another day they would surprise everyone, including themselves, with a spirited display. The ‘X’ factor about the team has always intrigued pundits and Pakistan have always thrived on their unpredictability. It is this feature that has put the Pakistan team beyond the realm of prediction and forecast.
Their ascendancy in world cricket has a lot to do with the majestic knock of 116 by Javed Miandad against India in the 1986 Asia Cup final at Sharjah. The match is also famous for the last-ball six by Miandad off Chetan Sharma. Pakistan have never looked back since, as the victory gave them a psychological boost and they transformed into a mysteriously dreaded unit. After this, Pakistan have gone on to win five successive tournaments for three years in Sharjah. At home, they won five of their seven bilateral ODI series from 1987 to 1992. Towards the end of 1989, they won a mini-World Cup in India, the Nehru Cup, which featured every Test side barring New Zealand.
In the five years leading up to the 1992 World Cup, they were indisputably the second-best side in the world (55 wins in 97 odis), behind only Australia, and no side had played more odis. To get acclimatised to the conditions, Pakistan arrived early as they have always struggled in Australia; they lost 15 of their last 23 odis in Australia and New Zealand prior to the 1992 edition. In the 1992 World Cup, Pakistan under the leadership of Imran Khan got off to a worst possible start. They only had a solitary win to show from five matches and that too against Zimbabwe, who were yet to establish themselves in world cricket.
The high points were few and far in between and low points were in abundance, so it was difficult to figure out the lowest. Was it the 74 all out against England in Adelaide, where rain provided them an unlikely point, or the loss to India in Sydney a few days later? Or was it the game against South Africa at Brisbane in which they were at their shambolic best on the field? Whichever it was, it was their victory against Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand which ensured them a place in the semi-final. Rest, as they, say is history as Pakistan beat New Zealand and England to clinch the World Cup in 1992. This would have been unimaginable in the beginning but superlative performances from Inzamam-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram along with a captain’s knock by Imran Khan in the final helped Pakistan achieve the impossible.
They were a highly underrated team prior to the 2015 World Cup as some of their own former players were sceptical about Pakistan’s ability to go beyond the pool stage. To be fair to the Pakistan team, they lost a lot of experienced and seasoned players due to the spot-fixing and chucking controversies. A few months before the World Cup, the icc gave Pakistan a crushing blow when it barred their spinners Saeed Ajmal and Mohammed Hafeez from bowling further in international matches due to their illegal bowling actions (their arms breached the permissible limit of 15 degrees). These apart, Salman Butt and Mohammed Aamir also became a casualty of spot-fixing. Then, the internal conflict within the team over the continuation of Misbah-ul-Haq as captain also affected the team’s morale. So they were understandably a woebegone lot with few giving them even an outside chance. This lack of expectation is beginning to show its positive effect on Pakistan. After all, they hardly came into the tournament with a baggage, unlike Australia or South Africa.
Pakistan were following a pattern similar to the one in 1992 but they have recovered well since their consecutive defeats against India and West Indies in the World Cup 2015. Their victory over South Africa established the fact that they are not to be taken lightly. They batted decently to post a fighting total of 222 in a rain-curtailed encounter but a disciplined effort by their bowlers and fielders restricted the Proteas to 202. It was heartening to see their fielders making that extra effort to stop the flow of runs, which was in sharp contrast to their athleticism, or the lack of it, against India and West Indies where they grassed some easy catches. They also won the other pool matches against Zimbabwe and uae. However, the game against Ireland was critical as it was a must-win game for both. Also, it brought back memories of the 2007 edition of the World Cup when the same teams clashed at a different venue, culminating in a twin tragedy for Pakistan. Pakistan not only lost to Ireland in that rain-affected match at Kingston (West Indies) but also got knocked out of the World Cup. To add to their woes, the then head coach of Pakistan Bob Woolmer was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his hotel room a couple of days later.
But Pakistan on Sunday hardly showed any nervousness and kicked Ireland out of the World Cup with consummate ease. Chasing a decent total of 238, Pakistan romped home with 3.5 overs to spare, thereby ending the pool stage in style after a topsy-turvy start to their campaign. Bob Woolmer would have smiled from his grave as it was perfect tribute by Pakistan to their deceased former coach.
For Pakistan, Misbah has led from the front as he has been in prolific form since the start of the tournament. From the six matches so far, the skipper has amassed 316 runs at an average of 52.66. So it is no wonder that he is the highest scorer for Pakistan thus far in the tournament. Even in the match against India which Pakistan lost by 76 runs, Misbah stood like a lone warrior and put up a stiff resistance with a resolute 76. Pakistan’s fortunes started changing for the better once wicket-keeper batsman Sarfaraz Ahmed was drafted into the unit as awfully out-of-form Umar Akmal not only failed to fire with the bat but also missed some crucial chances behind the stumps. Sarfaraz was kept out of the side for reasons known only to the pcb. Grabbing the opportunity with both hands, Sarfaraz with six caught behind dismissals against South Africa and a ton against Ireland proved that his non-inclusion was a mistake. He also became the first Pakistan batsman to score a hundred in the current edition. However, Shahid Afridi’s ineffectiveness is one aspect that is still causing a lot of discomfort to them. He is yet to make an impression with the bat and has been below par with his off-spinners. Going further, Pakistan would need Afridi to step up as his power hitting can change the complexion of a game in the span of a few overs. Coming back to their bowling, Wahab Riyaz leads the pack with 14 wickets from six matches. With able support from Rahat Ali and Sohail Khan, the men in green are looking ominous for the opponents, despite the absence of Mohammed Irfan for rest of the tournament due to a stress facture.
For Pakistan, the road ahead can be tough if they take their feet off the gas peddle. Considering their mercurial nature, one has to be extremely brave to put one’s money on Pakistan. However, they seem to have found their bearings finally after a shaky start. Any complacency can put a complete full stop to their campaign as they have reached a stage where they can’t afford a wrong move. The way they have played since their twin defeats raises the spectre of the 1992 magic. One hopes they maintain the newly-found intensity till the end. One thing is certain: Pakistan are no longer pushovers.