x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Pakistan may be erratic, but they are capable of beating the best in the World Cup

With memories of their nightmare defeat by Ireland in 2007 still painful, Pakistan have gone into this year's World Cup without several of their key players and with an erratic record. But they are still a team who, on their day, are more than capable of beating the best in the world.

Pakistan's Umar Gul, right, celebrates bowling England's Stuart Broad for two and winning the fourth one-day international in England in 2010.
Pakistan's Umar Gul, right, celebrates bowling England's Stuart Broad for two and winning the fourth one-day international in England in 2010.

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They can lose to cricket's minnows and beat the best on the planet. Haroon Khan looks at the prospects of the World Cup's most unpredictable team

March 17, 2007. It was a beautiful clear day on the picturesque Caribbean island of Jamaica as Ireland were lining up against Pakistan, the former champions, at the World Cup.

Expectations for the tournament were somewhat circumspect for Pakistan due to mixed results coming into the tournament, but no one could have predicted what was to follow.

The group stages were meant to be a dress rehearsal for the main event - the Super Eights, with many fans already having bought tickets for the expected clash of the tournament - India versus Pakistan.

Alas, it was not to be. Pakistan crashed out of the competition in the most spectacular of fashions to the cheers of the "Blarney Army" on St Patrick's Day. The Shamrocks had turned Pakistan green.

The heart-rending vision of Bob Woolmer shutting his laptop one last time as he left the team box was a sombre moment that juxtaposes the immense sensation sport crafts in individuals.

From a Pakistan fan's perspective, the result was a horrible nightmare and culminated in a tournament that they will gladly erase from their memory, like in the movie Men in Black.

Fast forward four years to the current World Cup and the script and the cast may have changed, but the controversies have only intensified. Pakistan have become an outcast in world cricket with no friends.

A lot has happened to Pakistan since their 2007 campaign came to an abrupt end.

It is not just the recent saga of spot-fixing. Before that, we had performance enhancing drugs, ball tampering or ball biting, infighting, deliberate underperformance, whimsical fines and a total of seven different captains, all of which meant that Pakistan cricket has always been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons, with the one glorious exception, their triumph in the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup.

With such disruptions, it is a testimony to the country and its cricketers that teams are still wary of this cornered tiger.

Pakistan cricketers historically have been an eclectic mix of brilliance and mysterious skill and that production line continues to churn out exceptional cricketers.

How many other countries can expect to have their two best bowlers and an opening batsman banned as well as their most senior batsmen not selected, yet still have enough firepower to instil fear in those who encounter them?

The decision to appoint Geoff Lawson, the former Australian fast bowler, as yet another overseas coach, followed by the ever-young Intikhab Alam, produced little success on the field, but they have now settled on Waqar Younis and the results are starting to show.

Under the leadership of the ever-mercurial Shahid Afridi they will commence their World Cup journey this Wednesday, and it would be a brave man to completely write them off.

While it may seem an unsettled side from the outside, in reality, since the spot-fixing saga broke, Pakistan have kept more or less the same squad for the past three series. Afridi has built around himself a merry band of men who are starting to once again play as a unit.

Nearing the twilight of a topsy-turvy career, Afridi will be hopeful of ending it on a high note.

His confirmation as captain for the World Cup was an unnecessarily long drawn out saga in itself, but he has shown that he can lead from the front.

The added responsibility may even have had the result of curtailing his irresponsible batting style and there is merit to that argument - he averages a respectable 34 runs when leading the side compared to 23 when he is not.

Pakistan's strength once again lies in their bowling unit. Some important pieces are missing but there is no room for excuses.

Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Gul are experienced players and will lead the bowling attack.

In Gul, they have arguably the best exponent of reverse swing with an ability to bowl toe crushing yorkers at will, making him one of the most feared limited overs bowlers in the world.

Wahab Riaz has proven to be a capable wicket-taking bowler at international level and will provide able support.

Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman provide the crucial ingredients needed on the slower, turning wickets of the subcontinent. Throw in Afridi, Mohammad Hafeez, and Abdul Razzaq and there are plenty of options available.

The team's batting, however, remains volatile.

Moments of madness with the bat are a common occurrence, but if Pakistan can display the level-headedness they have shown in recent Test matches, this weakness may be overcome.

The batting is a mixture of youth and experience but will rely heavily on Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq to fire and provide some much needed experience.

Fielding has been Pakistan's Achilles heel over the years, but there have been significant improvements in this department in the recent past.

Pakistan fielders are beginning to appreciate the need to throw themselves around to save vital runs and there is a reduction in the number of dropped catches too.

The best thing going for Pakistan is the format of the World Cup tournament.

With more matches played in the early group stages, it means the odd upset from an associate team is not likely to make a difference to the group qualifiers.

Hence a quarter-final spot is almost a certainty, and then it is a matter of winning three games.

Pakistan, being notorious slow starters, could benefit greatly if they manage to peak at the right time.

A positive result for Pakistan will go a long way towards healing the wounds from the last World Cup and that forgettable day in Kingston.

sports@thenational.ae

 

Also:

- Kenya shows why the ICC are cutting back entries in 2015

- India must spin to win after good start