Group B Pakistan remain international cricket's most paradoxical team: infinitely capable of winning, yet never too far away from pressing the self-destruct button, writes Osman Samiuddin.
Champions Trophy: Pakistan a real Jekyll and Hyde
Pakistan remain international cricket's most paradoxical team: infinitely capable of winning, yet never too far away from pressing the self-destruct button, writes Osman Samiuddin
You want surprise? Look away now. As has been the case maybe forever, Pakistan are in a strange place heading into a major assignment, no one sure how good or bad they are, idling somewhere between immense and inept, between champions-elect and irrelevant. Back them at your peril, but ignore them at your peril, too.
Consider their 50-overs side since the start of 2012. They lost every bilateral one-day international series they played last year, the most galling a 4-0 whitewash by England in the UAE.
They could reasonably have been expected beforehand to win that, as well as other series against Sri Lanka and even Australia, in favourable conditions in the UAE. In between they won the Asia Cup for the first time in 12 years.
Then, at the start of this year they beat India, in India, with all the attendant pressures of a first bilateral series between the two sides in five years. In South Africa, where they have always been poor, they took a five-match series to the decider. What can you make of this behaviour? Nothing really. They might win it. They might not.
At a micro level, Pakistan's issues have been about the balance of their XIs. They are not far off from getting it right, but keep getting it just wrong too often.
Instinctively, under Misbah-ul-Haq they feel a more cautious side. Usually, they have had one too many all-rounders, Mohammad Hafeez complemented by not just Shahid Afridi but also Shoaib Malik. They err on the side of caution in protecting a weak batting line but do not give it the specialist option it needs.
The bowling still has wonderful variety and depth, but freeing up another space could make it a killer one. Umar Gul's absence (recovering from knee surgery) would appear to be grievous but he has mirrored Pakistan's uncertainty recently; since the start of 2012, he has taken only 18 expensive wickets in 18 ODIs.
Moreover, in the rise of Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan, Gul has looked lost and unsure about what he is meant to be doing.
They will miss his experience, but Junaid and Irfan can be an incisive opening attack.
The other key point will be how well their spinners cope here. Saeed Ajmal has become a fabulous weapon in all conditions, though this will be a challenge. Hafeez's impact, so vital, might also be dulled.
Nobody will rule them out, of course, because you cannot. And keep in mind their recent record at ICC events. Since the 2007 World Cup, they are the only side to make at least the semi-finals of every ICC tournament, including the last Champions Trophy, in South Africa in 2009.
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