July issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Sports | Published 11 years ago

Pakistan’s dreams of hoisting the World Cup were dealt a severe blow before the tournament even started as its fastest bowler, mercurial and always susceptible to injury, was ruled out of the tournament. It was all downhill from there as a succession of defeats all but ruled them out of the tournament. Needing to win all its remaining matches, the team, led by an inspirational Pathan captain and coach Intikhab Alam, and a bowling attack spearheaded by a bowler known for his toe-crushing yorkers and a beguiling legspinner, pulled off one remarkable win after the other, making Pakistan world champions and silencing the doubters.

One may be forgiven for thinking that was a description of Pakistan’s unexpected victory in the Twenty20 World Championship. Truth is, the same storyline played out in Pakistan’s equally stunning, come-from-behind performance 17 years earlier as it unexpectedly lifted the One-Day International version of the World Cup.

Pakistan’s chances of lifting the trophy were dismissed on the eve of the tournament as Waqar Younis, then the fastest bowler in the world, was unable to take part in the tournament. Waqar’s speed, along with Wasim Akram’s intelligent bowling at the death of an innings, made them the lynchpins of Pakistan’s bowling attack. Echoes, perhaps, of speedster Shoaib Akhtar, who also could not make the trip after suffering yet another injury. But the parallels end there. While Waqar, like Shoaib, had more than his fair share of off-field dramas, including a drug scandal, a bitter rivalry with Wasim and constant accusations of ball-tampering, he, unlike Shoaib, gave it his all while playing and never let these problems interfere with his cricket.

Setting sail for Australia without Waqar, captain Imran Khan’s team had to make do with uncapped players Wasim Haider and Iqbal Sikander, the Mohammed Amir and Shahzaib Hasan of 1992. And the paucity of the team’s resources were evident from the first match, as Pakistan crashed to a humiliating 10-wicket defeat to the West Indies. Before the unexpected resurgence, there were also further defeats against India and South Africa.

The undoubted nadir of Pakistan’s World Cup defeat was their humiliating batting performance against England, as the team was bowled out for 74, at the time their lowest ever score in ODIs. Another parallel can be drawn from that match and Pakistan’s 2009 campaign. An injured Imran Khan, watching from the sidelines, could do little but laugh as he watched his team lose one wicket after the other, reminiscent of Younus Khan’s giggling at Pakistan’s shoddy fielding in 2009. A fortuitous thunderstorm allowed a great escape as the match was abandoned and Pakistan still had a mathematical chance of reaching the semi-finals.

To do so they would have to beat Sri Lanka (one of cricket’s minnows at the time) and the thus far unbeaten New Zealand. It was at this time that Imran Khan reasserted his authority and gave his famed “cornered tigers” speech. After a routine victory over Sri Lanka, a previously unheralded player got a chance to bask in the spotlight. Young, bubbly legspinner Mushtaq Ahmed turned in a performance of a lifetime, dismissing in-form batsman Mark Greatbatch and setting the stage for one of Pakistan’s all-time greats, as Wasim Akram’s brilliant yorkers, much like Umar Gul 17 years later, stopped the Kiwis from creating any momentum. A small target was easily dispatched thanks to a Ramiz Raja century and Pakistan were into the semis, coincidentally drawn to play New Zealand again.

Victory would not come easy this time round. Thanks to some brutal hitting from skipper Martin Crowe, the Kiwis posted a formidable target of over 260. Countering the prevailing wisdom of the time, Imran chose to start slowly, keeping wickets in hand for an onslaught at the end. The tactic seemed to have backfired badly as Pakistan regularly lost wickets, with star batsman Javed Miandad stranded at one end. Ultimately, Imran’s captaincy, often criticised as obstinate, was vindicated as Inzamam-ul-Haq, a youngster Imran had faith in, despite a string of low scores, bludgeoned an innings of 60 that took Pakistan to victory and a final appointment in Melbourne against England.

Imran persisted with the same strategy in the final, played before a full house at the MCG. A painfully slow partnership between him and Javed Miandad, excruciating to watch at the time, slowly developed into a match-winning one, as the two greats let loose. A ferocious onslaught by Inzamam and Wasim Akram in the last five overs took Pakistan to 249, a score that was only slightly above par. Despite a brilliant spell by Mushtaq Ahmed, where he toyed with and ultimately confounded batsman Graeme Hick, England looked to be progressing serenely towards their target. It was at this point that Wasim Akram took wickets with consecutive deliveries that are ranked among the greatest in cricket history, and ensured that Pakistan would lift the trophy. The impact of Wasim’s spell can be compared with Umar Gul’s bowling performance against New Zealand where he took 5-6 for the best figures in T20 history. And the reaction by the opposition to both spells was remarkably similar. England’s Ian Botham confidently declared that he had never seen two balls that moved as much as Wasim’s and thus he must have tampered with the ball. New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori, too, was so confounded by the reserve swing Umar Gul was able to generate that he asked the umpires to check if Gul had been playing by the rules.

But Pakistan’s victory in 1992 was not without its recriminations. In the presentation ceremony, Imran Khan, already saddled with a justified reputation for arrogance, praised himself for his performance, expressed satisfaction that he had won the World Cup and declared his pleasure that his cancer hospital would finally be built. Conspicuous by its absence was any praise for the rest of the team. It would be the last time Imran Khan appeared in Pakistan colours as the team refused to play under him. Younus was far more careful after he received the trophy, acknowledging not only the rest of the team but the country at large. But he too retired — at least from the T20 version of the game.

But the only link between the two victories that really matters is that these are the only two occasions when the talented Pakistanis were able to rise above petty in-fighting, inconsistency and controversy to become, for brief shining moments, the best in the world.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.