May Issue 2019

By | Sports | Published 5 months ago

Waheed Khan hosts a cricket show on GTV News and has covered cricket in the media for the last 29 years.

The last and only time Pakistan won the World Cup, Nawaz Sharif was the prime minister and Imran Khan was the national team’s much-revered captain. In 2019, Imran is Prime Minister and Mian Sahib is languishing in jail facing a string of corruption cases.

If there is one thing that has not changed in the last 27 years, it is the basic character of Pakistan cricket, which remains volatile, unpredictable and prone to performances based on instinct rather than discipline and planning. This explains the famous saying in the world of cricket: “Never make any predictions about the Pakistan team in a multi-team event.”

Pakistan has surprised pundits in major events on at least three occasions in the past: by winning the 1992 World Cup, the 2009 T20 World Cup and the Champions Trophy two years back. Two of these famous title wins took place in England and that is a source of comfort for the legions of Pakistan cricket fans hoping against hope to see their team in the final at Lords on July 14.

The build-up to the World Cup, as usual, has been far from ideal for Pakistan, as we witnessed the usual selection shenanigans and the same indecisiveness and petty internal intrigues that have become commonplace in the country’s cricket culture. But all that is now in the past. There are 15 players in England lining up for the World Cup challenge. Three of them are top-order batsmen – Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam – boasting batting averages of 50-plus. But the catch is that all three have strike-rates below 100 and even 90 and that is considered a no-show today, in the era of T20 and T10-influenced international cricket.

Babar has been prolific in recent times, but the primary concern is his inability to display a game sense and convert his runs into a winning cause for Pakistan.

All this makes the case stronger for the captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed, to bat at number four, followed by either Muhammad Hafeez, or Shoaib Malik and then the lone power-hitter of the team, Asif Ali and finally the bowling allrounders, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, and Hasan Ali.

If there is one area of major concern for Pakistan, it is that its lower order, from six to nine, has to contribute quick runs to the total.

Compare Pakistan’s lower order to other teams, like England, New Zealand, or even India, and the difference is clear.

Will young Shaheen Shah Afridi deliver a perfomance that will turn him into a national hero?

Poor form demonstrated by our bowlers has also contributed to defeats in their last 10 ODIs, but this notwithstanding, Pakistan’s bowlers remain its strength. The general sentiment is that despite recent letdowns, one win could turn things around and they will be back to their best.

The bowling attack has plenty of spin options in Shadab, Imad, Hafeez and Malik, while the pace attack is a nice blend of experience and speed (Wahab Riaz and Muhammad Aamir) and a vibrancy that can only be brought to the table by young players like Shaheen Shah Afridi and Muhammad Hasnain.

The Pakistan squad is brimming with talent and there is an undeniable feeling that just one win could boost the confidence and get the momentum going and when that happens, Pakistan can become a nightmare for all teams.

On the basis of their recent record in ODI matches, one would be compelled to write off Pakistan as a serious contender for the semi-finals. But to do so would be a big folly, because Pakistan has never won a match or series by proper planning and discipline. So until statistics and results rule Pakistan out, we can keep on hoping for another classic by the green shirts.

 

Qamar Ahmed played first class cricket from 1956 to 1963 and has covered Test cricket for the BBC, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian.

The game’s four-yearly showpiece, the ICC World Cup is on us once again and Pakistan, though not among the top-ranked teams, is being talked about as one of the 10 nations that could stage an upset or two to prove their critics wrong. In fact, even when they won the coveted trophy in 1992, at the MCG in Australia, they were billed among the favourites but were not expected to win.

The scenario in the ongoing championship being held in England for the fifth time is not very different. Ranking seventh and with not much to show for form given its recent drubbing in nine ODIs against Australia in the UAE and in England, Pakistan’s chances look dim.

Unpredictability being the nature of the game, favourites like Australia, the holder of the cup, England, India and New Zealand could face a hard grind before being in the reckoning for the championship.

The ODI format came into existence after 1971, when, for the first time, an ODI was played when an Ashes test match between Australia and England at the MCG was abandoned due to rain. After the match was forced to be put on hold for three days, a limited 40-over match was organised to compensate the disappointed crowd. And the rest is history. The ODI is now the most popular form of the game.

Four years after the ODI at the MCG drew massive crowds, the International Cricket Council (ICC) sussed out its money-making potential and organised the first ODI World Cup in 1975 in England – a 60-over tournament of only six nations, in which the mighty West Indies, under its charismatic captain Clive Lloyd, won, beating Australia in the final.

I was a witness to that historic event at Lord’s, as well as the one in 1979, when the West Indies won for the second time, followed by their defeat to India under skipper Kapil Dev in 1983 at the same venue. India, the underdog, had emerged from obscurity, to upset the odds and lift the trophy.

The cup has moved around from England, where it was first staged, to the sub-continent and to South Africa and the West Indies.

In the eleventh and latest edition of the tournament, England, India, Australia and New Zealand are the favourites, while Pakistan and West Indies are among the underdogs. Having covered the first eight tournaments, I can say with certainty that these limited over games are a kind of a lottery, in which even the under-rated teams can make their way to the top if they play beyond their ability and if luck is on their side.

England, the top-ranked team, boasts a formidable line-up including Eoin Morgan, the Captain, Jos Butler and Ben Stoke. India, meanwhile, is led by Virat Kohli, Australia by its disgraced Captain, Steve Smith, and New Zealand by Kane Williamson, who is also its top batsman.

The West Indians, the South Africans – termed ‘chokers’ – and even the underestimated Pakistan team under Sarfraz Ahmed, could sneak up from behind. While Pakistan’s unpredictability has always been its strength and its inconsistency an enemy, a mix of the two has, on occasions, resulted in a surprise package.

 

Khalid Hussain is a battle-hardened journalist and Sports Editor at The News.

Two years ago, not many believed that Pakistan had much of a chance of winning the ICC Champions Trophy in England. But Sarfraz Ahmed and Co swam against the tide and achieved that feat with a 180-run demolition of old rivals, India, in the final.

The Pakistan team won’t start off as the favourites in the 2019 ICC World Cup, either. The ten-nation extravaganza, which begins in England on May 30, features heavyweights of the likes of England – the hosts – Australia, the reigning champions, and India.

Pakistan has entered the contest with a 50-50 chance of making it to the semi-finals, at best. The formbook doesn’t look good for the team. Since winning the Champions Trophy in June 2017, Pakistan has, time and again, fallen short against the leading teams. Since The Oval finale against India, Pakistan has won only 15 of the 38 One-day Internationals it has played. Twelve of these wins have been against Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and a visibly-weakened Sri Lanka.

Against higher-rated teams like India, Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa, it has won only 3 out of 23 ODIs. This is a dismal record for a team that is fancying its chances of winning the 2019 World Cup. Their current ten-match losing streak is the longest in Pakistan’s history and could not have come at a worse time. That Pakistan even lost to Afghanistan in their World Cup warm-up game only compounded the team’s problems. The odds are certainly stacked against the team as it looks to regaining the coveted crown for the first time since 1992.

Yet if there is one team that can overcome all the odds, it is Pakistan. Despite all its pre-tournament woes, the team still has the firepower to lift itself and be the surprise package of the tournament. In Babar Azam, Pakistan has one of the best batsmen in the world. The likes of Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Haris Sohail have also been scoring runs in recent games. The return of the pace duo, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz, adds experience and sting to the attack. Shadab Khan has provided the squad with much-needed balance. Youngsters Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Hasnain, have fire in their belly and could use this World Cup to morph into national heroes just like Inzamam-ul-Haq did 27 years ago.

Pakistan desperately needs Sarfraz Ahmed to play the sort of leadership role he did in the Champions Trophy,  when he brought the best out of his young team. He has struggled as captain in the lead-up to the World Cup, and needs to get his act together.

Pakistan’s first target will be to make it to the semi-finals. The way they have been playing in recent times, the ride to the last four is going to be bumpy, to say the least. They will need to conquer relatively lower-rated teams like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies and then shoot down maybe one or two of the heavyweights to have a shot at a place in the semis.

Can they do it?

The mind says ‘no,’ considering that teams like England, India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand look in far better shape than Pakistan. The heart, however, says ‘yes.’ After all, Pakistan has never followed a script. Once it gets going anything is possible.

 

K. Shahid is a Lahore-based sports journalist.

Pakistan entered the 2019 World Cup on the back of 10 successive defeats – the side’s worst losing streak in its history, matching the 1987-88 run. It could have been 11, had the match-up against England at the Oval not been washed out last month, or if the warm-up loss against Afghanistan were an official match.

By the time you read this, Pakistan would’ve played its first World Cup match against the West Indies on May 31, at Trent Bridge, which would possibly be the worst setting for the side to top its own record losing streak.

Given the World Cup format – which, incidentally, mirrors the 1992 edition, with all 10 sides playing one another in a single group – Pakistan absolutely needs a win against the West Indies in the opening match. Not only are the Windies one of the lesser fancied sides, but Pakistan desperately needs to get the monkey off its back.

This is especially true since Pakistan will face the top five sides in the world – England, India, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – in the first seven contests. That makes matches against West Indies (May 31) and Sri Lanka (June 7) absolute must-win encounters for the side.

Unlike the T20 leagues’ playoff format, there are no additional benefits for finishing in the top two at the group stage. Each of the top four sides makes the semis, with each semifinalist two knockout wins away from winning the World Cup.

Will Fakhar Zaman and the rest of Pakistan’s top order batsmen be able to continue their impressive batting spell?

A minimum of six wins are needed for the team to finish in the top four. That means that not only does Pakistan need to beat each of the four sides ranked below it – Bangladesh, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – but it also needs to beat two of the above-mentioned top five teams.

However, not all is doom and gloom for Pakistan. The team’s top order batsmen showed promise in the series against England. Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam will be critical for Pakistan to continue its impressive batting performance in England this summer.

But while the batsmen have upped their game, the bowlers have plummeted to new lows. Pakistan, traditionally a bowling powerhouse, last month became the first side ever to concede over 300 runs in five successive matches.

That prompted a recall for the discarded duo – Mohammed Amir and Wahab Riaz. They would need to produce the performance of a lifetime, and Hasan Ali will need to retrace his Champions Trophy form for Pakistan to reach the semis.

If Pakistan became a ‘cornered tiger’ halfway into the group stages at their only World Cup triumph, in 1992, 27 years later, the team finds itself in the corner from the outset. But – if 1992 and 2017 are any indication – it is precisely as a cornered tiger that Pakistan delivers its best performance.