Every team in the 2011 ODI World Cup will be playing under a shadow. Australia will play under the shadow of their three-time winning run; South Africa will play under the shadow of their historical sloppiness while Sri Lanka will play under the shadow of their 1996 victory. India will play under the shadow of immense public pressure and expectation, and pretty much the same goes for England even if they are miles away from their home. West Indies will play in the shadow of their glorious past as always, while New Zealand will play under the shadow of their recent debacles in Bangladesh. The co-hosts themselves will play under the shadow of the heights they achieved in 2007 and it is the same story for Ireland too. Canada, Netherlands, Zimbabwe and Kenya will play under the shadow of how cruel this tournament format can be to the minnows.
The word shadow has been repeated to build up its intensity. For amidst all of this, Pakistan will strive to achieve excellence on the field under the darkest shadow of all. Match fixing has time and again routed their resources and none more so last summer when the whole world watched in amazement as three young cricketers ruined their careers. That the ICC handed them their punishment weeks before the tournament is to start only reflects on this factor. There is no wonder that with Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif in the side, they would have been a mighty force to reckon with. The question remaining though is, now that Pakistan cricket has to move beyond them, will they be able to strike out the length of this dark cloud?
Take a look at the fifteen names chosen for this World Cup: Shahid Afridi (captain), Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Ahmed Shehzad, Kamran Akmal, Younus Khan, Asad Shafiq, Umar Akmal, Abdul Razzaq, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Shoaib Akhtar, Wahab Riaz, Umar Gul and Junaid Khan.
Any team that has Afridi at the head of its sheet is one you would want to lay considerable doubt upon. Not for nothing it is said that a team is much a reflection of its captain, and that the PCB waited as long as they could to name the skipper for this World Cup, makes you want to think that they were deliberating for long whether he is the right man for the job. As always there are both pros and cons to this decision.
Shahid Afridi is without doubt their most important player. If he gets up on the right side of the bed, he will destroy the opposition either himself or encourage enough momentum amongst his team that they will do so. You just have to look back at the 2009 T20 World Cup in England and realise that he is no longer eighteen, as for long has been the joke going around about his age. That was when he matured into the cricketer we will remember him to be – lightening quick with whatever he does, almost devoid of the ability to think and yet effective like a hammer blow. Of course there are still days
when he gets up on the wrong side of the bed and makes you wonder, what is going on?
To have such a man lead your side inevitably brings forth the question, what if it rubs out on the team as well? Perhaps that is why putting Misbah in charge for the tournament was debated for so long and it was again a wonder, keeping in the tradition with Pakistan cricket, for the senior batsman wasn’t in the picture until very recently. And he has done well ever since taking over from the disgraced erstwhile captain Butt. Removing Afridi so close to the tournament didn’t make any sense and thankfully sanity prevailed, for this team is so raw, so dynamic that it pulls at its own strings all the time. It is an implosion waiting to go off, and their only respite is when they explode out onto the cricket field, channel this energy into making life difficult for their opponents.
And they can pretty much do so at any time which is what makes them such wilful customers. By chance or by design both Younus Khan and Misbah find themselves back in the side and it lends deep consistency to their batting. The youth of Umar and Kamran Akmal will be lent solidity on the pitches of the sub-continent, which will also be a factor helping out the others. Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez and the likes will find the going much easier than they did in England last summer or in New Zealand recently. And of course then there are Razzaq and Afridi, ever ready to provide the explosive ammunition anywhere, almost at will.
But Pakistan’s strength is their bowling, not their batting. Even with Asif and Amir missing – and they will be missing for long – this bunch has enough firepower about them to bowl out sides in the sub-continent. This is their speciality and it is something which cannot be said at present of other challengers from herein, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Shoaib Akhtar may be old but he can still reverse the ball at high speeds, Umar Gul is the star performer in this attack and that is enough said of him. Sohail Tanvir missing out due to injury is a blow but Wahab Riaz did enough in the last season to merit a spot. Even so, there is always Razzaq to fall back on. The spin department is equally healthy with the guile of Ajmal Saeed and Afridi ever charged to take the initiative.
All in all, on paper, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this bunch of players. But that is the thing about Pakistan - you can never ever say anything for sure about them. Except perhaps that they are the most dangerous and unpredictable side in world cricket today. And that description alone makes them a contender for the crown!
Cricket World 2011