Group D favourites Pakistan open their account in the World Twenty20 on Sunday against New Zealand, and if there’s a team that knows how to do well in this tournament, it’s Pakistan.
Losing finalists by a whisker in the first edition in 2007, Pakistan won the title at the next opportunity in 2009 and looked on course to make the final for the third consecutive time in 2010, before Mike Hussey’s assault in the last few balls of the semi-final, dealt Pakistan a shocking defeat at the hands of Australia.
This time though, expectations are not quite as high for Pakistan. They have the talent to go deep in the tournament, but winning it will be difficult unless captain Mohammad Hafeez can inspire his tired-looking side to perform up to their abilities.
Part of the fascination of watching Pakistan is that they swing wildly from being brilliant and unstoppable one day, to being utterly shambolic the next. In spite of the inconsistent nature of their cricket, one can almost always count on a Pakistan side to be brimming with bowling talent.
For the first time in a long while, their fast bowling looks subpar for a major tournament. With promising left-arm pacer Junaid Khan inexplicably being left out, the pressure will be on Umar Gul (the Guldozer) to live up to his reputation as one of the best fast-bowlers in T20 cricket. In Saeed Ajmal, Pakistan have the world’s best spin-bowler in any format of the game and Hafeez himself has proved to be a canny slow-bowler in limited-overs cricket.
And then there is Shahid Afridi. When on song Afridi is devastating with both bat and ball as he is the highest wicket-taker in the history of the World Twenty20 and no batsman has hit more sixes in international cricket than Afridi.
But worryingly for Pakistan, Afridi now looks like a fighter on his last legs. While Afridi’s batting prowess has been in decline for some time now, his equally mercurial powers with the ball suddenly seem to be on the wane too. For Pakistan to do well in this tournament, Afridi needs to hold some terror for opposing teams. Childlike and often childish in his approach to the game, Afridi is nevertheless a proud man and talk of him being a liability rather than an asset to his team may well be the spur he needs to regain some form with either bat or ball, if not both.
Pakistan has banked on experience for the tournament, but the selection choices have made the team look a bit stale. There are genuine has-beens in the team, like Imran Nazir and Abdul Razzaq — players selected for what they were once able to do rather than for what they’ve done lately.
Then there are players whose roles are ill-defined like, Shoaib Malik, more famous these days for being married to Indian tennis star Sania Mirza than for any cricketing accomplishments. There are also those whose inability to ever come good when it matters is legendary among Pakistan cricket fans. Take a bow Mohammad Sami.
There is the journeyman, Yasir Arafat who plies his trade in T20 leagues around the world and whose presence in the Pakistan team always has the feel of a guest appearance. There is Umar Akmal once hailed as a future batting great, but in danger of ending up like so many before him, as a flash in the pan. And let’s not forget Kamran Akmal, the butterfingered wicket-keeper who costs Pakistan more games with his dropped catches than he wins with his undeniably attractive batting.
What makes Pakistan so special however, is that any one of these players, Afridi, Nazir, Razzaq, Malik, Arafat, the Akmal brothers and yes, maybe even Mohammad Sami, can singlehandedly turn a game on its head.
When Pakistan’s stars are switched on, buzzing and feeding off each other, they are a force to behold. There’s nothing quite as stirring as a Pakistan side that, after looking like it’s down for the count, gets the wind back in its sails. They can blow away the strongest teams in a moment and yet it can all fall apart in a manic minute too.
The rest of the world may have its doubts, but Pakistan genuinely believes they can win this tournament.
While their fans may prefer smooth sailing, a backs-to the-wall Pakistan is where the fun really lies. If Pakistan loses to New Zealand on Sunday, may the cricket gods have mercy on Bangladesh.