Mercurial Pakistan continue to confound
What is it that makes the Pakistani cricketer tick? In this sport, it is among the most compelling questions, unanswered till now and probably never to be fully resolved. If you didn't know any better you'd think, from various results over the years, some strife, considerable friction within the side, a run of bad results and a boggling glut of off-field controversies spurs them on.
Pakistan had no business winning today and that too chasing 300-plus; perhaps this is precisely why they won. They have been poor in this tournament thus far, their bowling without sting, their batting uncertain. The future of at least one from captain and coach has been on the line.
The latter has been intent on making matters worse for himself. The former pulled out at the last minute, in typically tragi-comic circumstances after a rare public announcement yesterday had confirmed his place in the playing XI; not that he has been particularly inspirational. But it was in the air yesterday at Pakistan's practice, this vague feeling that something might happen, even with this depleted side. Nobody could really articulate it, but it hung in the air.
It is a well-worn cliché, but Imran Khan was on to something when he spoke of cornered tigers. This is not quite the same stage but Pakistan's position in the tournament is as perilous. Their progress is still in other hands: if India wins against Sri Lanka tomorrow, Pakistan are out. However, if India loses, Pakistan will go through to the final if they beat Bangladesh.
One thing that makes sense is that Younis Khan was at the centre of this win, for he well represents Pakistan's mood swings. He is a difficult man to decipher: brave, committed, but also impulsive and tempestuous, his next move as difficult to predict as his last. One day he is magnificent, the next as frustrating. One day he wants the captaincy, the next he doesn't. But when he clicks Pakistan does too, as Misbah-ul-Haq pointed out later. He has been at the heart of Pakistan's last three big wins over India and twice he has organised chases over 300.
Significantly, a fresh debate will also begin now on Misbah's role. As disenchantment grows with Shoaib Malik's leadership, eyes move to the deputy and an emphatic triumph over India in trying circumstances is a sure way to speed up and heat up the debate. It is unwise to judge Misbah's leadership on one match alone, though understandably he was elated. "I enjoyed it a lot. The pressure is always there as a professional cricketer and you just have to face these difficulties."
And it was no surprise that the first question asked of him later, mischievously, was what the future held for the man he replaced. "Malik has performed well in this tournament and his place remains," Misbah straight-batted back, albeit after everyone had their laugh. "He will keep playing where he has played."
Though careful to say what was needed about Malik, Misbah said that he had tried to change mood as well as tactics. "I just focused on certain things. We were looking a little negative and I told the players to just be positive. We played with a different strategy. We have kept wickets in hand in previous matches and tried to up the tempo later, but this time we changed that. We had two stroke-playing openers and I just told them to play their own game."
More important than even what Misbah did as captain is what he did as batsman. Tonight he did what he is meant to do, what he has been so close to doing so many times before. He finished a match, even hitting the winning runs. "It gave me great pleasure to do that," he said. "Sometimes you get close but it doesn't happen, but when you don't do it, you shouldn't take pressure from it. You just try and finish the next one. Today was very good in that sense."
Today was very good, tomorrow it might not matter. Beyond the morrow, some will begin to argue however, this result assumes greater importance. But beyond even that, where the query as to what motivates Pakistan on such days resides? That riddle we are no nearer to unravelling.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo