Essential, thrilling, fascinating
Pakistan fans should outnumber South Africans at Trent Bridge today, and Younis Khan’s team will require every last breath of support if it is to defeat the tournament's most formidable opponents. Has any Pakistan team's progress ever acquired greater significance?
South Africa pose a severe threat to Younis’s stated dual ambitions of winning this World Cup to uplift the people of Pakistan and to honour the memory of his previous coach and mentor, Bob Woolmer. Behind an inane grin Younis is a serious fellow.
His Pakistan are shaping up nicely in this tournament--it would be wrong to imagine the coach has any significant influence. A varied and aggressive bowling attack has allowed the batsmen to slowly find their form. But the concern is that Pakistan may be facing South Africa a match too early.
Historically, Pakistan have struggled against South Africa, especially on pitches with pace and bounce. This South African team boasts fast bowling aplenty, venomous and brutal. The better bowling attacks have troubled Pakistan, even the mediocre ones have broken their stride. On this basis alone South Africa must start favourites although Trent Bridge might just suit Pakistan.
But all is not lost. In every game, Pakistan have grown stronger. They have hit upon a team formula and a game plan that feels right for Twenty20 cricket. Shahzaib Hasan and Abdul Razzaq add some power hitting, creating a better balance between measured strokeplay and outrageous attack.
The players even look to be enjoying themselves, not in a frivolous WWE kind of way but in recognition of their improving game. When Younis Khan described Twenty20 cricket as fun he invited ridicule although it was really a clumsy cover for his intense annoyance with his fellows. He now seems very serious, especially following New Zealand's shameful attempt to question the integrity of his team.
There can be no question, however, about the quality of Pakistan's bowling in this tournament. For that alone, Pakistan fully deserve to be in the semi-finals. And it is the bowlers who stand the best chance of reminding South Africa of their chokers tag.
This will be the toughest challenge South Africa's batsmen have faced. Can Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi, and Saeed Ajmal stifle South Africa as they have stifled others? I'm most fascinated to see how teenager Mohammad Aamer fares against South Africa's blasters.
Pakistan's flair can defeat the functional approach of South Africa. But this is a mighty South African team, and Pakistan will require an exceptional game in all departments to progress to Sunday's final. The senior players will need to lead the way, especially with the bat. Misbah-ul Haq and Abdul Razzaq, in particular, are capable of an unstoppable assault.
It might just be that Pakistan are peaking at the right time while South Africa are due a defeat. This might just be wishful thinking, South Africa are ruthless. Yet Pakistan have started playing with a swagger that comes with confidence, and in Twenty20 cricket anything is possible.
Win or lose, I want to see Pakistan play with passion and panache. In a few games of Twenty20, Younis Khan's team have reminded the world why Pakistan cricket is an essential, thrilling, and fascinating ingredient in our international game.
Win or lose, Pakistanis around the world have held their heads up high for a couple of weeks. "Proud to be Pakistani" shirts have made a reappearance. The Pakistani flag is once again associated with sporting performances that bring joy rather than the fear of international terrorism.
Win or lose, when people tell you that cricket is merely a sport, please tell them that for Pakistan this mere sport is a symbol of hope, a vibrant and pulsating connection with the international community.
No wonder Younis Khan chooses to smile. The enormity of his burden might otherwise crush him.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here