Brave or bonkers? Afridi revives Pakistan
|"Afridi has generally gone with his heart - a more natural method for his captaincy" © AFP|
Pakistan might not win this World Cup but this day in May will become legend in the history of Pakistan cricket. Improbable odds of qualification for the semi-finals were lengthened when Shahid Afridi announced his team. Khalid Latif in, Mohammad Sami out. A batsman for a bowler, leaving one genuine pace bowler in the starting XI. Brave or bonkers? It was a gamble that convulsed Pakistan fans. It turned out to be a stroke of genius.
When Latif played a lame stroke to end his innings, Pakistan's innings was a mess, South Africa were rampant. Contests between Pakistan and South Africa are always visually fascinating. In the flesh, the South Africans are gigantic, each man several times thicker in stature than his Pakistani opponent. Yet for the second World Cup running, the wiry frames of Pakistan's players were controlled by cooler nerves.
The revival by the Akmal brothers and Pakistan's captain was thrilling enough. But the bowling performance, supported by another efficient fielding display, was exceptional. Saeed Ajmal and Afridi rejoined their compelling Twenty20 partnership, with Ajmal possibly producing the spell of the tournament. In the field, Afridi was passionate, encouraging, and foul-mouthed. An ideal combination for a Pakistan captain.
Nonetheless, it would be daft to pretend that Pakistan deserve to be semi-finalists. Afridi's team have been generally awful, struggling to find the right balance and any kind of strategy. But after such a desperate tour of Australia and the destructive infighting of recent months, players and fans were due some better fortune.
Encouragingly, Pakistan's bowling has returned to form in the last two games. The fielding has become helpful. Afridi has generally gone with his heart, his impulses; a more natural method for his captaincy. He has found form, a vital pillar of credibility for any leader. Passage to the semi-final should help settle him further. Pakistan have got off death row and go into the final rounds exhilarated.
But they could not have done it without England, every Pakistani's second favourite team. When Pakistan required England to win, not once but twice, England delivered. Now Pakistan's route to the semi final echoes the 1992 World Cup. Indeed, England's helping hand could come back to haunt them as it did then.
Pakistan will probably have to overcome a formidable Australian team. Afridi's men will be clear underdogs but that means they have nothing to lose. Moreover, Pakistan's batsmen will prefer to tackle Australia's lightning attack on the Lahori wicket of St Lucia. Pakistan now have momentum and anything is possible in Twenty20.
A semi-final berth was as much as Pakistan fans realistically hoped for. The title defence continues. Whatever the turmoil and conspiracies in the background, fans will always support their team, especially if they battle as they have done in the last two matches. But it is the sudden twists in fortune that make Pakistan compelling viewing. Doubly so when they come on the back of an utterly surprising team selection.
Brave and bonkers is the Afridi method. The rollercoaster just got steeper and deeper.
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Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here