Surprise but no shocks enliven Pakistan's progress
Until the turn of this century qualifying from the first stage of a World Cup had become a formality for Pakistan. One-day cricket was a successful specialism for Pakistan's cricketers. That same minimum standard was expected in 2003 when Waqar Younis, the current coach, captained his country in South Africa. A listless, over-the-hill team crashed out of the group stages. Redemption was expected in 2007 under the dogged captaincy of Inzamam-ul Haq but nobody could have predicted the climactic events that followed.
Now Pakistan have all but qualified for the second stage of a World Cup tournament for the first time this century, a remarkable statistic. In typical Pakistani fashion, Shahid Afridi's team has progressed rapidly when it might have been expected to falter. We know Pakistan cricket has been an enigma, and it remains one today. One minute we are surprised by the team's apparent consistency, the next shocked that it is stumbling against Canada, rekindling terrible memories of the 2007 decider against Ireland.
Yet this eternal drama never ceases to fascinate. Why would it? Pakistan's cricketers are capable of swinging from exhilarating panache to laughable amateurism in a matter of moments. Canada brought out the worst in the batsmen but the best in the bowlers, although the performance did produce consolation on three fronts.
First, and most importantly, Pakistan have not lost that precious ability to surprise, something that their recent consistency had masked. Second, it is better to stumble now than later in the tournament. The team that wins the World Cup by definition peaks at the right time. Finally, there was a healthy desire to fight for victory, a trait that deserted Pakistan in their whimpering defeats in the past two World Cups.
With current progress, Pakistan have confirmed that they are challengers, nothing more. Defeats of Kenya and Canada don't confer favourite status, but a win over Sri Lanka on home turf does suggest a team is capable of a genuine challenge for the trophy. Indeed, on the evidence of what we have seen so far, few teams can match Pakistan's variety and penetration in bowling.
Three matches remain to turn the current sense of relief into genuine optimism. The team formula isn't quite right, some of the batsmen are yet to find their form, and sloppiness in the field could cost Pakistan a tight match. Wasn't it ever thus?
The half way point of the group stages is a time for Pakistan to be quietly satisfied with their work. The rest of us might wonder how a country that has experienced such upheaval in cricket and in civil society over at least a decade, possesses cricketers of sufficient talent to threaten more prosperous, stable, and privileged powers?
Waqar and Afridi, and their troops, might exasperate us as the competition wears on but they deserve some gratitude from Pakistan's supporters for restoring a little pride and belief after a season of absolute disillusionment.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here