World Cup 2011 March 18, 2011

Pakistan's Australian sandwich

The last time Australia lost a World Cup match, Abdul Razzaq and Shoaib Akhtar both played. It was a dramatic May day in Leeds

The last time Australia lost a World Cup match, Abdul Razzaq and Shoaib Akhtar both played. It was a dramatic May day in Leeds, when Pakistan fans owned Headingley with their flags and claxons, the kind of occasion that inspired the ECB that a neutral Test series involving Pakistan was bound to succeed. How wrong that proved to be, with last summer's experiment making embarrassing losses.

Equally wrong was everyone who gloated over Australia's demise after such a thrilling defeat. Steven Waugh looked pained, almost broken, as he acknowledged his team would need to win an improbable seven matches in a row to win World Cup 1999. That hurt sparked an undefeated run in World Cup cricket spanning four tournaments, three decades, three trophies, and two millennia.

Wins over Australia and New Zealand in 1999 were Pakistan's champagne moments, the last time they thrilled at a World Cup. It was less of a thrill for Waqar Younis, Pakistan's current coach. I remember looking across the balcony that separates the press box from the players' dressing rooms at Headingley and seeing Waqar looking on wistfully as his fellows completed a dramatic victory.

Waqar was in Pakistan's squad for the 1999 World Cup but he didn't play a match of note. It was the second World Cup final he could have played had fate dealt him a winner's hand. Shoaib, the new express, had taken his place on the tracks. Either side of that tournament the World Cup continued to deliver heartache for Waqar, as a bowler in 1996 and then as a captain in 2003.

Now, another twist of fate has placed Waqar in command of Shoaib's final destiny, accelerated by an announcement that was part well-timed and part ill-timed. As good as it is for Shoaib to leave on his own terms it wasn't necessary to create a distraction at this point in the tournament, especially when he is at the centre of a selection conundrum.

All the evidence on Waqar points towards an aggressive bowler but a defensive captain and coach, which means the clamour for an extra bowler is likely to go unheeded. Shahid Afridi has almost confirmed as much. With Asad Shafiq looking set to retain his place and Umar Akmal a good bet to replace Ahmed Shehzad, the Shoaib issue remains unresolved.

An opening combination of Shoaib and Razzaq is a liability at both ends of an innings, and Shoaib's deterioration in second and third spells is a particular worry. Pakistan will now want to settle on their best team for this tournament, the Australia match is a dress-rehearsal for a World Cup Quarter Final, not a time for experimentation.

On that basis, the odds favour Wahab Riaz's selection against Australia. Now Shoaib could be looking on wistfully, with Waqar beside him, as Shahid Afridi's Pakistan attempt to end Australia's incredible run that Wasim Akram's Pakistan started. Australia remain strong but are more beatable. That 1999 side included the Waugh twins, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, and Glenn McGrath--to think that anybody seriously thought it was the end of the road?

After a period of clear separation, Australia's recent decline has brought the two countries closer together. Pakistan are capable of completing a neat historical sandwich, despite the coach's penchant for an extra batsman or two. If his men succeed, Waqar's victory smile will stretch a little wider in memory of his solitary vigil in the Headingley dressing room as a rousing clamour greeted every Australian wicket and propelled Pakistan to a famous triumph.

Back in those days, Shoaib Akhtar had the world at the mercy of his bendy elbows. Now the world has moved on and so must Shoaib.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here