All in all, a pretty even fight
Almost two years to date, in a replay of the '99 World Cup final, Pakistan takes on Australia on Saturday for the NatWest Trophy. Two years ago the greenshirts had to eat humble pie. Not only were they defeated but disgraced too, for that was the most one-sided of all the World Cup finals. Back home, such was the backlash on that debacle the Pakistan Cricket Board was sent packing!
This time round, the Pakistanis seem a whole lot more dedicated to not allow a repeat of that abysmal show. Beating the Aussies, albeit slightly under strength side with McGrath and Ponting having been rested, in one of the two league encounters has sent their confidence soaring.
The question, however, is: whether they are equipped to overcome the Aussies, the best team in the world, in a crunch game?
Well, for one, the Pakistanis in the last year or so have almost ended up losing every vital encounter. It shows that character flaw which the '99 World Cup final itself had brought out in such sharp relief: the lack of 'mental toughness'. The Aussies have loads of it, while the Pakistanis, despite their enormous talent, have lacked that important ingredient which transforms sides to the extent that they can virtually snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.
But during this early England summer, under a new captain, this seems to be improving, for the better. The rubber-levelling victory in the Old Trafford Test, which ensured that they extended their unbeaten run in England since 1987 (though they failed to win a series for the first time in four rubbers), was the turning point. The good work was carried on in the NatWest Series, and four wins from five games seems to be as good a record as any. More so because it matches that of their nemesis, the Aussies.
Even the one game they lost, against the Aussies, was remarkable for the fact that after losing six wickets for 85, Yousuf Youhana-Rashid Latif rearguard took the total to a competitive 257. That was never going to be a winning score on a good batting wicket, but that they didn't totally capitulate after the hara-kiri against Shane Warne, goes to show that they were resolute in not going down with a whimper.
So going into the final, we see that despite the upper order a trifle unsettled, generally the combinations are working well. The middle order has mostly delivered, not only individually but tried to develop partnerships with the all-rounders and the tail. Despite getting out cheaply and in a manner that was anything but dignified, Inzamam is in very fine fettle, and so are Youhana and Younis Khan. The availability of four quality all-rounders - Wasim Akram, Abdur Razzaq, Rashid Latif and Azhar Mahmood - has added to the depth in both bowling and batting. Waqar Younis, the skipper, with 13 wickets in two outings is the leading wicket-taker of the competition by a distance and has immensely grown in stature as a captain. And Saqlain Mushtaq is bowling as beautifully as ever, and on occasions seems to be topping it off. The only problem areas are, Saeed Anwar not being in convincing form and the question of who should partner him. Saleem Elahi was included for one encounter, and after an extremely shaky start he made 70-odd. But should he be persisted with instead of recalling Shahid Afridi, whose three-dimensional talents could really come handy?
In comparison, the Aussie upper and middle order has been in devastating form, but the bowling seems to be a slight area of concern. They have mostly tried to have Test-match like field placings against England, but that may not work out as the Pakistani strokemakers are wristy and have a habit of working off-side deliveries between square-leg and midwicket. Inzamam had given ample proof of that in his hundred in the Old Trafford Test.
Other than their three frontline pacers, McGrath, Gillespie and Lee, the Aussie bowling lacks sting and penetration - something which was fully exploited when Pakistan scored 290 and beat them by 36 runs. It would have been a few more runs had the momentum not been broken when crowd disturbance caused an interruption. Shane Warne is not in the best of forms, and the back-up bowlers are not good enough to stop the flow of runs and get wickets at the same time.
The Pakistanis would have to be conscious of not allowing the Aussie upper order, Gilchrist and Ponting in particular, to get a flying start and guard against a collapse much reminiscent of the '99 World Cup final.
So all in all, with the Pakistanis undaunted by the Aussie reputation, a pretty even fight at Lord's is on the cards.