June 10, 2002

Aiming to be on top down under

Sohaib Alvi

Even though Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup in Australia and a few years ago won the annual triangular there by beating West Indies 2-0 in the finals, Australia as a cricket venue has rarely delivered a happy end game for the Pakistanis in one-day cricket. In the inaugural one-day tournament they played there in 1981-82 Pakistan were eliminated from the finals in the last match when Faoud Bacchus held firm to get the West Indies past a rain reduced target of just 100-plus; in 1983-84 they again failed to reach the finals and in 1985 in the mini-world cup there they lost to India pathetically in the final. Similar was the case in 1989-90 when Australia hammered the hides off them in both the finals after Pakistan managed to get there mainly due to a then inexperienced Sri Lanka being the third side. And last year Australia again edged through in the finals despite Pakistan doing well in the earlier matches against them and India.

The reason for most of these last minute hiccups has, in my opinion, been lack of selfbelief and sticking to a planned strategy when there has been one. In fact all through the history of our cricket, especially the one-day chapter, we have fumbled within sight of victory. Whether it was the matches against Australia and West Indies in the first World Cup, the semi-final against the West Indies in the second, the quarter final of the sixth and the final of the seventh, Pakistan has been a case of nerves. In my view, even though Miandad was no doubt one of the game's most astute thinkers and planners, Pakistan has always looked a side to win whenever it played the world's best under Imran Khan. He has had his share of disasters, none more poignant than the Lahore defeat in the 1987 World Cup, but the team has always looked charged and visibly presented a positive mental attitude. Perhaps it was because the guys knew that worse comes to worse Imran himself will bail out the team. Or maybe he had that ability to instill pride and selfbelief in youngsters by showing them hope and a vision. No doubt it was because he never took a collapse lying down and hung in there with the typical determination that seemed to say "we are no less human than the other guys".

After a long time I have seen this spirit in the current Pakistan side under Waqar Younis and the current team management. Again, there seems to be a charged atmosphere in the youngsters. In the last couple of years they have seen Waqar get them out of corners by coming out fighting. They bowled out England to win the Lord's Test against expectations and came back in Sharjah against Sri Lanka a year back.

The pessimist will say that Pakistan has been winning against opposition that has not truly tested them. Even though Bangladesh and West Indies have presented a fight stretching from the mediocre to the moderate, a cricket game still needs to be won on the field. All books on personnel management make it a point that there is no better a time for men to achieve beyond their abilities than when they are riding a crest. So even though some will say that Inzi got his triple hundred on a flat pitch against ordinary bowling and that Shoaib and Co. reaped the wickets against West Indies and NZ because of inexperienced and technically weak batsmen, it has nevertheless given our key players a high note on which to approach Australia.

I also believe that Waqar, Mudassar and Yawar Saeed are all experienced campaigners who are aware of the aspects of the team they need to work on. They will know that on the bouncier track of Australia, the long absence of Saeed, Afridi's penchant for driving on the up and the youthful enthusiasm of Nazir is more likely to be a risk than an asset. They also will be aware that Shoaib Malik, though immensely gifted in his off spin, is not the artful dodger that is Saqlain nor does Azhar bowl with the honed accuracy of Razzak, both of whom are plying their wares half way across the world.

The optimism stems from the form and confidence of Pakistan's pace attack. Man to man they are in another league when compared to the Aussie pace attack, even though the home side has McGrath and Lee. Lee has not really been up there in the one-dayers and did not start the seven match series in South Africa as first choice. He has the tendency to bowl short and wide on the off stump and seasoned batsmen like Saeed, Youhanna and Inzimam can pick his pace. Shoaib's maturity, on the other hand, has been a revelation; a lesser man would have been reveling at the speed record. Shoaib continues to tell everyone he meets that he is happier that he has achieved the accuracy and swing he always strived for.

And while McGrath offers the miserly runs per over rate in his one-day record the Pakistanis are aware that he primarily bowls offor outside off-stump and has not the variety that Wasim can juggle up. Many seasoned commentators of the game that have seen bowlers from Lindwall to Walsh believe that he is perhaps the only bowler who can bowl six wicket-taking deliveries in one over. Likewise, Waqar is a born-again swing bowler and his swinging in-dipper still makes him a study for missile trajectory scientists.

Australia continues to place their faith in Shane Warne but is already realizing that he has been losing it in the last two years. At one time perhaps the most dangerous bowler in one-day cricket he has been picked easily for runs since his shoulder injury and has been seeing the ball dispatched mostly to the mid wicket fence. Youhana and Inzamam are perhaps two of the most gifted players of spin and Waqar and Mudassar will be banking on these two to build the innings for the team.

Nevertheless Australia has advantage in the batting. They are stronger mentally and physically. In Ponting, Gilchrist and Maher they have attacking batsmen while Bevan remains the master of the end game. On top of that they are playing on home territory and all have experience of playing in the indoor arena, having played the inaugural one-day series there in August 2000 against South Africa. Only Bichel, Hayden, Lehmann, Maher and Watson among the 13 chosen for the three-match series have yet to play under the roof.

For the entire Pakistan team however, playing indoors will be a new experience. When Australia first played there a little under two years ago even some Australian players took time to get used to the atmosphere, going by their own words. The Colonial Stadium is basically for Australian Rules rugby. It stretches 170 meters long by 140 meters wide and can seat a cricket audience of 48,000. It remains an awesome arena. In such places the echo factor accentuates the crowd's noise.

The outfield is not exactly as pristine as some of the cricket grounds in Australia as it is subjected to a grinding from the rough tackling that symbolize rugby. The pitch should not be a problem as it is going to be airlifted and placed at the centre. The enclosed conditions will resemble the overcast skies of England and as such Wasim and Waqar can expect the ball to swing and Azhar has a great chance to apply what he has recently learnt in England's early summer, not too different from the conditions at the Colonial. At the same time Shoaib and Lee cannot expect the wind to be behind their thrusts. But they are such class acts that absence of this one factor should not inhibit their skill.

I feel confident that Pakistan remain one of the top three one-day sides and have the never-say-die attitude to come out punching when thrown against the ropes. Their track record against Australia makes reasonable reading: They have won 24 of the 60 ODIs, losing 33 with one match tied.

The strategy for Pakistan should be to attack Gilchrist and Ponting; they are stroke players who rush into a challenge. Since long they have not faced genuine pace and swing. They have four left-handers in the top six, so Shoaib Malik can look forward to some exciting times. Pakistan's batsmen nevertheless need to deliver on their technique and maturity. McGrath needs to be seen off and Warne needs to be challenged more from down the wicket.

With both Australia and Pakistan on a high, it promises to be a truly sensational affair. Australian writers, even former one-day captain Steve Waugh, have said that Pakistan remain a dangerous team anytime, a point not lost on the chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, who said: "In recent years Pakistan has proved to be a tough opponent in one-day international level, so we had to think long and hard about choosing the squad that will help us win this series."

Coming in these tense times for the sub-continent, perhaps this sort of excitement is just what is needed for all the millions of people of this area and a study in how two varying styles can enjoy themselves under one roof.