One eye on fielding, another on 2004 repeat for Pakistan
"Come on yaar, don't drop so many catches," screams Pakistan's Shadab Khan as he pulls, slogs and slog sweeps from close to the cordoned-off pitch to give his team-mates some catching practice. There are three fielders in the ring and two in the deep. Wicketkeeper Umair Masood is standing behind Shadab and puts his hands on his hips as another one goes down near the boundary.
The fielder there looks in some discomfort because he probably lost the ball in the sun. Come Thursday, the scrutiny and attention to finer detail will only increase as Pakistan face Afghanistan in their tournament opener in Sylhet. The early morning start (9am) will mean the winter sun will be out in full flow. While that could provide some respite from the overnight chill, it could cause some issues for the fielders if the ball lobs up too high.
The Pakistan players practised for nearly three hours, with the main focus on fielding, and their coach Mohammad Masroor didn't hesitate to admit that his team needed fielding practice much more than batting or bowling. The Pakistan senior team found out the hard way during the first ODI against New Zealand when Mohammad Hafeez dropped Henry Nicholls on 15 and the batsman went on to score a pivotal 82. The Under-19 team wouldn't want to give Afghanistan chances like those.
"I'm more into fielding, I emphasise on fielding a lot because Pakistani players don't do fielding that much," said Masroor. "Hopefully they will compete. There are two to three really good fielders who can compete at the international level. That is my main goal with these juniors…to make them really good fielders."
There were the usual batting and bowling net sessions too, and the Pakistan captain and coach both looked pleased while packing up. However, what wouldn't pleasing them is the curb on their freedom to soak in the sights and sounds of Sylhet courtesy the stringent security mechanisms accorded to the team. The security was beefed up once Australia pulled out of the tournament - the team buses are escorted by several security vehicles, armed guards are always around the grounds while the teams practice, and the players are barely allowed to go out of the team hotel.
"It's a bit boring for us, to be honest," said Masroor. "When we were travelling to BKSP (in Savar), it was a one-and-a-half hour drive, so boys had to wake up at 5.30 in the morning, then breakfast at 6 and we had to leave at 6.30. Then travel for an hour and a half to get there and another hour and a half to come back. So it's a bit stressful. Security is pretty high so we can't go out. Whatever activities and fun we have to do, we do it in the hotel only. They gel pretty well with me also and we've kept a pretty friendly atmosphere."
Gauhar Hafeez, the captain, wasn't too forthcoming on what his team does to de-stress. He initially stuck to the norm. "We hold some team meetings, spend time together and share our ideas, practice together," he said. "We just enjoy by sitting and spending time together, we talk, we stay in our rooms." A little more prodding and the other side of him surfaced, with a sheepish smile: "Dance wagereh kar lete hain (we dance around a bit)."
His face gets a little more serious when the five-wicket loss to India in the warm-up is brought up, but didn't look too perturbed about it. After beating Nepal in their first warm-up, Pakistan were 75 for 1 against India in the second match, but lost their last last nine wickets for 122 runs.
Hafeez said he was unhappy with the way his batsmen threw their wickets away, particularly to the spinners. "Our batsmen didn't take as much responsibility and threw their wickets away, which is why we lost. But India didn't give us such a tough time," he said. "Our batsmen should take a bit more responsibility, most of them got out going for the big shots, that wasn't right. We are also working on getting better as a fielding unit."
Pakistan come into the World Cup on the back of a tri-series campaign in UAE featuring Australia and New Zealand, where they finished on top of the table by winning their last two matches. Prior to that, the 30 probables selected for the tournament participated in a camp at the NCA in Lahore for nearly four weeks before the final squad was announced.
"We played a few practice matches there - against Lahore's big teams, against Punjab University and won," an upbeat Hafeez said. He drew inspiration from what Pakistan's Under-19 team did 10 years ago at the same tournament, which was also held in Bangladesh. "We've come with the same aim. We were given a lecture by Anwar [Ali] bhai and Sarfraz Ahmed about the conditions we'll be facing and how to play here. Our aim is just like them to win the World Cup."
Hafeez was confident about the conditions suiting them too, since they "keep playing in Asia". To assess the conditions, you run your eyes through the ground where the Pakistan team is undergoing catching practice and out comes another cry.
Yaar, ye to haath mein tha (this was a sitter, man)!"
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo