Acclimatised Pakistan ready for India
When the Pakistan team arrived at their service apartments in Townsville on Friday afternoon, having made the trip from Brisbane, there were five Indian cricketers sitting in the lobby. Had these been senior teams from the two countries, whose players are familiar with each other, there may have been an exchange of greetings. Not between the Under-19 cricketers. As the Pakistanis stood there in their green blazers, with their suitcases and kit bags, waiting to check in, they merely exchanged glances with the Indians. The quarterfinalists sizing each other up ahead of Monday's contest at Tony Ireland Stadium.
These sides have met before, at the Under-19 Asia Cup this year, in two tense contests. During the league phase of that tournament, Pakistan won a match they could have won more easily, by one run. In the final, India had to settle for a tie after dominating most of the chase. Both games were high-scoring contests in Kuala Lumpur; the conditions in Queensland are not as conducive to run-making.
Pakistan came to Australia earlier than most teams, in late July for three one-dayers on the Gold Coast. They won that series against Australia 2-1, a commendable result considering it was their first time here. Their performance in those matches led Australia's coach Stuart Law to remark that one could see Pakistan had been "playing together for quite a while."
This Pakistan Under-19 squad has been together since January, when they toured South Africa. They then played the Asia Cup and had a camp at the National Cricket Academy before coming to Australia. The captain Babar Azam and coach Sabih Azhar spoke of how the team had been constantly reminded of the different conditions awaiting them, which is why their quick adjustment during the three matches against Australia had been a huge boost for the players.
"We are playing as a unit and we have created a friendly team atmosphere," said Azhar. "Now they have developed the winning habit."
That winning habit has been on display during the warm-up matches of the World Cup and during the group games. Pakistan won everything, beating New Zealand, Afghanistan and Scotland to finish top of Group B.
The adjustment, however, hasn't been easy. After a long flight to Australia, Azam said most of the players slept for ages to rest and recuperate. When they awoke, they found unfamiliarity all around them. For starters, the adaptors for their mobile phones wouldn't fit into the plug points. They sought out each other and the officials for help and eventually queued up outside an electric supplies shop to buy them.
There's more. The players are staying in service apartments in Australia, not in hotels, so they were told by the team management that they would have to cook their meals and clean up after themselves. "Cooking, I never do at home," said Azam, speaking for most teenage boys on the subcontinent. "We've come here and we had to do it, so it's been hard. Sometimes we eat out; sometimes we cook here. First five days we went to McDonalds all the time. We are washing clothes in the machine, washing crockery as well."
Imam-ul-Haq, a top-order batsman and a nephew of Inzamam-ul-Haq, recounted how they set off fire alarms "three or four times" in their rooms. "The first one was his [Babar's] fault, he was just cooking an omelette I think," Imam said. "It was the first day, we were very hungry, Usman [Qadir], Babar and I. Suddenly the fire alarm went off; we thought we'd cause a panic. Usman said, 'Don't panic, don't panic.' We just held a towel near the fire alarm and opened the window. We were relieved and thought we will never cook food again."
But they have cooked; well, some have while the others have eaten. According to Imam, the fast bowlers Mir Hamza and Saad Ali, and vice-captain Umar Waheed are the chefs in the squad. "We just want to eat and they cook for us. When we visit their rooms, we clean their rooms after eating and we wash their crockery. So we help them," says Imam. "We really enjoyed it because all of us were in one room and we cooked together. It's a wonderful experience because we've been together for five or six months and we had never had this kind of experience."
How well an individual makes these adjustments affects how comfortable he feels in a foreign country and Imam knows it. "If you're playing cricket and going out of the country, we have to face these difficulties and responsibilities," he said. "If we have a problem in cooking, we can't give that an excuse to our coach."
Their acclimatization issues lasted for about five days and Azam said helping each other get used to how life functions in Australia had helped the team bond. "It's like family work," he said. "First five days were very difficult, to adjust to all this and play in the World Cup, but our support staff have really helped us. Now all the players have adjusted very well."
Pakistan have been performing like an extremely well-adjusted team. They beat Afghanistan by 109 runs, Scotland by nine wickets and New Zealand by five wickets. Between Pakistan's first and second victories, on August 12, India lost to West Indies in Townsville, and from then Azam's team has been talking about this quarterfinal clash. They did not really doubt they would top their group and therefore play India, who were likely to finish second in theirs.
"They are looking forward to it. That gives me confidence," says Azhar. "They are talking about [Indian] players, talking about strategies."
Both Azhar and Azam believe the exposure their players got during the Asia Cup to the pressures of an India-Pakistan contest will help them handle Monday's quarterfinal better. "The boys know the Indian players," said Azam. "If we hadn't played against India in the Asia Cup and now suddenly had to face them in the quarterfinal, there would have been more pressure. Not so much now."
Monday's quarterfinal at the Tony Ireland Stadium will be the first time Pakistan are playing in Townsville. Like how they did when they first arrived in Australia, they'll hope to settle in quickly.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo