Unpredictable Pakistan become regular semi-finalists
The Premadasa Stadium, in its refurbished avatar, shimmers in the Colombo afternoon heat, its near-vertical stands staring coldly at the tattered outfield, large patches of brown spread like a rash on the green. Last evening Pakistan's fielders, faced with a win-or-depart situation, threw themselves around on it, without a care for their bodies. Their spinners squeezed all the power and fight out of Australia's batsmen. The reward was a sixth successive semi-final in an ICC tournament since the double blows of tragedy and disappointment in the 2007 World Cup.
For a side that is called unpredictable, inconsistent, mercurial and the like almost by rote, that is an achievement beyond belief. Even more so, given that they have been reduced to a life lived perpetually out of suitcases for a majority of that period. You wonder whether someone like young Umar Akmal, who started his international career after Pakistan's international exile began, even knows what it is like to have home advantage.
It has to be one of international sports' more fascinating stories, if only for the demands the situation places on a group of men to remain largely away from loved ones and the comfort of familiarity, and perform at their peak, every series, every game, every innings. Perhaps, one day, an expressive and thoughtful man like Mohammad Hafeez will be able to reveal just what it takes, mentally and physically, out of him and his players.
For the moment, Hafeez is just proud of what Pakistan have done. "For the past three years we have been away from our home grounds and home crowd," he said. "We are very much used to it now. It has been a very difficult time for our team. It is amazing and special what we have been able to achieve despite all that, and credit should go to all players and the management."
Do the six consecutive knockout appearances signal a break from the past - a new set of beliefs, a new method of operation, an end to the chaos, the intrigue, the flux? Far from it. Just sample the number of captains Pakistan have had since the 2007 World Cup: Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Salman Butt, Shahid Afridi, Misbah-ul-Haq, Hafeez. Seven. This is without counting the permutations within the seven. The controversies, bans and investigations continued to happen, among them being the attack on the Sri Lanka team, the Sydney Test fallout and the spot-fixing fiasco.
It is tempting to see the latest semi-final appearance from the point of view of what happened after the previous one at the 2010 World Twenty20. Pakistan appear to have regrouped completely and convincingly from the incidents in England that it is easy to view the possibility of another title simply as a break from the recent past, as a final stamp of vindication.
That could be an important undercurrent but the larger picture is that Pakistan have achieved consistency in global tournaments without abandoning the traits that make them so moving to watch as a team, and so infuriating as a system. While the controversies continued, Pakistan also found inspiration from the unlikeliest of quarters at world events.
The standout instance is probably that of Afridi, as volatile with the bat as he is dependable with the ball, producing two bursts of all-round dominance in the semi-final and final of the 2009 World Twenty20. While nowhere close in magnitude, but equally crucial to Pakistan's chances, was the unexpected burst from Umar Gul the batsman, who stunned the South Africa pace battery a few days ago at the Premadasa. Gul's cameo was vintage Pakistan, in that it came out of nowhere. Premier fast bowler, under pressure and out of form, comes in at 76 for 7 and starts blasting sixes like nobody's business.
As the tournament progressed, it seemed as though a team performance similar to Afridi and Gul's individual freakish brilliance was not far away. And it arrived against Australia, in a match where uncertainty was at its peak. With India slated to play after them, Pakistan had no determinable safe goal to aim for. Except for the requirement that they had to win, and win big.
Pakistan sides somehow find direction in vagueness. While they may have a lot in common with fellow subcontinent teams, such as the ability to play spin, wristy batsmen, susceptibility against genuine pace and swing, the ability to explode from one spark of instinct is decidedly Pakistani. On the day they rediscover it, they are a compelling sight They may find it again in the semi-final, they may not. But watch we must.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo