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October 2, 2009
Pakistan have around them the air of favourites going into tomorrow's semi-final against New Zealand. That is as scary a proposition for their opponents as it is for their supporters, of course, but there has been something pleasingly coherent about them in the Champions Trophy. And New Zealand, for whom meeting Pakistan in semi-finals is as much an expectation as making it to the stage, are waking up every day to a new injury concern.
As with all good Pakistan runs ever, it is to the bowling that goes much of the praise. For wicket-taking skill, their attack has a depth and incisiveness that few sides here can match. From the very first bursts of the energetic Umar Gul and Mohammad Aamer, to Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal's middle and back to the pacers at the death, right through there is the threat of wickets. Such is the strength that Mohammad Asif might sit out despite an ultimately heartening return. And the always-overlooked, but ever-ready Rao Iftikhar Anjum hasn't even had a look-in.
The dilemma, for Younis Khan, is to shape this force. The surface will force his hand; the Wanderers has generally been kind to bowlers but the surface for the semi-final is the same one as the one on which New Zealand and Sri Lanka pillaged nearly 600 runs. Should Asif stay as part of a four-man attack if the conditions are there, or should the increasingly canny spin of Ajmal be retained? Younis will not decide until he has sussed out the surface, though it is likely, the line-up that took on India will take the field.
"I always try to pick team according to conditions," he said. "Suppose there is a seaming track and I include two-three spinners? So I will see the conditions first. Until then my mind is always open and I need to see what the conditions are. There is competition for places in bowling and batting and that is a healthy sign for Pakistan."
Even the batting has not been as flimsy as the worry often is. It struggled with conditions at Centurion in the last game - as did their opponents. It struggled with conditions at Wanderers against the West Indies. But both times it held firm, for they bat fairly deep. Imran Nazir is likely to be fit again and probably will play; one big, game-changing hand is what Younis believes he can bring to this tournament and it is all he wants. That kind of non-pressure is liberating in its own way, especially for a man like Nazir. He won't mind it in a semi-final.
The captain's own scratchiness is a greater concern. The fractured finger doesn't help - "only I am unfit," he laughed, when asked about the team's health - and whatever momentum Pakistan's openers have provided, has stalled with him at one down. He isn't too worried, but a positional switch may not be the worst option. "I won't put pressure on myself. The main thing is that the team wins," he said.
After that there is little unknown. New Zealand have been nothing short of remarkable here, especially with the number of first-choice players who have fallen by the wayside. They will scrap, for every run, every catch and every wicket and like Australia - but to a less intimidating degree - will not beat themselves. At some point, you feel, they must break the semi-final barrier; that they are more familiar with the Wanderers, having played their last two games there, will help.
If Pakistan do triumph, a first Champions Trophy final awaits them and it is an achievement not to be taken lightly. Younis's constant refrain through this event has been the same as it was in England in June, that Pakistan, cricket and country, needs a win here. Maybe the emotion has worn a little thin - Younis even joked about how often he says it. But repetition should not take from the substance of the sentiment: a Champions Trophy final, in this year and period, a final that would have been played in Pakistan had it not been for the security situation, will still be a remarkable and touching accomplishment.
"It'll be fantastic if we reach the final. Pakistan is the only team that has not reached the final. For me as Pakistan captain, at the moment, winning the T20 World Cup and now in the semi-final: we need two more good days. If it happens, it will be fantastic for Pakistan. We need a couple of good titles because cricket is the only game in Pakistan that brings the people together. I think it's a good time to give them one more gift."
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