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Pakistan's march to the final is a tale of teams who sometimes do things nobody expects them to
June 20, 2009
Who knows how these things come about? Wonderful things happen in this world that we struggle to explain, and that is no bad thing. That, in fact, contributes to the very beauty of those things. Pakistan is replete with such inexplicability, not least those occasions when their cricket team is on a roll when absolutely nothing suggests they can be.
Consider how Pakistan came into this tournament. They had played a piffling 10 Tests and 50 ODIs since the beginning of 2007; no other side was that undercooked. Their last international home assignment was interrupted by a terrorist attack, which, in effect, meant they will not have any more home assignments for some time. And they weren't exactly rushed off their feet before then. They weren't allowed by their own government to take part in the IPL, and in short found themselves outcasts as cricket was reborn.
When they arrived in England, they practised and played fully burdened by this. Some of their performances - wins and losses - only reaffirmed their general rustiness. They dropped more catches than Oprah lost pounds, they didn't find the right XI until the second game of the Super Eights. Their captain, apparently, wasn't taking the whole thing seriously enough; that he was among the tournament's leading run-scorers, even though his own chief selector didn't think him a Twenty20 player, only revealed how the rest of the batting was struggling. The bowling hit and missed. Not to forget, of course, the permanent rumours of rifts, cliques and intrigues, in the absence of which it is entirely plausible the whole Pakistani state might collapse.
And yet here they stand, on the verge of winning a tournament nobody outside their own camp (and only some inside it) really gave them a shot at. A triumph it already is, come what may Sunday. Astrophysics may be easier to comprehend than this situation, even if it is unlikely astrophysics has ever brought as much joy as this.
It has been an uneven, uplifting ride, in the best traditions of Pakistan. It is the kind that lights up a big tournament. Just to know that they are still capable of it is relief in itself; indeed the worst fear over the last two years was that Pakistan had succumbed to the curse of bland mediocrity. But to know that they are still capable of doing what they did to South Africa in the same fortnight as what they allowed England to do to them, is to know that the soul of all Pakistan sides is alive and well.
It is a complex soul, built on tigerish defiance, outlandish talent and bravado but also drama, tragedy and farce all at once. It is not entirely what we saw in the 1999 World Cup, for that was a strangely well-grooved, dominant Pakistan. It wasn't entirely what we saw in the inaugural World Twenty20 either, for even then Pakistan seemed eerily consistent. No, this run has been of a piece with, as nobody in Pakistan has forgotten, the 1992 World Cup, where, for no obvious reason, Pakistan suddenly transformed from a mohalla second XI into the world's best. Everything came together to some great, central magnetic pull, as if it inevitably had to, in a wonderfully calculated way even though almost none of it was calculated.
|The progress has been visceral, based on instincts good and bad, using mostly their acute lack of international cricket to play with real verve and energy, a real hunger to perform on the big stage so often denied to them. They have progressed for no other reason than that they have wanted it more than others|
Then, as now, Pakistan played a succession of do-or-die games and lived to not just tell the tale but boast about it. Not always, but often, that situation brings out the fight in Pakistan. It makes sense in a way when Shahid Afridi says he plays each game as if it is his first and last. It is a curious way of approaching sport, but he isn't alone in that, and if you have four do-or-die games, as Pakistan have had in this tournament, it isn't the worst attitude in the world to go into them with. If it doesn't scramble focus, it sharpens it.
Then, as now, they have sensed momentum and grasped it, not fully in control but riding it nevertheless. How it's found is arbitrary. In 1992, the win against Australia and a legendary talking-to sparked it. Here, Afridi's catch turned not only the game against New Zealand, but Pakistan's tournament. And suddenly, inexplicably, things began to fall into place, a chain reaction that simultaneously made sense and no sense.
One XI was settled upon at just the right time, openers found, batting order rejigged, and it has rolled along since. Abdul Razzaq's return was not spectacular, but his impact was vital. His two wickets set up the New Zealand win, but his threat - perceived or real - with bat freed up Afridi. Such things are not planned and cannot be accounted for. Other heroes emerged swiftly; Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Aamer, even young, ungainly Shahzaib Hasan, all rallying around a captain, who by the time South Africa came along, was not smiling so much any more, or treating the whole shebang as a bit of fun.
What didn't fall into place simply ceased to matter. They dropped two catches against South Africa and their wicketkeeper had his first poor game in some time behind the stumps. But it didn't matter, for at critical moments it went right for them, like Shoaib Malik's calm pocketing of a Jacques Kallis loft, and even Fawad Alam's direct hit to send back Albie Morkel. Aamer had forgotten to run to the non-striker's end to collect Alam's throw, a very basic lapse that ultimately didn't matter.
So much have things fallen into place that, just as in 1992, when Imran Khan shunned prevalent bowling caution and told his attack to forget about extras and only concern themselves with wickets, so Pakistan rendered tenets of modern-day cricket a little less relevant in this tournament. Preparation, fitness, fielding, discipline, unity and multi-dimensional players - these have mattered less as Pakistan have gone along, and in a sense that has made it even more wonderful, this happy, uncaring mockery of the way professional sport is heading. The progress has been visceral, based on instincts good and bad, using mostly their acute lack of international cricket to play with real verve and energy, a real hunger to perform on the big stage so often denied to them. They have progressed for no other reason than that they have wanted it more than others.
How necessary this run was, too, unlike 1992. Pakistan was a safer country then and a safer bet in cricket. There is no need to recount in detail what is happening to the country. There is war in parts of it and not much cheer in the rest. Conflicts have weighed heavily on the minds of at least three players from the particularly unsettled NWFP. It is apt that the trio - Afridi, Younis and Gul - have done most to drag Pakistan to where they are, but no player is immune to the gloom. Good news was needed desperately and not for the first time - but for the first time in a long time - cricket has been the bearer. The mood will not change drastically whatever happens against Sri Lanka.
It was necessary also in this uncertain new world of cricket, where there is more money and less time, a world which was in danger of passing Pakistan by. By reaching the final of the premier World Twenty20 event twice, Pakistan has said to one and all that they are still a force, no matter what the strife, that they cannot be ignored or sidelined in this world. Men such as Afridi, Gul, Akmal and Ajmal cannot be ignored in this world. They can contribute richly to it.
Pakistan matters because no team could have pulled off what they have just pulled off and in the manner they did. Their march has not been just a great cricketing tale or a fine sporting one; it is a simpler, more important one of how men do things sometimes nobody expects them to, of how from any darkness light can emerge. Even if we're not sure how the tale was written, how long it will go on and when, or whether, it will happen again, we must celebrate it, be grateful for it and not forget it.
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