September 29, 2012

Is it Pakistan's year?

T20 is anyone's game, but statistically the odds are with Pakistan in the international version, and they could well go all the way in Sri Lanka

Every World Cup brings with it a certain flavour and feel. For Pakistan, this one in Sri Lanka is starting to feel like 1999. I know that's not the most accurate analogy, because 1999 was a 50-over tournament, and the ICC shies away from calling the current competition a World Cup, preferring the term "World Twenty20" instead. But a world tournament is still a world tournament. There are pre-tournament favorites, skirmishes in the qualifying stages, and fireworks in the knockouts. The entire cricket universe tunes in and pays attention. As each tournament evolves and plays out, it creates its unique fingerprint.

For Pakistan fans old enough to remember, the World Cup of 1987 had the feel of a celebration that ended in heartache. The one in 1992 had the feel of a heartache that ended in celebration. From 1996, the feeling is of a promise unfulfilled, while the World Cups of 2003 and 2007 smacked of premature death. Then we have the World Twenty20 of 2009, which was a surprise gift at a time when Pakistan had expected nothing but sticks and stones. Meanwhile, the World Cup of 2011 and the World Twenty20 tournaments of 2007 and 2010 are other cases of promise unfulfilled.

That leaves the 1999 World Cup, which has left the strangest aftertaste of all. It started out beautifully and ended bizarrely. Australia were outright favourites, and during the group stage, Pakistan overpowered them in a nail-biter. In this 2012 World Twenty20, South Africa started out favourites, and Pakistan have overcome them in the Super Eights. In South Africa and in Pakistan, few hands have nails left intact.

The 1999 group win over Australia was a loud advertisement for Wasim Akram's thinking captaincy and the versatility of his team's repertoire, instantly pushing Pakistan to the status of a hot favourite. Friday's win over South Africa has similarly announced Mohammad Hafeez's remarkably out-of-the-box leadership, and Pakistan's formidable variety and depth. On bookmakers' websites, Pakistan had thus far been languishing in the bottom half. After defeating South Africa, they have overnight become top title favourites.

The real significance of the match was Hafeez's display of boldness and comfort with experimentation. Umar Akmal may have anchored the batting, and Umar Gul may have been named Man of the Match, but it was Hafeez's brilliant opening gambit of bowling Raza Hasan that applied a chokehold from which South Africa, despite a hearty struggle, eventually failed to escape. Raza is a novice at the international game. He has yet to play ODIs or Tests, and the South African match was only his fourth T20 international. Despite a slew of effective bowlers at his disposal, Hafeez trusted him with an opening spell against the likes of Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, and JP Duminy.

Raza delivered the innings' first, third and fifth overs, sending down dot ball after dot ball. His second over, to Kallis, was a maiden. His stifling line and tight trajectory softened up South Africa's top order, making them easy prey from the other end. Raza's success has wider significance too. It underscores what is fast emerging as the great truth of T20 cricket: that accurate spin can be lethal. Traditionally spinners have not commanded much respect in limited-overs cricket, but when the game is compressed to a point that batsmen must take risks at every ball, skilful spin bowling suddenly acquires a sharp new set of fangs.

Pakistan may not be on top of the ICC rankings, and certainly their supporters tend to be famously skeptical about the side's winning abilities, but the statistical reality is that T20 is Pakistan's game. They have the second-best win-loss ratio in T20I cricket, and have pulled off more T20I victories than any other team. The three highest wicket-takers in T20Is are all Pakistanis. Pakistan is the only team to have made the semi-finals of each of the three previous World Twenty20 contests.

This is still anyone's tournament, but you can see that Pakistan are starting to click well. There is a maturity and mellowness in the way they are going about their business. They are smiling and laughing easily. The body language is sharp, and their mutual eye contact conveys respect and regard. They are making mistakes but not wallowing in regret afterwards. Most importantly, they are winning, and in the process they are creating momentum and adding self-belief. Even against India, whom Pakistan have never beaten in World Cup competition, they would start as favourites.

Eventually, the 2012 World Twenty20 will generate its own unique feel and fingerprint, providing a reference point to which future tournaments will perhaps one day be compared. For now, the best we can do is to keep drawing comparisons with the past. After overcoming Australia at the group stage in 1999, Pakistan faced them again in the final, and crumbled to a depressing loss. If the analogy is extended, then Pakistan and South Africa would be expected to meet in the final here. Hopefully for Pakistan, this tournament's resemblance to 1999 will end right there.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • parthiban on October 1, 2012, 1:12 GMT

    This article misses a key fact. Australia were not the favorites for the 99 world cup. It was South Africa. Australia had been held to a 2-2 draw just before the world cup by a Brian Lara inspired WI in the tests and 3-3 in the ODIs. Shane Warne had been dropped for the first and only time in his career. Even before losing to Pakistan- Chris cairns and Roger Twose had enabled NZ outplay Australia.SA , on the other hand, had won the champions trophy the previous year and as was their routine in ICC events crushed everyone in the group stages except for a blip against Zim - this after they had convincingly qualified for the super sixes. Infact the 99 world cup was to set the trend in many ways. That drop by Gibbs and the unforgettable klusener/ Donald runout really strongly attached the chokers tag to SA for it was only a silly rain rule that threw them out in the 92 world cup and the genius of Lara in 96.The 99 world cup changed the stature of Oz from mighty to invincible !

  • Biju on September 30, 2012, 18:11 GMT

    An article published too early...

  • Danish on September 30, 2012, 17:15 GMT

    India had to win this match to proceed.they came through.extremely good performance from them after they were beaten heads down by the aussies.Pakistan played with such immense pressure that it was evident from their was not a bad performance,it was just a very disappointing one from the pakistanis.I,as a fan,was extremely disappointed in them after the match.but well,i might be a pakistani fan and want pakistan to win the world T20,i still have the guts to appreciate good cricket when there is any.India today were absolutely phenominal.My favorite player in the world is Kohli and he showed his class.But Balaji is such a good bowler!he showed today that he should always be in the indian team.Hats off india,you played superbly.Very good you guys.

  • Shams on September 30, 2012, 15:52 GMT

    Pakistan team selection is crazy that's what leading to successive collapses in batting. They need some solid batsman with good technique like Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali.The stupid team management don't see and they are wasting talent of Umer Akmal who should come at one down or two down position. Players like Yasir Arafat, Imran Nazir should go out. Come on Coach and Captain.., something for fragile batting line up.

  • Imran on September 30, 2012, 14:53 GMT

    Why are you playing more bowlers than batsman when you have big issues in batting? let me count for you guys: (1) Gul (2) Afrat (3) Ajmal (4) Afridi (5) Raza hassan (6) hafeez (7) Shoiab Malik.. How many you need to bowl 20 overs??? this is insane.

  • Dummy4 on September 30, 2012, 10:16 GMT

    I think pressure will be more on India due to losing last match and it will be do or die situation for them. For me, Pakistan will be favorite and they will be much relax after winning the last one.

  • Raja on September 30, 2012, 9:54 GMT

    beautiful...excellent off 2 u......

  • Dummy4 on September 30, 2012, 9:05 GMT

    Lets us hope most of us will have our hearts working even after the match.....I just hope that its not a one sided match...It should go till last three bowls at least.

  • Hammad on September 30, 2012, 8:45 GMT

    There is a saying, 'never forget the past'. I am astonished to see soo many positive statements.. Guys forget not, it is Pakistan.. High n dry go together.. Winning the cup is too far ahead.. i am worried about getting into the semifinals. Thats the beauty i guess with Pakistan team, they make their fans sit on the edge of their seats each n every match. India just had one bad match, they thrashed England before. I just think Kohli getting out early was the real cause. If he does that again tomorrow then result will be the same as last one otherwise watch out for one heck of a match. Best of Luck team Green.Get.. set..devastate..:)

  • Muhammad Ammar on September 30, 2012, 7:05 GMT

    1 Hafeez, 2 Imran, 3 Nasir, 4 Kamran, 5 Shoaib, 6 U Akmal, 7 Afridi, 8 Gul, 9 Arafat, 10 Ajmal, 11 Raza/Abdul Razzaq. With 1, 5, 7, 10 & 11, u have plenty of spin options; 8, 9 & 11, u have plenty of fast options. Better to try Abdul Razzaq in place due to batting failure the evening before, as almost all the bowlers are underused. Nets will tell the captain what to do, as earlier stats never work in the actual tie. In T20 u need more batsmen than bowlers who can fire at 150+ strike rate. So focus must be on strike rate considering this bowling lineup. Of course, there is a lot except teams lineups in the dressing rooms and earlier planning. Let's hope a quality contest in the end. Go cricket.... Good luck all the teams..... Best of luck Pakistan.

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