June 7, 2013

Could it be Pakistan's turn?

The team return to the country of their previous scandals, but things look rosier now as Pakistan aim to win the Champions Trophy for the first time

Cleansed of corruption and with their image appreciably rehabilitated if not fully restored, Pakistan once again find themselves key participants in an English summer. Their last two visits to these parts, in 2006 and 2010, were marred by damaging scandals that bookended an era so nightmarish that Pakistan supporters would not wish it upon their opponents. Thankfully the Oval forfeit is now distant history, and the spot-fixing mess a receding blemish in the rear-view mirror.

The last three years in Pakistan cricket have witnessed none of the crippling controversies from before that period, which has imparted an air of relative stability and calm. Misbah-ul-Haq's steadying influence as captain and senior figure, which began in the immediate wake of the spot-fixing crisis, has served as both balm and glue in this revival. During this period Pakistan have compiled a string of creditable performances, including a comprehensive series win over Sri Lanka, semi-final finishes in the World Cup and the World Twenty20, an ODI series victory in India, and - the biggest scalp - whitewashing England in a Test rubber in the UAE.

There has been no international cricket in Pakistani stadiums since March 2009, effectively rendering the team a bunch of nomads. Yet, if anything, this continuing adversity has motivated and sustained the boys. With pots boiling over elsewhere in the cricket world, the fate of other teams is also playing its part in making Pakistan cricket appear healthier and sturdier by comparison. For the first time in a long while, Pakistan don't look the most troubled cricketing nation around.

Even the bigger picture is beginning to look favourable. Islamabad has finally enjoyed a peaceful civilian transition of elected governments - the first such occasion in Pakistan's chequered 65-year political history. An energetic wave of optimism and hope is sweeping the country. Mian Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister-elect, has promised economic revival, energy reform, improved law and order, and peaceful regional relations, including with the all-important neighbor, India. He has not yet turned his attention to cricket, but Sharif is a well-known aficionado of the game and it won't be long before he does. Without him lifting a finger in the PCB's direction, his influence is already beginning to tell. Last week the Islamabad High Court suspended Zaka Ashraf from chairmanship of the PCB on grounds of a flawed ascension to the post. This would have been unthinkable prior to Sharif's election.

For the first time in a long while, Pakistan don't look the most troubled cricketing nation around

All these factors have whetted the appetite of Pakistani fans for the Champions Trophy. Of the three global competitions in which all the frontline teams participate, this is the only one that Pakistan have not won. Coming into this tournament, Pakistan are ranked sixth in the ICC ODI rankings, which feels about right, not just in terms of where Pakistan stand in comparison with the other teams but also as a measure of their prospects for the title. It does not help that Pakistan are sitting in the tougher of the two groups, alongside India, South Africa and West Indies. Still, the tournament is a short one and the format inherently unpredictable. As with previous editions, this one too is really anybody's trophy. You only need four victories - two within the group, plus the semi-final and final - to secure the top spot. Twice before, the Champions Trophy has been claimed by outfits that started as dark horses (New Zealand in 2000 and West Indies in 2004). English weather will be an added complication, since a rained-out match will mean split points.

Pakistan's greatest challenge will be for their batsmen to cope with the extravagant sideways movement that is a staple of English conditions. In the absence of Younis Khan (discarded for this trip because of dwindling ODI form), the anchor's role falls to Misbah by default. Asad Shafiq, the most technically correct batsman in the side, who recently notched up a highly competent century in Cape Town, will also be expected to step up. Beyond these two, the batting resources appear threadbare, particularly when compared to the riches that Pakistan's group mates are blessed with. Mohammad Hafeez, Nasir Jamshed, and Imran Farhat populate Pakistan's top order, but in stature and standing they are nowhere near the likes of Virat Kohli, Hashim Amla or Chris Gayle.

Inevitably the major burden of expectations will be shouldered by the bowling attack. Junaid Khan, Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz are all capable of impressive pace, lift and movement. They comprise a relentless left-arm battery that could torment any side. They will be complemented - potentially to devastating effect - by Saeed Ajmal and Hafeez, currently ranked the second- and fourth-best ODI bowlers in the world. Waiting in the margins are the rookie seamers Asad Ali and Ehsan Adil, and the experienced Abdur Rehman with his nettlesome left-arm orthodox.

Pakistan's cricketers have arrived in the UK during what appears to be an increasingly difficult time for British society. A gruesome murder by a religious extremist on a busy London street in broad daylight has ignited widespread shock and anger, some of which is inevitably targeting the Pakistani immigrant community. Mosques have been vandalised and newspapers are speaking of Britain bubbling with anti-Muslim rage. As context, these developments are hard to avoid. These thorny circumstances are bound to make Pakistan's UK-based supporters all the more desperate for success, sportsmanship, and clean behaviour from the lads. It is impossible to say if the extra load will enhance or compromise Pakistan's chances, but there is no denying it is yet another variable in the mix.

The terminal status of this year's Champions Trophy adds to the ongoing debate about ODI cricket as a viable format. Yet this game has a funny way of reminding us of its uniquely mesmerising nature. With several teams more or less evenly matched, it is virtually certain that we will witness a few closely fought firecracker contests in the coming days. That could well silence the detractors of the ODI format, at least for a good while. Who knows, even the decision to discontinue the Champions Trophy may be withdrawn, and the competition may well receive a new lease of life.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi