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September 23, 2007
Five months on from the most traumatic period in their history, Pakistan have reached the ICC World Twenty20 final and are fully worth their place in the Johannesburg showpiece. They have bowled with variation, batted with verve and, most surprisingly, fielded well at crucial moments. The usually mercurial team has been the epitome of consistency; now they need to hold it together for one more match.
However, it won't be any ordinary match; Pakistan against India rarely is. Their previous meeting during the tournament ended in a thrilling tie before India won the bowl-out 3-0. Although the locals will disagree, this is the final that the inaugural edition needed. It guarantees a passionate crowd and electric atmosphere.
Victory at the Wanderers would give Pakistan their first title in a global event since Imran Khan's "cornered tigers" triumphed against England at Melbourne in 1992. As we have been reminded throughout the tournament, this isn't a World Cup, but after all that has gone on in Pakistan cricket over the last few months, success here would be a significant mark in their history.
Shoaib Malik has been reluctant to talk about the Caribbean - "that's history, we are just looking forward" - but this new-look side is beginning to gel impressively under the guidance of Geoff Lawson. During the two weeks in South Africa, Pakistan have played and trained with a smile on their face, which has translated into positive results. "He [Lawson] has only been here a short time, but we all enjoy working with him, and he's a good man," Malik said.
New and recalled faces have impressed, especially Sohail Tanvir, whose wrong-footed action has flummoxed some of the best players in the world, and Misbah-ul-Haq, after his original selection ahead of Mohammad Yousuf sparked heated debate. But the absence of Yousuf, and Shoaib Akhtar, might actually have been a blessing in disguise for Malik. It has allowed him to mould a team under his command, a leadership the side responds well to. The captain leads by example, with 187 runs at 46.75.
Although the efforts of Malik and Misbah have been vital, the key to Pakistan's run to the final (unbeaten in match results, if not bowl-outs) has been their bowling attack. Most sides have had a weak link as the fifth bowler, Australia being a prime example with Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke, while fellow finalists India have also struggled despite Joginder Sharma becoming a hero against Australia. But Pakistan have been able to maintain the pressure throughout the 20 overs.
|The absence of Mohammad Yousuf, and Shoaib Akhtar, might actually have been a blessing in disguise for Malik. It has allowed him to mould a team under his command, a leadership the side responds well to|
Tanvir and Mohammad Asif have shared the new ball, followed by a combination of spin from Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Fawad Alam, and Shahid Afridi, who leads the player-of-the-tournament race heading into the final with 12 wickets. Afridi has been an attacking threat, spinning his legbreaks hard and fizzing through the rapid top-spinners. But the difference between Pakistan and other teams has come with Umar Gul, who has bowled his four overs in the latter half of the innings.
"We worked hard leading into the Twenty20 with training camps," Gul said. "It allowed me to work on my bowling, especially bouncers, yorkers and slower balls and I discussed with Geoff [Lawson] about how to bowl. I have taken the new ball throughout my career, but this was a decision for the team and I was happy to do it."
The main injury concern is over Imran Nazir, who needed a runner during his 59 against New Zealand after picking up a groin strain, although he didn't appear in too much pain. If Pakistan want to look for good omens, they can focus on their previous visits to the Wanderers. They comprehensively beat both Sri Lanka and Australia, and have chased and defended on the ground. Also in their favour is that India's only visit to Johannesburg ended in a 10-run defeat to New Zealand. However, that will count for little on Monday and it will all be about who can handle the pressure in the Bullring.
Pakistan (probable) Imran Nazir, Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik (capt), Misbah-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi, Fawad Alam, Kamran Akmal (wk), Umar Gul, Mohammad Asif, Sohail Tanvir
Route to the final
Group Stage: Scotland - won by 51 runs
Group Stage: India - lost 3-0 on a bowl-out
Super Eights: Sri Lanka - won by 33 runs
Super Eights: Australia - won by six wickets
Super Eights: Bangladesh - won by four wickets
Semi-final: New Zealand - won by six wickets
Former players react to India's humiliating 1-3 series defeat in England