Stage set for St Patrick's Day showdown
Inzamam-ul-Haq leads Pakistan into a St Patrick's Day showdown with Ireland knowing that there's no margin for error with a place in the Super Eights at stake. The 54-run loss to West Indies has pushed Pakistan back against the wall, and Inzamam and his side will need to use the adverse circumstances to inspire them in front of a large crowd that will mainly be roaring on the underdog that the Jamaicans have taken to their hearts after Ireland's thrilling tie against Zimbabwe.
Inzamam called Thursday's game the "most interesting of the World Cup so far", adding that "it reminded the big teams that no team can be taken lightly". Defeat in the tournament opener was a setback, and a few changes are in the offing. Inzamam said that they wouldn't decide on an XI until after the team meeting on Friday evening, but suggested that either he or Mohammad Yousuf could be batting higher up the order.
"The batting order will probably change," he said. "In the previous much, the top order was under pressure and it was the experienced middle order of myself, Younis Khan and Yousuf that had to try their best to handle it."
Ireland's best hopes of an upset lie there, in winning the toss and using the moisture in the pitch to make rapid inroads. Trent Johnston, the captain, admitted as much, though he added that it would need a Herculean effort to get past one of the fancied teams in the competition. "We'll have to bring our A game in all three departments to even come close, and they'll need to have a poor day," he said. "It would be fantastic to stay on for a few more weeks after the 24th [of March]."
After the tie against Zimbabwe, Johnston had said that his team weren't too intimidated by Pakistan's bowling line-up, even though it was clearly their stronger suit against West Indies. Apart from the final five overs that went for 57, the bowling was disciplined and tidy, and Inzamam indicated that there would be no tinkering even though some would like to see the out-of-form and out-of-luck Rana Naved-ul-Hasan replaced by Mohammad Sami.
Inzamam focussed instead on Umar Gul, who took the new ball in the opening game in the absence of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif. "Gul is our strike bowler as of now," said Inzamam. "The team depends on him for breakthroughs. He has the potential to be a world-class bowler, but he needs to play two years of good cricket."
He also rubbished talk of a rift within the team, saying that such innuendo was par for the course when it came to Pakistan cricket. "If such talk had not come up after a loss, it would have been better," he said bluntly. "In a way, it's not a surprise and I'm used to this after playing for 17 years."
Shahid Afridi made a few appearances for Ireland last year as a guest player and even though suspension rules him out of this game, Inzamam said that his inputs had been useful. "Ireland has some county players," he said when asked to assess the opposition. "It was good to see them fight till the last ball."
The county player he was referring to was Eoin Morgan of Middlesex, and he said that his experience might come in handy against a side that would be expected to easily outclass the Irish. "I've played against Azhar Mahmood," Morgan said. "They have a lot of great players, but hopefully they'll have their second bad day of the tournament tomorrow."
Adrian Birrell, the coach, accepted that Thursday's eye-catching result had taken away the element of surprise, though he was fairly certain that Pakistan wouldn't have underestimated his team anyway. "Azhar played against us when we beat Surrey and Afridi played for us in the C&G Trophy," he said. "They won't be taking us lightly, and their coach will ensure that they come out hard."
While depending on their new-ball bowlers to spring a surprise, Ireland will also need to put runs on the board themselves. Morgan is tipped as the star of the future, but once again much will depend on the broad shoulders of Jeremy Bray, the opening bat who made a 137-ball 115 on Thursday. "Jeremy's 33 years young," said Johnston with a smile. "He's a bit stiff and sore, but we had a light run and there's a [swimming] pool session later, so he'll be fine."
Close to 8,000 tickets have already been sold for the game - only 2011 came through the turnstiles for the Zimbabwe match - and Johnston was expecting a carnival atmosphere. "It's something to look forward to," he said. "St. Patrick's Day is a special one for Ireland, and we have the opportunity to quality for the next round. But we've been emphasising that it's just another game. We can't put too much pressure on ourselves."
The result against Zimbabwe was greeted with a six-column front-page photograph in the Irish Times, but according to Birrell, the sudden spurt in interest wouldn't increase the pressure on the side. "We're thrilled that we're getting publicity," he said. "It's been a long haul, and it makes us all the more determined."
For Birrell, the secret weapon could be the chats he's had with his old friend, Mickey Arthur, the South African coach. "Mickey and I go back a long way," said Birrell, who played his first-class cricket in South Africa. "Pakistan toured South Africa recently, and I did pick his brain."
No matter what happens out on the field, most of the Irish will spend Saturday night with their families. Morgan, though, did admit that another successful outing might just result in "one or two more" Guinness being drunk. If they pull off the mother of all World Cup heists, they'll most likely get free Guinness for life. Now, there's a thought.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo