Big spin test for West Indies in must-win
This virtual quarter-final of the World T20 between Pakistan and West Indies has been expected for some time now. They are easily the two most exciting sides in this format. Their campaigns till now have panned out in similar fashion. Both went down to by the same margin of seven wickets to India in their opening games, both registered big wins over Bangladesh and finally, both narrowly overcame Australia in thrillers.
The Australia games provide pointers to how this contest could be determined. Glenn Maxwell seemed to have put Pakistan out of the game before they characteristically pounced on the opening his dismissal provided, their spinners kickstarting an Australian collapse from 126 for 2, and 146 for 3, to 175 all out. The West Indies batsmen came hard at Australia, then slowed down in the middle and seemed to have kept it for too late before their lower-middle order hitters swung them to a victory they celebrated wildly.
Australia stuck to a pace-heavy attack for most of the tournament, and it was one of the reasons they conceded big runs in almost every game. The last five overs of West Indies' chase were all bowled by quick bowlers, and the quickest of them, Mitchell Starc, was taken for 19 in the penultimate over by Darren Sammy.
It is no secret that West Indies' hitters like to have pace on the ball so that they can time those powerful swings. Pace will not come from Pakistan, except from Umar Gul, who himself is vastly experienced in this format and will not readily provide it at the wrong time. Barring Gul, there will be no pace at all. Instead, there will be Saeed Ajmal, Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Hafeez and Zulfiqar Babar. That means potentially 16 overs of spin in a 20-over innings.
In all their games so far, West Indies have not found it easy to take on spin. They did make 170-plus against Bangladesh, but that was helped by a shambolic fielding effort from the hosts. Young Australia legspinner James Muirhead removed Chris Gayle with the first ball of his second over. India just squeezed West Indies right from the start, and never allowed them to build any momentum. It can be argued that many sides have found it difficult against slow bowlers in these conditions, but West Indies' self-admitted reliance on the big shots puts them at greater risk.
Suresh Raina had said West Indies preferred to hit sixes and did not rotate strike much, something he said India would target, and did. While West Indies hit more sixes against India than they did against Bangladesh, the Indians were able to cut off the fours. West Indies managed nine against them, compared to 18 against Australia and 17 against the hosts.
Sammy had responded to Raina's comment by saying that if India thought West Indies were a six-hitting game, they should stop them from doing so. However, ahead of the Pakistan match, he acknowledged that turning the strike over against the spinners would be critical if West Indies were to make the semi-finals.
"Whatever approach we come with, we definitely have to rotate the strike," Sammy said. "I think the game against India, where it was spin-oriented, probably 60% of the balls were dot balls, so it's something we've been working on and hopefully we can rotate the strike and get the boundaries in between, and play much better against spin than we've done in the past. It's going to be a very difficult game, but it's a step we're ready to take.
"We've prepared ourselves, and we knew coming down to our fourth game it would be Pakistan and we knew exactly what we have to do, and spin is something that we have to conquer in that game. With that said, we back ourselves, put our runs on the board and defend it, or if it's the other way around, restrict them to a low total and chase it down like we did against Australia, but hopefully it's not 170 we chase.
"Yes, they've got all their spinners, but we've got number one and two in our dressing room as well. They've got to plan to bowl to our batsmen and face our bowlers as well... the last two days we've been practising the way we want to go out and play, whether it be rotating that ball in the middle - we know we could get the boundaries, so we just have to do that. They've got some quality spinners, which we are aware of, but they are not unplayable. In this format of the game, you respect your opposition, but at the end of the day we've shown that on any given day the best bowler can go for many runs, like that final against Sri Lanka [in the 2012 World T20]."
The tournament had started for West Indies with a test against quality spin that they failed to clear. Another one, probably a bigger one, lies in wait against Pakistan. West Indies seem willing to modify their approach. It should be some virtual quarter-final, this.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo