Few sports teams are as enigmatic as the Pakistan cricket team. Over the last twelve month the captaincy has changed hands so many times it is enough to make fans dizzy, and the side has been at the centre of a spot-fixing scandal that has cost them their two premier fast bowlers. Yet, somehow, they continue to impress on the field. Where other teams might falter as all around them crumbled, Pakistan perform in spite of the shambles. They are are still to name a captain just two-and-a-half weeks shy of the World Cup, another sign of their dysfunction, but the manner in which they've rolled New Zealand in the one-day series sends out a message that none of the more fancied teams can afford to ignore them.
Three victories on the trot have allowed many players find their roles within the team. Unable to trouble batsmen with extravagant pace or movement, Abdul Razzak has taken up the task of tying down one end with the new ball while the likes of Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Gul attack from the other. In Napier, his seven-over opening spell included three maidens and cost 16 runs. In Hamilton, he was only required to bowl four overs, but a tight spell from him meant New Zealand's explosive top order couldn't get ahead of the required run rate early. Shahid Afridi's canny legspin has not only kept things quiet during the middle overs, but has broken vital partnerships that have threatened to take the game away. Mohammed Hafeez meanwhile, has chipped in with a few miserly spells of his own in Saeed Ajmal's absence. In Umar Gul, Pakistan have one of the finest merchants of reverse swing, and as Wahab Riaz proved today with a terrific late-swinging toe crusher to uproot James Franklin's stumps, he's no picnic with the old ball either.
"Anything over 90 miles is hard to play, especially on a pitch like this when the ball wasn't exactly coming on the bat in the second innings," Waqar Younis said after the win in Hamilton. With Gul Wahab and Akhtar in the World Cup squad, Pakistan have three bowlers who are constantly pushing the 145 kph mark, with ample high quality spin options in their ranks as well. "Maybe we were about twenty runs short today, but the bowlers covered it beautifully. Mohammad Hafeez and Afridi bowled well and they picked up wickets at the right time."
The batting too has begun to fall into place for Pakistan. In the last three games, each of the openers has made a hundred. Misbah-ul-Haq, in the form of his life, has provided stability and sense to the innings alongside Younis Khan. And as New Zealand found out twice in Christchurch, first in the Twenty20, and more recently in the one dayer - Pakistan's middle order allrounders are capable of slamming an attack helpless within the space of a few deliveries. Whether by design or not, some semblance of a gameplan seems to be developing for Pakistan - the openers set off rapidly before Younis and Misbah use their experience in the middle overs to provide a platform for the likes of Afridi and his cohorts do their best to bring down the stands by repeatedly launching six ounces of leather at them.
Despite the uncertainty over the captaincy issue and the ignominious distractions that have preceded it, Pakistan seems surprisingly settled and focused. Waqar Younis thinks that it may actually be because of the public embroilment that the team has endured over the past few months that it is performing so well as a unit.
"I think [the controversy surrounding the team] has had a positive effect," Waqar said. "Not only in this series but in the last series against South Africa we played positive cricket in both the Test matches and one -dayers. In a way you could say it geed us up an pulled us together because reading all that rubbish in the newspapers every morning gives you a bit of togetherness. With the amount of controversy we've had in the last year, it's good see guys making a comeback and scoring runs. It's good to see the unit really getting together and putting up a good show. "
It's difficult to gauge just how much momentum Pakistan will take into the World Cup, primarily because they are not a side that sustains winning impetus over a long period of time. They are instead a team that turns things around in a single innings or a sparkling spell. But the format of this World Cup could play to their strengths. Several major upsets aside, Pakistan are almost guaranteed a place in the quarter finals, and from that point it's three victories to the title. They may not be a side that dominates an entire six-week tournament, but few would put it past a rampant Pakistan to win three games in a row in the final stages.
Waqar remained hopeful ahead of the tournament. "It's every team's dream [to win the World Cup] and we are on the right track at the moment. If we can deliver similar goods over the six weeks, you never know. We're positive."