Drastic fantastic comes easy to Pakistan

Try convincing a Pakistani that Twenty20 is somehow a lesser format of the game. A semi-final appearance in a major tournament after the year they have had, including only a seventh win from 35 matches in any type of game against Australia since 1999, is reason enough to overplay the significance of this tournament.

About right, too, for the format is one the average Pakistani, fan and player, easily recognises and feels comfortable with. England may have been responsible for institutionalising and selling the concept, but its informal, Asian cousin, played out on streets with apartments as spectators and on grounds with cement pitches and dangerous outfields has long been Pakistan cricket's lifeline.

Misbah-ul-Haq, who has provided the sweetest, loudest retorts to those (including this writer) who criticised his selection, acknowledged as much after the win against Australia. He is doing well because it is very similar to something he has been doing most of his life, particularly during Ramadan, when tape-ball tournaments keep you up at night when you can eat and, conveniently, asleep during the day, when you can't. Much of Pakistan's team, if not all, have played in these tournaments regularly.

The number of overs isn't important; matches last from five to 25 overs. There are few rules but the basic ethos of these games, the hustle and the bustle of it, the short, sharp intensity of putting one over the boys from the next lane or mohalla because, well, that's just what men do, is something Twenty20 comes close to capturing.

Runs are not scored but nicked. A little tap, run; fielder about to throw, steal the second; often the only boundaries are straight because of the narrowness of the field, so running becomes an art in itself. Pakistan's batting successes against Sri Lanka and Australia were built on cheeky running first and boundary-hitting second.

Bowlers are generally good for a thrashing, but if the right (yorker) length is found, success is at hand. Umar Gul didn't play anything other than tape-ball cricket till he was 16, which might explain why the length comes readily to him. Length balls are an offence, punishable as the batsman sees fit. Slower balls, variety and a spinner are always handy, and if you have a finger bowler, then you're laughing.

Finger bowlers were the kings of tennis ball cricket in the 1970s, compressing the ball with a grip similar to that of Jack Iverson and getting sharp bounce and spin either way without a change in action. Strong sides - with international players - were often bowled out for under 20 in eight-over matches in Nazimabad, north Karachi, when a good finger came on.

Putting electric tape on the ball was meant to neuter them - balls would be harder to compress - but it hasn't entirely. Shahid Afridi doesn't bowl the finger ball, but the range, the hurry, the cheek of his skill, mixing googlies and offbreaks, is part of this lineage.

Perhaps one of the traditional flaws of the Pakistan cricketer has also helped him here. Since the days of Hanif Mohammad, Pakistan has waited for a cricketer with patience, possessed of a grand masterplan, a vision stretching beyond the next over and into the next session, the next day. How many Pakistani batsmen, recently, have been able to bat out a whole session, let alone a whole day? How many bowlers have resisted the urge to experiment and settle into one line, one rhythm plugging away an end for a session or more?

We lament the lack of concentration, the short attention spans of Pakistan cricketers and yet it turns out, here is a format in which it doesn't really matter. You don't need to bat out a session; three balls, as Albie Morkel discovered, or six, as Yuvraj Singh did, are enough to change a match. Imran Nazir might never make a Test hundred again, but he can win a world title if he concentrates for five overs.

Pakistan fast bowlers struggle to maintain their disciplines in spells of ten overs or longer, littering them with no-balls and loose deliveries. Here, all they need to do, and largely have done, is concentrate for 24 balls. The shorter the attention span required, the better it seems, strangely in keeping with the way of the world.

All this means nothing other than that Pakistan might be better tuned to the format's frequency than others. Actually, it has been the thrill of the tournament that the same game that gives no result over five days can transform itself into one that is decided in an over. Worry about a glut of Twenty20 certainly, but not so much about the perceived death of the game: good contests are not dependent on time restrictions, good players will remain just that and better ones will accept the challenge of adapting to another format, a challenge few other sports offer.

This is still cricket, just on a razor-sharp edge, where mere hesitation ends a contest. And there is perverse beauty in that, before the format evolves: India may be inspired, New Zealand canny, Pakistan well-oriented and Australia menacing but nobody is a favourite. And face it, when was the last time you thought that about any contest involving Australia?