Pakistan's chance in the World Cup hangs by a slender thread. By the time this column appears in print, we will know whether Pakistan will live to fight another day or the team will return home, probably , one player at a time and with none of the fanfare with which the team left midst high hopes and much muscle-flexing.
I want to concentrate on Pakistan's match against India and put this 'clash of titans' in its proper perspective.
273 was an eminently respectable score and India would have to bat outstandingly or Pakistan bowl atrociously. In the end, it was a combination of both. The key was always going to be Sachin Tendulkar.
The moment of momentum came in Shoaib Akhtar's first over and more specifically when Tendulkar hit Shoaib Akhtar for six at cover-point. Sachin had thrown down the gauntlet. Shoaib Akhtar went for 18 in that first over and was promptly taken off. The fear factor that Shoaib Akhtar represented had been eliminated.
Thereafter, Sachin Tendulkar batted like Sachin Tendulkar at his murderous best. I would have said like Viv Richards but even Richards must have watched that innings with awe. Even as it hurt, one was left spell-bound. It could have been said that he had saved his best for this 'match' but so gifted is this young man, that it is entirely possible, that the best is yet to come. Pakistan might have come back into the game had Abdul Razzak held on to a sharp chance when Tendulkar was 32. But that's the way the rub of the green goes.
Shoaib Akhtar did get Tendulkar when he was 98 but by then, the real damage had been done and the Pakistan bowling was a spent force. And Saqlain Mushtaq had once again been left out, the one bowler who could have slowed down the Indian charge. There is the danger of mistaking obstinacy for mental toughness. I have a feeling that Pakistan's think-tank has not been watching the other matches or not watching them with a critical eye. Once the ball has got soft then pace becomes a liability.
The game has to be slowed down and this is done by taking the pace off the ball so that the runs dry up. You need Bichel not Brett Lee. The most vital piece of information was that the World Cup matches are being played at the end of the South African cricket season. The wickets are 'tired.' There may be bounce but the tracks are slow. That should have been factored in to the game plan.
Just as the batsmen need to adjust, so too the bowlers and the line and length become paramount. In every match that Pakistan played, it gave away extras on an average of some 25 runs and the corresponding extra deliveries. This is unacceptable. Throughout, we have complained about the batting but when the batting came through, it was the bowling that let Pakistan down badly.
Waqar Yunus has got a lot of flak. That, unfortunately, goes with the territory. Let's face it, had Pakistan won the match, he would have been praised to the skies and the mistakes he made would have gone unnoticed. But there's no getting away from the fact that his captaincy has been far from inspiring. He seems to be stuck in a groove and was too rigid, hence he was not innovative.
He settled for a settled tempo, neither able to speed it up or slow it down. Understandably, the biggest disappointment was Shoaib Akhtar. I can't help feeling that he was his own worst enemy. There is a difference between being a showman and being a loudmouth. I was surprised that he was allowed to make statement which were boastful. He had promises to keep but in the words of the poet, Robert Frost, "miles to go."
But again, he wasn't the only bowler who was off-target. We are painfully accustomed to batting collapses but in this crunch match, it was the bowling that collapsed.
In our disappointment, we should not lose sight of Saeed Anwar's hundred. He was under tremendous pressure and many had begun to question, if not, mock his selection in the team. He delivered when most needed to deliver. A sobering reminder, perhaps, of Tennyson's lines: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." It was a superb innings and he handed the match to the bowlers on a platter. Inzamam's run out showed only that when one's luck is out, one's luck is out and nothing goes right.
Of course, we are all disappointed but we must be careful that disappointment is expressed in constructive ways. The team was not able to turn around its fortunes. We now need to do an agonising reappraisal but not in the heat of the moment. We need to remember that Pakistan has never won against India in the World Cup and only won the World Cup once.
As I write this, only a miracle can keep Pakistan in the World Cup and if that miracle does not happen, we need to go back to drawing-board, calmly, without anger.