v/s India (Feb 15th)
v/s West Indies (Feb 21st)
v/s Zimbabwe (Mar 1st)
v/s UAE (Mar 4th)
v/s South Africa (Mar 7th)
v/s Ireland (Mar 15th)
You’d think two insanely tricky first-round matches (India, West Indies) would pretty much define the entire tournament and set the tone for either a monstrous or a mousy performance for any international team. But we’re talking about Pakistan. It won’t matter even if they lose both those games by 10 wickets. They will still be a new, unaffected, inconsistent and exciting team when they face South Africa three whole weeks later. They will still find a way to scare the best, and be outplayed by the worst. You’d also think that a team that has just two games in its first two weeks, followed by three in one week (including against favorites South Africa), would be phased by the bizarre schedule of the tournament. But again, this is Pakistan. They’ll probably win three in one week, and lose the ones that have them well-rested and raring to go. Against all odds, much to a viewer’s glee.
The team’s preparations have begun in earnest. All is well, because there is utter turmoil and unrest and uncertainty just days before their warmup games—events that would normally break any team, but is par for the course for Pakistan: Their best bowler Junaid Khan has pulled out with an injury. There’s uncertainty surrounding Saeed Ajmal’s clearance and comeback into international cricket. Hafeez, their crucial all-rounder, is ruled out too, to be replaced by mercurial and unreliable talent Nasir Jamshed. One of their players encountered a ghost in his room during a practice game. Basically, they’re all set to play the biggest tournament of their lives, in the right frame of mind, under a leader who has seen and almost done it all. Misbah isn’t your conventional captain, and at 40, is amongst the oldest players in the tournament. He is a year older than Imran Khan was when he lifted the trophy in 1992. He is the ideal leader because of his temperament and a perfunctory late start to his career (read Hussey, Ajmal). He is yin to Afridi’s yang, and is entirely capable of inspiring his temperamental team to a 7-game run that might see them upset favorites like South Africa and Australia. He will rue to loss of Hafeez, but will have to handle the talents of Umar Akmal, Jamshed, Sohail, Irfan and Shehzad—all of them key players and fragments of a team that is desperate to repeat the country’s 1992 heroics from Down Under. He has an able deputy and a man in form in Younis Khan, who has proved himself once again over the last one year, as perhaps modern Pakistan cricket’s most prolific and reliable middle-order batsman.
There is no such thing as ‘patterns’ and ‘form’ when it has come to previous or current Pakistani teams. They have showed up for World Cups in complete disarray at times, gone on to play like nothing ever happened, and then crashed out when they’re favorites. They have always lost to India, their arch-rivals, in this tournament, and face them first at Adelaide to change history. They will, for once, be favored to do that against a weak Indian team. In 2011, they lost in the semis at Mohali to India. In 2007, they were knocked out by Ireland in the first stage on the same day as India was knocked out by Bangladesh, and lost their coach Bob Woolmer the same night. It was among the biggest scandals and controversies to ever hit the game. But they moved on from the muck, and won the Asia Cup not too long later, and began 2011 as one of the favorites. In 2003, they were again beaten by India in a crucial game, and played perhaps their weakest tournament in South Africa. They were outright favorites in 1999 despite losing to India and Bangladesh, and were destroyed by Steve Waugh’s Australia in the final. In 1996, they were murdered by Ajay Jadeja in the quarterfinals at Bangalore. In 1992, they were saved by a rained-out even-points game against England in the group stages, and somehow recovered to reach the final and win the Cup. Imran Khan’s team became one of the biggest miracles of the year. In 1987, they were defeated by England in the semis when they looked good to face India in the final. This team is a far cry from the Miandads, Khans, Inzamams and Akhtars of yore, but still poses a serious threat to any team that thinks they are not contenders. They always will be, irrespective of what players they field.
X-factor: Shahid Afridi, again. He is still only 16 years older than 18.