Pakistan’s progression upward in the T20 World Cup is near certain, but no tournament involving Pakistan has progressed without upsets or drama
This World Cup began the same way as previous global tournaments did. Days before Pakistan’s first match, friends asked: So, what chance does Pakistan have? Which Pakistan will show up? The answer: India and New Zealand are the strong teams; Pakistan will struggle to win their matches and qualify for the knockout stage.As any long?suffering fan knows, to put a definitive bet on Pakistan’s success can cause both heartburn and heartache. It’s best to hedge bets, lower expectations and be prepared for some moments of brilliance and many hours of disappointment and underperformance. That, in a nutshell, is Pakistan cricket.
This time round, the fact that Pakistan’s first game was against India added to the gloom. While Pakistan has a strong overall record, India has beaten the Men in Green in previous World Cups 13 times. Indian fans and media never fail to remind. Thirteen times. Mauqa. Mauqa.
The last encounter – in the 2019 World Cup – was a disappointment.
Rohit Sharma’s blistering 140 and half centuries by KL Rahul and Virat Kohli left Pakistan with 337 to chase. With rain disrupting the match, Pakistan lost by 89 runs.
Come 2021 and it was an Indian friend who sounded the first warning. “Don’t know why but I am not getting a great feeling about this upcoming India?Pak game for us,” he said. His intuition was spot on.
Pakistan’s intent was clear, at the toss that Babar Azam won. In 2019, Babar was only emerging as a talented batter, never mind as a leader. A low?key skipper, his body language at the toss in Dubai was confident and assertive. And when Shaheen Shah Afridi – who didn’t even play in the 2019 World Cup ? bowled the most consequential spell of his fledgling career, another Indian friend messaged: “Dude. Who is this Afridi? Wasim Akram’s son? He’s f….ing incredible.”
Pakistan finally got noticed at the global stage. Beating India by a record 10 wickets was the loudest alarm Pakistan has rung in a global tournament. Next up, New Zealand.
Maybe it was a one?off performance. Pakistan is the most consistently inconsistent top?tier team, a trait copyrighted by the PCB. The Kiwis have made a virtue out of being an underdog and playing under the radar. They make the knockout stage of most global tournaments. Except, this was a grudge match after the Kiwis abandoned their Pakistan tour hours before the first match in Rawalpindi. Not intentional but still, the snub hurt. And the Kiwis knew Pakistan were hurt.
Both teams struggled to bat with any fluency on a sticky Sharjah pitch. A low?scoring mud wrestle of a game ended with Pakistan winning with a flourish, finished by Shoaib Malik and Asif Ali, two players whose inclusion in this team was as much a matter of debate as it was in 2019.
Suddenly, Pakistan finds itself in that unenviable position of one foot in the semifinals after beating stronger teams. A win against Afghanistan on Friday will ensure Pakistan qualifies. A 5?0 record is quite possible if Pakistan also beat minnows Namibia and Scotland too.
In 2019, fans took solace in the fact that while Pakistan didn’t qualify for the semifinals, they beat both eventual finalists England and New Zealand. In 1992, Pakistan almost didn’t even qualify for the semifinal before eventually winning the World Cup. This is unchartered territory. A team that normally scrapes through to get to the knockout stage in any global tournament is now at the cuspof going to another without a loss.
It is easy to summarize that this is Pakistan’s second “Cornered Tiger” moment. Except I’d argue that this is far bigger – and consequential. The snubs by New Zealand and England were gut punches for a team that kept cricket going during a
global pandemic. Instead of gratitude, Pakistan was stood up, embarrassed and humiliated. After more than a decade of isolation, international cricket was making a full return to Pakistan; New Zealand and England damaged those prospects. The best way to answer the “Who is Shaheen Afridi?” question and to earn respect is to perform on the field.
This team appears determined to earn that respect. Intent is one thing, execution another. This team has both. For one, this appears to be a team, not just a collection of players. There is camaraderie and a relaxed dressing room. Batting consultant Mathew Hayden also noticed something rare for Pakistan: Discipline.
After much trial and error, the team appears balanced. The top order is not just settled but in form. While there are questions around the middle order, the lower order has flexibility and fire power. And most importantly, Pakistan can rely on six top?tier bowlers, giving it the most varied and potent bowling attack of any team in the tournament. The New Zealand encounter tested all aspects ahead of tougher clashes in the knockout stage.
And finally, there is leadership. Despite – or perhaps because of – a temporary management team, Babar Azam is asserting his authority on this team. This is his team just as India is Kohli’s team and England reflects Eoin Morgan. Azam is still a work?in?progress as a leader but he’s growing into his role quickly. This bodes well for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s progression upward is near certain, but no tournament involving Pakistan has progressed without upsets or drama. Group A, meanwhile, has stiff competition. Who Pakistan faces is far from certain. England looks the strongest and may top the group, but even that is too early to say.
Pakistan has form and momentum. More importantly, it has intent and determination. There is hope. And the audacity to dream and hope.