Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Battle-hardened Afridi the lynchpin

ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / News

World Cup 2011

Battle-hardened Afridi the lynchpin

Pakistan are coming to the World Cup on a turbulent trajectory. One of the original hosts, they were stripped of those rights following the terror attack in Lahore last year. In addition, the team has been hobbling from a series of mishaps, the latest and potentially most damaging of which is the spot-fixing scandal that has resulted in lengthy bans against three vital players. This turmoil makes the opening clash against Kenya an almost ideal start for them, offering a chance to settle jitters against an unrated opponent.
Fortunately for Pakistan, their cricket has gathered some momentum through the current season: two drawn Tests and a narrowly conceded five-match ODI series against South Africa, followed by decisive Test and ODI series wins in New Zealand that represent Pakistan's first serious overseas accomplishment in half a decade.
They are a team in transition, with seasoned veterans such as Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, and Abdul Razzaq, as well as bright young talent - players like Umar Akmal and Asad Shafiq. In Shahid Afridi they have an experienced and battle-hardened leader. Nevertheless, a brittle batting line-up and inconsistent fielding - Pakistan's traditional weaknesses - continue to plague the team. The opening pair hasn't been settled in years, and we can expect to see rotation in those slots, especially if there is an early loss or two.
Bowling is usually Pakistan's strongest asset, but they are missing two world-class seamers, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, who have been sidelined by the spot-fixing mess. Umar Gul will spearhead the attack and should have capable back-up in the form of newcomer Wahab Riaz, although the third seamer's role expected to be variably served by Razzaq, Shoaib Akhtar or the unknown Junaid Khan is a potential weak link that will have to be offset by the trusted legspin-offspin combination of Afridi and Saeed Ajmal.
World Cup pedigree
Pakistan's previous World Cup finishes include three semi-finals, a final and a title, but those are distant memories. Their last two appearances were both preliminary-round exits, and the 2007 outing, especially, was a nightmare, when Ireland beat them and their coach, Bob Woolmer, was found dead the next morning. Even the 1999 World Cup, when they did very well and made the final, is a bitter memory because of the way the team eventually capitulated to Australia. And 1996, too, left an acrid taste after a quarter-final loss to arch-rivals India. You really have to go back to 1992 to find a World Cup tournament that resonates with Pakistani fans.
Recent form
For most of 2010, Pakistan had a dismal win-loss ratio placing them at the bottom of the international pile, worse even than Zimbabwe. They began the year with a 0-5 drubbing at the hands of Australia, followed by two key defeats (to India and Sri Lanka) in the Asia Cup in June. Later in the year, however, they picked themselves up. Although two subsequent encounters (against England and South Africa) were lost, Pakistan were able to push each series to a fifth-game decider, before finally notching a 3-2 series win in New Zealand. Their win-loss ratio over the last 12 months now places them sixth, ahead of West Indies, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Expert eye
Javed Miandad: Pakistan are a talented team fully capable of pulling off a surprise. In the 2011 format, a team only has to edge past the bottom three in its group and they are in the quarter-final, from where it is just three straight wins to the title. Any of the eight frontline teams can win this one.
Where they're likely to finish
Given Pakistan's well-earned reputation for volatility, they are an interesting bet for this tournament. It goes in their favour that the World Cup often goes to a team who start out as dark horses. On paper you would expect them to get past the group stage but succumb in the quarters to lack of confidence and the wild card of controversy. But Pakistan have a history of firing best when cornered, so anything can happen. Only a fool would rule them out.
The brand of cricket played by Pakistan is nothing if not exciting. Their onslaughts can be murderous and their rearguards stirring. Even their collapses and surrenders are spectacular. This is a team that offers the cricket enthusiast potentially everything, from established crowd-pullers to thrilling young blood, from delight and elation to tragedy and pathos, in a package liberally spiced with scandal and gossip.
Key stats
Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi have been the side's leading batsmen since December 2009. Afridi scored two centuries in the Asia Cup, including a superb 109 off 76 balls in a defeat against Sri Lanka; Saeed Ajmal (17 wickets) and Afridi (19) have been the best bowlers in that period. Umar Gul was in superb form last summer in England, picking up 12 wickets in the five matches, and is by far Pakistan's best limited-overs pace bowler.
Players in focus
For a player of his limited-overs stature and with his nose for the big moment, Shahid Afridi is long overdue a World Cup mega-performance. In 2009, when Pakistan took the World Twenty20 title in England, it was on the strength of his feats. An ambitious man conscious of honours and awards, he will be keen to add World Cup glory to this legacy. Now that he is captain the stakes are that much higher. He is Pakistan's lynchpin, and if he finds form, everybody better watch out. The subcontinental conditions will certainly suit him.
When Umar Akmal gets going, he evokes comparison with hallowed names. With a superb eye and a gift for timing, he is a breathtaking talent. Although his natural impetuosity has rendered him an underachiever in Tests, the same quality is a potential asset in ODIs. He can be particularly skilled at exploiting Powerplays, and his presence adds great pep to Pakistan's batting. The only real drawback is his tendency to throw his wicket away; not quite as bad as with Afridi, but it's there. If he can somehow discover his powers of concentration and curb this self-destructive instinct, Pakistan will be formidable.
Umar Gul is the best bowler in Pakistan's attack, and will shoulder the responsibility for early breakthroughs as well the death overs. He has the pace, precision and experience to prove decisive in both segments. Although a proven match-winner, he is prone to injury - more than is usual for fast bowlers. His fitness is probably going to be Pakistan's biggest worry. Perhaps his most effective weapon is his ability to hold his nerve. He may stare and glare and get into verbal jousts, but in the pure contest between bat and ball, don't expect him to blink first.
Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...