PakPassion.net's Saj Sadiq previews the Quarter Final game between Australia and Pakistan
By Saj Sadiq (18th March, 2015)
You could feel a certain amount of sympathy for the Pakistan cricket captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, when he recently described his job as being one of the five toughest positions in international sport.
He was obviously basing this on the pressures of captaining, possibly, one of the most volatile and inconsistent cricket teams. Attempting to guide a team that can go from the comical to the sublime and on to mediocre in a matter of hours is no easy task. This is exactly why Pakistan's qualification for the quarter-final stage of the 2015 World Cup can be classified as an achievement in itself.
Down and out after successive morale-sapping defeats against arch-rivals India and the less fancied West Indies, stung by unwelcome attention due to their Chief Selector's visit to a casino, reported in-fighting between players and coaching staff, players fined for breaking a curfew, it is a near miracle that the Pakistan players are now preparing for their game against Australia instead of cooling their heels and avoiding brickbats at Lahore and Karachi Airport.
A number of theories are being floated around to explain this turnaround in fortunes. These range from the resurgence of the 'Cornered Tigers' spirit of 1992 when a similar band of players, with a minor exception of a few more proven match-winners in their ranks, defied the odds to lift the World Cup trophy, to simply dropping a woefully out-of-form Younis Khan from the team and bringing back a street-fighter in the Javed Miandad/Moin Khan mould, namely the wicket-keeper batsman Sarfraz Ahmed.
Whichever way one looks at it, it's clear that the way the Pakistan team has approached games against South Africa and Ireland in the latter part of the Group Stages, that there is a hunger to win and a willingness to prove themselves in front of their own fans which seems to be driving this team forward, as well as the desire to prove their critics wrong.
Of real interest and satisfaction to fans and experts alike is the resurgence of the Pakistan fast bowling attack and its transformation into a match-winning combination with the likes of Mohammad Irfan, Wahab Riaz, Rahat Ali and Sohail Khan attracting a lot of attention by doing what they had failed to do effectively in the initial games of the tournament, namely take wickets and rattle the opposition batsmen with aggression and raw pace.
With Wahab Riaz leading in the speed measurements with deliveries touching the 150 Kph mark, the support bowers seem to be finding the rhythm which puts them in the right frame of mind for possibly their toughest challenge. Even Ehsan Adil who was drafted in to the starting line-up when Mohammad Irfan was unable to play against Ireland due to injury, proved his worth with some accurate and skilful fast bowling, ending up with figures of 1 for 31 in seven overs.
Perhaps given the history of Pakistan cricket, the role of Pakistani fast-bowlers in their progress in the World Cup should not really be a surprise, but what does seems to have caught the imagination of many is the new air of confidence which has been injected by the inclusion of the gritty and innovative Sarfraz Ahmed.
Surprisingly discarded for the first four games of the tournament, the wicket-keeper batsman strode in confidently to take first strike in the crucial game against South Africa. He played and missed the first few deliveries he faced but what has followed from his bat has given Pakistan the boost and impetus they need at the top of the order and for the first time in the tournament, the Pakistan middle-order is now breathing easy as they ponder their batting strategy towards the middle to end overs instead of fretting upon survival after the loss of early wickets.
Add to that the fact that Adelaide offers a more docile surface for batsmen to survive on and as the Pakistan great Imran Khan said recently, "If there's one venue where Pakistan can beat Australia, it's Adelaide", then there are ample grounds for optimism in the Pakistan camp.
For Pakistan, Sarfraz's re-introduction to strengthen Pakistan's brittle batting will be crucial when they face Australia in their home conditions in Adelaide. Lead by Michael Clarke, the Australians are in a ruthless mood, winning all Group B games with the exception of a tight loss against New Zealand.
Whilst Mitchell Johnson has had a relatively quiet tournament so far it is the presence of Mitchell Starc, who is being compared to Wasim Akram, that Pakistan will need to battle with if they are to set or chase the sort of 350-plus type scores that a rampant David Warner and Co have put up with consummate ease in this tournament and will be looking to reach against Pakistan especially after the underdogs were dealt a huge blow with giant pace bowler Mohammad Irfan being ruled out of the rest of the World Cup.
If current form is any guide and if home advantage is what it is made out to be, Pakistan may well be playing their final game of the tournament on Friday. However, as the former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal astutely observed in a recent interview: "Once we get into the knockout stage then there is no such thing as a favourite team. One could say that Australia have an advantage of home conditions but then who can forget the fact that Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992 in these same conditions, beating Australia on the way to lifting the trophy."
Misbah has used some unorthodox methods to motivate his players during the World Cup including sending a text to all of the squad ahead of the key match against Ireland which seemed to work and the spirit of 1992 embodied by the somewhat legendary reference to fighting like 'Cornered Tigers' is what Misbah-ul-Haq will hope to evoke when he prepares his wards for the Quarter-Final game against Australia. The 40-year-old veteran has shown aggression in the field in recent matches and will look to lead from the front and should his players respond to his command in kind, Australia will find a very tough opposition facing them in Adelaide.
For Australia, the thought of a loss at this stage is a non-starter and they will go into this game with the firm belief that at least on paper, they are the better team. Their only worry will be that they are meeting a team which, in the words of the South Africa coach Russell Domingo is "predictably unpredictable". However as Misbah-ul-Haq, Sarfraz Ahmed and Rahat Ali have all stated, the pressure is on Australia not us, and that point could turn out to be crucial.
To expect the ordinary and the mundane from a Pakistan side is ludicrous in its own right and to foretell which Pakistan side will show up on any given day is also an exercise in futility. Australia will be wary of this unpredictability as they plan their strategy to dismantle Pakistan on the field. Pakistan on the other hand, will have their own ideas and game plans suggested to them by the wily coaching trio of Waqar Younis, Mushtaq Ahmed and Grant Flower.
Australia are firm favourites, few people fancy Pakistan to defeat an in-form team who will be playing in front of thousands of its own fans. However Australia would be advised to not underestimate a dangerous opponent that has the players and the capability to defeat anyone on one of its good days.