SPORT THIS WEEK - Pakistan find themselves in a comfortable position atop their group in the World Cricket Cup. Their win over Sri Lanka was a confidence booster as the Sri Lankans are considered one of the frontrunners for the title. Shahid Afridi has led from the front with 14 wickets at nearly five apiece. That is as close to unplayable as one can get. Afridi has also chipped in with some runs. Sri Lanka missed their ace Lasith Malinga for the Pakistan match and he promptly announced his presence with a hat-trick in his first game against Kenya. Malinga is extremely hard to get away for big runs because of his extreme round-arm action.
His presence is vital for the Sri Lankans if they are to make it to the final stages of the tournament. Pakistan are almost certain of qualifying for the quarterfinals. They have yet to play Australia and New Zealand, but a win over Zimbabwe would do the job. Australia has been looking good with their fearsome pacers Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson making short work of the opposition batsmen. Should Johnson maintain his form, Australia could go all the way. The other team that should make the quarters from this group would be New Zealand.
The Kiwis are great triers but lack the firepower of the abovementioned trio. What would matter in this group would be the final group positions as the top team from each group would play the bottom team from the other and so forth. Although in the knock out stages, every match is even, Pakistan would much rather play England, West Indies or Ireland in the quarters. For that to happen, they would have to finish in the top two of their group.
Should they beat New Zealand, that would be ensured. South Africa has looked impressive as they have strolled through their matches. In all likelihood they and India should be the top two teams in this group. India fought a tooth and nail dead heat against England but should have too much firepower for the West Indies, Bangladesh and Ireland. The key matches in this group would be England vs South Africa and England vs West Indies. Should England falter, they could leave the door open for Ireland to go through.
Ireland had earlier pulled off the upset of the tournament when they lost half their side for a hundred odd and then Kevin O’Brien played one of the great ODI innings of all time. This was enough to take Ireland to a historic win. His hundred took just 50 balls, a World Cup record by a country mile. England bowled abysmally, their pacers hitting a predictable line and length. On a batting track where there was no swing or seam, they should have experimented with cut and change of pace. Instead, O’Brien took them to the cleaners.
The England batting has clicked, but the bowlers will have to add a bit more variety. The spinners will have to give the ball some flight while the pacers will have to show some cunning. The four likely qualifiers from this group should be South Africa, India, England and the West Indies although Bangladesh and Ireland might fancy their chances. The real competition will start from the quarterfinals onwards. The likely top two teams from the groups should be Pakistan-Australia and India-South Africa.
But the ODI game, by its very nature, means that any team that strikes a hot run of form could take the title. It could very well be the performances of some key players. Afridi stands out with his superlative bowling. Malinga was awesome against Kenya. Johnson and Tait for Australia. Gayle for the West Indies. Sehwag and Tendulkar for India. DeVilliers, Amla, Smith, Kallis or Tahir for South Africa. Strauss, Pietersen, Swann or Bresnan for England.
But, in the final reckoning it would be a wicket taking bowler who could make all the difference. And for that we need to look no further than our own Shahid Afridi. When he streaked onto the cricket horizon with a world record ODI hundred against Sri Lanka, many years ago, the cricketing world seemed at his feet. But that world record performance was a hard reputation to live up to. For many years, it seemed as if Afridi was trying to go one better.
There were some highly erratic performances. He had not factored in the fact that the opposition had done its homework on him. He had too narrow a scoring arc and no matter how well he hit the ball, the inevitable mishit would carry to the waiting fielder. The T20 World Cup in England showed a more mature Afridi. He played all round the wicket, eschewing the wild slogs. The field had to spread out and the runs started to come consistently.
His bowling was incisive. Leg breaks, googlies, medium fast of the same run up and action, meant that he was difficult to get away. Afridi has now comfortably made the change from a batting all rounder to a bowling all rounder. His bowling is unplayable and as a direct result, his batting should be more relaxed and productive. Afridi and Razzaq form the lower middle order of the Pakistan batting. As a result, they come in when there are few overs left for them to get set and go for the big hits.
It would do Pakistan some good if they were more flexible with their batting order. The redoubtable Misbah should be the one who can step in if wickets tumble. Otherwise he should come in the lower middle order, leaving Razzaq to come in when there are twenty or so overs left. Razzaq, as a batsman has been admirable when quick runs have been needed. His shot selection is better than Afridi’s. Were Razzaq to be a floater in the lineup, and Misbah there to stop the rot, Pakistan could have a more opportunistic batting line up.
The only grey areas for Pakistan are the catching and the ‘keeping. If you drop a Tendulkar, a Ponting or a Gayle or fail to stump De Villiers or Sehwag, no amount of runs you score will compensate. Kamran Akmal should get his wicket-keeping footwork right and stop snatching at the ball. Otherwise the mistakes will continue and the World Cup might well be a distant dream.