Think of the 1992 World Cup Final, and one of the fondest memories is the moment when Ramiz Raja caught Richard Illingworth to raucous applause from Pakistani cricket fans worldwide. Pakistan had won the World Cup and the dream was now a reality. With Pakistan in the midst of another campaign to bring that glory back to a starved nation, Ramiz Raja
Pakistan’s 2011 World Cup campaign has got off to an unexpectedly spectacular start as they sit atop Group A. Ramiz, who along with a distinguished playing career had a highly successful stint as Chief Executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, was excitedly upbeat about Pakistan’s chances. Now a part of the World Cup commentary team, Ramiz has watched every Pakistani world cup game from the media box and has witnessed a new vigour in the team, one that was not seen in the recent past. “Pakistan after a very long time look like they mean it. The group is focussed and the dressing room appears to be a liveable place”, Ramiz said.
While quite a few ex-players have come out in strong disagreement with the negative tactics of the Pakistani think-tank for selecting only three specialist bowlers, Ramiz felt it was worth persisting with the current formation. "There is no need to chop or change at this stage. Get the boys you trust in form. Batting is a worry so need a cushion in shape of an extra specialist", he stated. Ramiz also felt lessons could be learnt from the successful 1992 tournament. "We made the mistake in the 1992 World Cup of changing our opening combination, and on all three times we lost to West Indies, South Africa and India. It unsettled the entire team".
Ramiz, who himself opened the batting for Pakistan, also had words of support for a struggling Ahmed Shehzad, the current opener. After a promising series in New Zealand, which included a maiden ODI century, Shehzad has struggled to find his feet on the big stage and has scored a paltry total of 26 runs in three disappointing outings. "Ahmed has talent. He needs to relax and look to play a long innings without sacrificing his aggression or style", Ramiz said. With more games under his belt, Ramiz feels that the attacking opener will succeed. "He will eventually come good because he is temperamentally strong".
The experimentation with Kamran Akmal batting at No.3 to take full advantage of the early power-play overs has also had mixed results. Whilst he hit a smart half century against Kenya in the opening fixture to go with some other handy contributions, Kamran has never looked comfortable and has often thrown away good starts. When asked for his views on Kamran’s batting at this crucial position, Ramiz was not convinced. "Kamran is not an ideal No. 3 because he doesn't think like a No. 3. He feels his role is that of a make shift functionary which needs to be corrected by the team management". Ramiz also added that there were more concerning issues than just Kamran's batting. "His keeping by the way is more of a worry than his batting". In the game against Sri Lanka, Kamran missed a couple of decisive stumpings which may have turned the result in Sri Lanka’s favour.
On the bowling front, Pakistan has been superb with the spinners in particular. Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez's roles are more certain in the side as all-rounders, but there has been some conjecture over whether to play Saeed Ajmal or Abdur Rehman. Ramiz felt that Ajmal was a more attacking option and should be preferred over the left arm Rehman. "I would play Ajmal because he is a wicket taker and difficult to read for the tail. He can also bowl in powerplays". The tactic to bowl spinners in the powerplay overs to dry out the runs and force a mistake from the opposition batsmen has proved a huge success in this World Cup. With Ajmal’s variation, it could prove to be a master-stroke.
The pace bowling sees a refreshed and determined Shoaib Akhtar paired with a somewhat out of form Gul. Ramiz was adamant that "Both are key to our success". On current form, Gul seems unable to display the impeccable control he once possessed, but the game against Canada at least showed some hunger in his new ball spell. "Gul has lost a bit of direction and good stuff, but his last outing with the new ball against Canada was a welcome relief and would lift him", Ramiz added. With Shoaib, fitness has always been a major concern, and Ramiz felt he should be used as a strike bowler to capture the prized wickets, as he obliged by dismantling Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene with sheer pace and skill. "Shoaib can produce a good spell but his fitness in the second and third spells can be a worry. He is a strike bowler and must be used to strike, not conserve runs".
As we move into the latter half of the group stage, the strengths and weaknesses of all teams have been on display. We asked Ramiz which other teams had impressed him thus far, to which he replied, "All top teams are coming good but a game or two before the quarters really will determine which units are peaking at the right time".