COLOMBO - If anyone had told Shahid Afridi a month ago that his troops would snap Australia's 12-year unbeaten World Cup streak, the Pakistan skipper would have thought April Fools' Day had come early.
Unable to play international matches at home, tainted by a spot-fixing scandal that robbed them of the services of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, add in the confusion over team and captain selections -- Pakistan cricket was in disarray.
But just as Imran Khan had unified a World Cup-winning Pakistan team in 1992, when they were lucky to scrape into the semi-finals after emerging victorious in only one of their first five matches, Afridi is proving to be an inspirational leader.
Under his guidance, the class of 2011 have cocooned themselves from all the outside distractions and against the odds not only snapped Australia's 34-match unbeaten streak but also beat co-hosts Sri Lanka to finish as Group A winners.
The win not only provided Afridi's men with a huge morale boost but also set them up nicely for the quarter-finals as they will next face the fourth-placed team from Group B -- which will be decided following India's clash with West Indies on Sunday.
Whether they face England or West Indies, Afridi and coach Waqar Younis will pull together their combined years of experience to draw up plans to topple the opposition, just as they did against Australia. "We made some good plans against these guys and the boys all stuck to these plans," Afridi said when asked how his men ended Australia's remarkable World Cup run.
"We didn't try to take wickets early on, we tried to bowl maiden, good overs ... and all the bowlers did a great job. The credit goes to the bowlers." Paistan achieved the win even though they are far from being the finished produckt. Their openers are misfiring, Afridi has yet to get going as a batsman and Kamran Akmal has sealed his place in the 'Hall of Howlers' after some comical dropped catches.
Over the past month, Pakistan's fumbling fielders also provided many moments of light relief to a worldwide audience of billions. However, on Saturday, Afridi's men showed what they are capable of when they pulled off stunning catches and dived after the ball to save numerous boundaries.
If they can maintain that level of fitness and excellence for the next two weeks, they may well be lifting the trophy come April 2. While one problem was solved, others still persist. Afridi knows he has to stop attempting "irresponsible shots as captain" -- which has so far earned him scores of 7, 16, 20, 17, 3 and 2 -- at the tournament.
Openers Mohammad Hafeez and Ahmed Shehzad, who averaged just 15.4 runs for the first wicket in the first five matches, are also causing Afridi and Waqar some major headaches. With that partnership clearly not clicking, Waqar gambled on promoting Kamran up the order to open with Hafeez against Australia but that move backfired as it only yielded 12 runs.
"We have a problem with our openers definitely. Hopefully in quarter-final they will do well," said Waqar. "We can improve further. We need the openers to get more runs and the team to perform better." Having played all their Group A matches in Sri Lanka, Pakistan will now have to move out of their comfort zone as their last-eight match is likely to be on the much more spinner-friendly pitches in Bangladesh.
Waqar was confident the change of scenery would not hurt his charges. "We will have a complete different strategy in the quarter-finals, regardless of how we play in Ahmedabad or in Mirpur," he summed up.