Azhar Mahmood. — AFP
Azhar Mahmood. — AFP

Pakistan's moment of glory may have come in 1992 but it is the class of 1999 that has stirred much debate among experts and fans.

Many argue that the wealth of talent the 1999 squad possessed was, quite simply, unmatched. There were no gaps; almost as if the captain had gone into the board room with a wish list and come out with 'two of each.'

But the 99 squad wasn't built overnight, Azhar Mahmood, who made his World Cup bow that year as one of Wasim Akram's three genuine all-rounders in the team, tells Dawn.com in an exclusive interview.

The then 24-year-old Mahmood, had emerged onto the scene in 1996 but announced himself well-and-truly a year later with a stunning Test debut against South Africa.

He played in almost all of Pakistan's ODI series in the lead up to the big tournament in England, a point he makes to highlight the most important factor which made the 99 team so good: 'continuity'.

"Wasim bhai built that team. He was in and out as captain before the World Cup but he had identified a core group of players that he wanted and stuck with them for a significant period.

"Going into the 1999 World Cup there was no one, barring Wajahatullah Wasti, who you could say hadn't had a taste of international cricket. It was unfortunate we couldn't go all the way then," Mahmood, who picked up 13 wickets in that tournament and pitched in with a couple useful cameos, recalls.

"A great team is always judged by its bench strength. Look at who we had on the sidelines: Waqar Younis, Mushtaq Ahmed, Salim Malik," the 39-year-old says with an obvious hint at the current scenario the team finds itself in.

Pakistan have gone into the 2015 World Cup with a less than ideal buildup and injuries to some key members haven't helped the cause either. But according to Mahmood, a pool of 20 players should have been selected much in advance to have been better prepared for such a scenario.

"Look at what's happened now. Some players who were part of the team in the ODI series before the World Cup are not there. Some who were not even part of the preliminary squad have been named as replacements. Anwar Ali and Bilawal Bhatti were kept with the side as the two all-rounders but were suddenly no where to be seen.

"You have to give time to a squad to grow, a player to develop. Now, Bhatti went for 93 runs against New Zealand and everyone was calling for his head. Give the players some space and admit that in some instances the opposition has had an extraordinary game.

"In today's day and age, a bowler can go for some runs especially if he bowling in the powerplay. But we're always looking for short-terms solutions and hence the current squad lacks balance. Sure, there can one or two changes but not four or five new faces."

Pakistan have been found plugging in the gaps, especially in the bowling department and the current pace attack is their weakest ever at World Cups and the most inexperienced at this year's showpiece event.

They created a wedge between me and Abdul Razzaq. — AFP
They created a wedge between me and Abdul Razzaq. — AFP

But the Ali-Bhatti issue is a bit too close to home for Mahmood, who played 21 Tests and 143 ODIs for Pakistan despite a common belief that he had a lot more to offer. He feels both players should have featured in the team's plans.

"They've been saying it's a case of either Anwar or Bhatti in the side. They created a wedge between me and Abdul Razzaq too where one captain picked him and the other selected me. But I keep telling them there's room for more than one all-rounder in the team.

"It gives the side so much balance. At the 1999 World Cup we had Wasim bhai, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq and me. All of us played together. Unfortunately, we just don't have a fifth bowler in the side that's in Australia right now."

The Rawalpindi-born Mahmood, who is now a bit of a Twenty20 journeyman, is of the opinion that Haris Sohail was too inexperienced to fill the role of the fifth bowler. He believes the only option for captain Misbah-ul-Haq was to be positive in his team selection.

"I would play six batsmen and five full-time bowlers. You cannot win by expecting a couple of bowlers to just turn their arm over. Plus, our batting is too inconsistent to bail us out."

Attacking with legspinner Yasir Shah, a bowler Mahmood thinks could be the pick of the World Cup, was the most logical option.

"The big boundaries, especially in Australia, and the dry pitches would aid Yasir. He could really be the pick of the bowlers."

Would he have gambled with the now-cleared Saeed Ajmal after Mohammad Hafeez's injury?

"If he is comfortable, I would have gone for him. A player with so much experience doesn't need to prove he's 'match-fit'. Plus, he was bowling everyday during his rehabilitation, no?"

While on the topic of match fitness, Mahmood says he would've have really like to have seen Umar Gul in the squad, who has been bowling in domestic games despite a notion that he's injured. Gul last featured in a domestic game on January 30 almost two weeks after the 15-man World Cup squad was announced.

"We needed some experience, in my opinion. How can he be unfit and still be bowling in domestic games? Of course he had a knee surgery and it sometimes flares up. But that does not mean he's out of commission," the all-rounder, who played his last ODI at the 2007 World Cup, says.

Mahmood, who's highest ODI score of 67 came against India in Adelaide, the battleground for Pakistan's 2015 World Cup opener versus the same team, says a win against MS Dhoni's side could set the tone and settle the nerves.

"We have got to do the best with what we have. Every man must be given a role, that's how things work when you are struggling a bit. If play to their potential and perform their roles, Pakistan could come out on top against India."

"Most important of all, we must support them now."

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