MANCHESTER: Shadab Khan (second left) leaves the field with Indian players after the end of the World Cup match on Sunday.—AP
MANCHESTER: Shadab Khan (second left) leaves the field with Indian players after the end of the World Cup match on Sunday.—AP

PAKISTAN lose to India at World Cups. The result is as much of a formality as you will find in sport. When Pakistan reach a World Cup final, they lose to India en route. When a World Cup is played in Asia, they lose to India. When they are expected to win, they don’t. When they are expected to fight, they let emotions get the better of them. And now, possibly for the first time, when they are clearly the weaker team they don’t play with the spirit of an underdog.

It isn’t that Pakistan are particularly good at 50 overs cricket. There was a time when they were very good indeed. By the end of the 1990s, Pakistan had built a one-day team to rival any in the world. That team, the team of Wasim Akram, was better than Imran Khan’s World Cup winning team of 1992, but it didn’t win enough for the talents at its disposal. It did reach a World Cup final in England in 1999 but the graph of one-day cricket shows a steady decline since that time.

Sure, Pakistan have had their moments over the last decade. Winning a World T20, a Champions Trophy, and going top in Test cricket. But none of these random acts of genius has hinted at repeat success. And none of these ease the pain of defeat after defeat to India in international tournaments.

India win by 89 runs on the basis of Duckworth-Lewis method

How do you explain, Team Pakistan, that you don’t help yourself? You select Shoaib Malik when he is today’s most obvious yesterday’s man. You put your faith in utility players ahead of specialists. Your best bowlers aren’t even included in the original squad, yet both play with verve. One of the two, Mohammad Amir, is the tournament’s star bowler. One of your key bowlers, Hassan Ali, is utterly out of form, for months and months, yet nothing changes, nothing improves.

You win the toss and bowl first at England’s most Asian ground, when for decades you defend better than you chase, and when even your country’s leader and erstwhile cricket captain is publicly urging you to bat on Twitter, a place where the world listens.

Nobody should mind losing to a superior team, which is what India are, but you should at least get right what you can control, such as team selection and what to do when you win the toss. You should at least raise your game in the field. But you twice fail to run out India’s top scorer, Rohit Sharma, when he is almost trying to be run out. Just as you gifted Aaron Finch a century a few days earlier with dropped catches. You should at least understand the rain rules. You bat as if rain won’t be a factor, and then flood wickets when the clouds darken as predicted by every amateur meteorologist.

Amid this rank mediocrity there are hints of something better. Your lead bowler, Amir, is so good that the powerful Indian batting line-up is happy just to see him off from first ball to last. Their captain, the great Virat Kohli, honourably walks after the faintest nick just to get away from him. Wahab breathes fire, albeit with some irregularity. Your young spinner, Shadab Khan, comes back from a thrashing in his first over to bowl a tidy spell. Your top order is getting starts, even looking good, but nobody can go on.

And that’s it. You can’t match India’s composed batting. Their gun batsmen don’t let them down. You can’t handle the demon spin of Kuldeep Jhadav or the routine fast medium of Hardik Pandya. You can’t match their discipline or their consistency - yet you are Team Pakistan, carrying the hopes of your nation. You have won before, you will win again, you say. Yet, you have lost and you will lose again, thirteen matches out of the last fourteen.

Despite all this, you are still in the competition. Win the next four and you can go through. It isn’t impossible since you play Afghanistan, Bangladesh, New Zealand and South Africa. This is why you are an enigma. You pull at our heart strings. Because despite everything we know that you can and you might still qualify. Despite everything, there is still hope. Despite everything, despite your flaws, your cricket is loved at home and abroad. And this is why you can lose by 89 runs to your greatest rivals and we still wonder what will happen next, hoping that you can still put right what you can control?

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2019