ABSENCE usually makes the heart grow fonder, but the amount of T20 cricket being played means that the absence of the World Cup was little noticed. The relevance of West Indies winning in Kolkata in 2016 is zero. T20 cricket is a game that moves on rapidly. But now that the tournament is under way in the United Arab Emirates, with the top eight teams entering the fray this weekend, it’s hard to think of a better way to banish the Covid blues.
Pakistan, ranked third in T20 cricket, enter the tournament following an upheaval in the cricket board and in the coaching staff, as well as a controversy over cancelled tours by New Zealand and England. But Pakistan cricket also moves on rapidly. A national T20 has prepared the players, and helped with final squad selection. A new interim coaching team, the unlikely pairing of Matthew Hayden and Vernon Philander, has learnt something of the talent at its disposal. And Ramiz Raja, the new cricket board chairman, has urged his country’s players to settle political scores on the cricket field.
With only two teams qualifying for the semi-finals from each group of six, every match will be important, especially with T20 being the likeliest format to produce a shock result. On paper, Pakistan’s group, including Scotland and Namibia, is the easier one. Afghanistan are capable of upsets, but it is the other two teams that make group qualification particularly difficult.
India and New Zealand are ranked second and fourth respectively, consistent in all formats, and confident in their cricket. Pakistan’s track record against India in world tournaments is abysmal. And as much as India’s cricket strength has grown over the past two decades, Pakistan’s main failing still seems to be a psychological one.
Pakistan are more successful against New Zealand, but this is a different New Zealand team to those of the past. New Zealand are World Test Champions and very capable of winning this tournament. They dominated Pakistan at home in December of last year. But Pakistan’s main problems arose from New Zealand’s pace bowlers, including the height of Kyle Jamieson, and UAE will help negate both those threats.
Pakistan’s confidence will be helped by the consistent form of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. That combination itself could take Pakistan to the trophy, and the easier batting tracks of UAE also mean that the rest of Pakistan’s batting is less exposed. Emerging star, Haider Ali, has a chance to give the world notice of his talent. Fakhar Zaman’s positive play should be rewarded. And Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik have the best opportunity to play a decisive role in a world tournament.
Pakistan’s other jewel is Shaheen Shah Afridi, a world class bowler in all conditions. But support for him is thin. Hassan Ali is still seeking to re-establish himself at the highest level, and Haris Rauf is yet to fully convince as an international bowler. The opportunity is clear, however, for both pace bowlers to impress on the world stage.
It’s here, though, where Pakistan’s formula breaks down. Back up fast bowling options don’t exist in this squad, and Pakistan lack a world class spin bowler. Conditions in UAE will suit spin and a quick glance at the ICC T20 bowler rankings shows that 8 out of the top 10 are spin bowlers. None of these is from Pakistan. T20, a game presumed to kill off spin bowling, has seen spin bowlers establish themselves as the format’s most influential performers. Imad Wasim is the highest ranked Pakistan spinner at number 42.
The tournament, then, will be a tricky one for Pakistan. They will carry the pressure of being expected and having to beat Afghanistan, Scotland, and Namibia, and then face do or die matches against India and New Zealand, both of whom Pakistan have struggled against.
But that doesn’t mean that Pakistan are not capable. Provided Babar, Rizwan, and Shaheen stay fit, Pakistan will be in every game. If they reach the semi-finals then the pressure will be lifted because they will be the first Pakistan team to reach a semi-final in five World T20 tournaments.
With momentum, anything is possible. And that makes this first game against India vitally important. A defeat will leave Pakistan hanging by a thread, but a win will provide the confidence for Pakistan to believe that success in the tournament is genuinely possible. In many ways, given all the upheavals, such a pivotal game has come too early for Pakistan. It is up to the players to find a way, to support their three world class players, and give their country’s people the cricketing honour that they are so hungry for.
Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2021