Battle of the unpredictables


Unpredictability is the key word defining the first Pakistan and the West Indies quarterfinal match of the World Cup 2011 at Dhaka on Wednesday. The greenshirts can be termed the undisputed kings of fickleness on the basis of their many high and low performances over the years, but the West Indies do not lag far behind in the roller-coaster department.
Both the teams are crammed with talent, sometimes verging on genius, but playing for the team or as a certain situation demands, are not their forte. Individual glory by playing to the gallery is their driving force, the joyful roar of appreciative spectators their addictive drug. The once dreaded Caribbean outfit has been plagued by the defection of top domestic talent to other sports, repeated player rebellions and financial constraints.
Indeed, it is a modern-day cricketing marvel that individuals from a sporting confederation of 15 countries, each with its own culture and disparate degree of social and political development can gel together under one banner. Erratic form is a double-edged weapon. On their day, both the teams are capable of the most amazing feats, the sky’s the limit on those unforgettable occasions, but on their notorious days, the end feeling among the fans is to find a deep hole to crawl in and stay put for a couple of months.
Or to never again watch a match involving the home side, a New Year -type of pledge all too easily forgotten at the outbreak of the next ‘rubber’. If aggression and risk-taking exemplified (or should have) the league stage of the tournament, when losing did not mean the next flight home, the elimination phase demands a different approach. The knockout matches are played as much (if indeed, not more so) in the mind as on the field.
The fear of a sudden exit after all the energy and effort made in reaching that juncture, preys heavily on the mind. So the key card for success in this period will be the ‘keep cool, keep calm’ card to stabilize the situation if things start to go badly. On the other hand, a panicky mindset will trigger a complete collapse, a total rout, as happened in the 1999 final.
This essentially means that the Pakistani batsmen, and in particular, the openers need to play responsibly (not a Greek word!) and provide a solid start to the innings for a change. A foundation to build upon, minus the fear and anxiety of quickly lost wickets. Theirs has been a woeful performance so far, the weakest link in the chain.
The opening duo of Mohammad Hafeez-Ahmed Shehzad averaged only 15.4 runs in the first five matches, and with Kamran Akmal in the slot, the first wicket produced a measly 12 runs in the last league match with the Aussies. Indeed, not one Pakistani batsman figures in the top 10 at this point, the tell-tale sign that the batting has not clicked. This collective loss of batting form is the major obstacle in the team’s further progress.
But, happily, in the bowling department, Shahid Afridi leads the pack with 17 wickets and Umar Gul is also in the list of highest wicket- takers with 13. A productive opening stand in each of the next matches may well turn out to be the thin red line between eventual victory and defeat, between holding the coveted Trophy or the long four-year wait for another grab at the title.
But if Pakistan persists with the same opening pair of Mohammad Hafeez and Kamran Akmal, the latter’s style of high-risk shot selection does not augur well for any improvement for the opening wicket. Unless of course, his Windies counterpart does a ‘Kamran Akmal’ himself, lets him off twice and misses a stumping behind the wickets. But that is hardly likely to happen in the real world.
Also to be avoided at all cost is skipper Shahid Afridi throwing away his wicket in the manner he did against Australia. This irresponsible gifting of a crucial wicket provides a big boost to the opponents’ cause, as well as denting the morale of the entire home side. So playing responsibly and not losing one’s cool are of the essence from now on. Thankfully, we do have our own ‘Mr Cool’ in young Asad Shafiq with his focused and calculated approach to batting. If only there were a couple more of his stamp in the Pakistan squad.
The team put on a much improved fielding display in their last league match, and this includes Kamran Akmal behind the stumps. But the throwing was not up to the mark and a couple of possible run-out opportunities were missed. That Pakistan was able to avoid the ‘hospitality’ and the tender mercies of the Shiv Sena crowd is also a good omen. Hopefully, the raucous Dhaka Stadium crowd will back the greenshirts to the hilt, now that the Bangla tigers have crashed out of the fray.
The date of the match is also auspicious. March 23 is Pakistan Day and since everything associated with the Resolution of March 23, 1940 has gone terribly wrong, perhaps a win would bring some smiles on faces with lined foreheads and inflamed eyes. A much-needed Pakistan Day present, a little something to lighten the gloom. But, in the battle between two sides who are the very epitome of unpredictability, no predictions of the outcome are possible or forthcoming.
‘Only the event will tell us in its hour’, as the poet Robert Browning wrote. The same poet also said of his poetry that at the time he wrote it ‘only God and I knew what I was writing about. Now, only God knows’! Indeed, neither any of the teams, nor the pundits, or (hopefully) the bookmakers know what will transpire on March 23 in Dhaka. Only the Almighty knows.