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April 28, 1999

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High stakes poker

Abdul Hussain

So Javed Miandad has “quit” as Pakistan’s coach. Surprise! Surprise! The minute Wasim Akram became captain of the team, this was always on the cards. Anybody who has read Akram’s autobiography knows that Pakistan’s captain and arguably best ever bolwer has scant respect for unarguably Pakistan’s greatest batsmen, both as an individual and as a cricketer. He does not even include him alongside the greatest players of his time, an honor he reserves for the likes of Graham Gooch etc. So it was obvious that all that was needed was for Akram to achieve some success and feel comfortable in his role, and then he would start calling the shots.

Every successful captain in Pakistan has done this: Imran did it all the time with team selection, even Salim Malik did it when he was captain and Ijaz Ahmed was recalled into the team. In those particular instances, the team actually prospered. Imran is widely acknowledged as one of Pakistan’s best captains, and Ijaz has played many a great innings since his return. Let's hope the same holds true again.

I am a great fan of Miandad’s and I am crushed to see him treated shabbily yet again by Pakistan cricket. But at this point in time, my only interest is seeing Pakistan win the World Cup. Yes, at this point “the end will justify the means”. And the "End” for me, would be nothing less than the Cup itself. For Akram, Khalid Mehmood & co. it maybe at least a semi-final place, anything less and heads will role. And hence the title of this piece.

Akram and Mehmood have ruffled a lot of feathers around Pakistani cricket circles -- if they do not deliver, believe me, there will be a price to pay. Until the 1996 World Cup, Pakistan had reached at least the semi-final stage in the four previous competitions. Yet Wasim’s side, despite playing at home and being one of the most talented, could not make it to the final four. He must realize that mistake cannot be repeated again. After calling the shots to the extent of keeping Sohail out of the side, recalling Waqar and Mushtaq despite dubious form and fitness, and now successfully removing Miandad, Wasim must deliver. No excuse, not the weather, nor fitness or fatigue will do. For him to keep his job and have a shot at Kapil Dev’s record, Pakistan have to reach the semi-final stage. Anything less, and I predict you will see Akram quitting due to “family commitments”.

You may say that the pressure on the team and Akram is unfair, expectations cannot/should not be that high. Well, its too late for that, that is how it is. If you went into a job demanding a big paycheck, complete control over personnel appointments, full power over strategic decisions, then it is only fair for your employers to expect the moon from you, anything less and you may be sitting out on your behind before you know it.

The employers of Wasim Akram and indeed every member of the Pakistan team, are the people of Pakistan, and the World Cup is the single biggest project on hand, success is a must. In order for Pakistan to ensure at least a semi-final appearance, two things have to happen. First, they must win at least one game against the other two qualifiers from Group B in the first round, and second they must win 2 out of 3 games in the “Super Six” round. As long as Pakistan can beat Scotland, Bangladesh and New Zealand (the last one is by no means a certainty) they should make into the Super Six -- however, for a semi-final shot they have to beat either Australia or the West Indies, the other two teams most likely to qualify. Beating Australia at Headingly will be a tough task. Pakistanis usually have a tough time playing at Headingly and against an attack like Australia’s which will rely more on the seam and swing of Fleming, Dale and Reiffel rather than the pace of McGrath, they will find the going even harder.

This means that their first match of the tournament against the West Indies takes on enormous proportions, it is almost like a quarterfinal. Lets hope they play it as such. Most respected cricket writers have been talking about how the conditions in England will require each team to tailor its playing XI to the individual ground conditions and the opponent, unlike the last World Cup in the sub-continent where batsmen friendly pitches were pretty uniform and the same XI could be played over and over again.

West Indies’ strength lies in its bowling. Its batting, like Pakistan’s, is talented but inconsistent. Akhtar, Akram, Mehmood and Saqlain should prove a handful for the West Indian batsmen. On the other hand Walsh and Ambrose are a handful for any batting side in the world, but the West Indian bowling line-up lacks depth and Pakistan should counter this by playing the extra batsmen and having a deeper batting side. Anwar, (Afridi or Wasti), Ijaz, Inzamam, Malik, Youhana, Moin, Azhar, Akram, Saqlain, Akhtar should be Pakistan’s playing XI for this game.

I would go with Afridi only because it is the first match of the tournament, you still won’t be able to know quite what he can accomplish with the bat, plus he along with Malik will have to play the role of the 5th bowler. Finally, unlike Wasti he at least has the benefit of having played the West Indies quicks in the past. So Messrs. Akram, Mehmood et al, the game is on, the stakes are enormous, you've placed your bets and now it is time to deliver.

Otherwise, as you know, the demands of "family commitments" can suddenly get to you...

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