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March 27, 1999


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Passion play!

Harsha Bhogle

The unpredictables of world cricket, the wild talents of the east, are coming together and I must say it is starting to look like their untamed passion could overwhelm the favourites at the World Cup.

The enemy for Pakistan has always been within; their opponents have been in their dressing rooms, not in the adjacent ones, and their hearts, proud and feudal like medieval kings, have always ruled their heads.

The experts have often said that Pakistan's performance depends on which side of the bed they get out of. It looks at the moment that the wrong side of the bed is stuck to the wall and there is only the right side for them, these days.

 Celebration time
Their performances in the last couple of months have been inspiring and -- something that should worry opponents -- they have been consistent. More important, they have won close matches, and that brings teams together like nothing else can. They won a thriller in Chennai and they won at Calcutta from 26 for 6 on the first morning. When that happens, teams start to back themselves -- and seeing Pakistan in the field recently, you get the feeling they are backing themselves to the limit.

Traditionally, with teams from the sub-continent, and particularly with Pakistan, the performance curve fluctuates wildly both sides of the potential curve. That is suggestive of talented but disorganised sides. With teams like Australia, South Africa or even New Zealand, the performance curve matches the potential curve quite closely and so you know what to expect. That is why they are like good machines.

 Aamir Sohail
Pakistan, in recent times, have made a dramatic shift from playing way below potential to playing on par or even above it. And I believe the event that triggered it off was the appointment of Wasim Akram as captain. Under Aamir Sohail, a mercurial, short-tempered man, they were a divided lot, hurling abuse and allegation at each other and hoping to win matches together. It cannot happen. The facade of unity can never last. Pakistan did not even to pretend to have one.

Then somebody in Pakistan cricket awoke to the presence of one of the world's most respected cricketers in their midst. Wasim Akram was being buffetted by events in Pakistan when he was offered the captaincy again. That he was offered it is in itself an indicator of how wildly things can change there.

 Wasim Akram
Akram had just a few individual goals to pursue in world cricket, and he had proved his ability so often that he didn't really need to convince anyone of what he could do on a cricket ground. But as captain, there was a lot to be done. For a start, he had to erase a little page in Pakistan history that said he wasn't a very successful captain. To do that, Pakistan had to win under him and that must have lit a fire in him. Watching him on the field,you can see that the fire is now raging wildly.

That fire has in turn re-ignited the career of Wasim Akram the cricketer as well. With Akram as captain therefore, Pakistan cricket got a double deal! He now leads a bowling attack that is perhaps the most complete in world cricket, and seems to have a bowler for every situation.

 Saqlain Mushtaq
That will be crucial at the World Cup because if, as is widely predicted, it becomes a relatively low-scoring event, the strike bowler will become more important. And apart from Wasim, Pakistan have Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Saqlain Mushtaq. Their back-up is pretty inspiring as well. Azhar Mahmood, Abdur Razzak and Shahid Nazir bowling seam-up and Mushtaq Ahmad and Arshad Khan bowling spin.

The bowlers, therefore, will lead Pakistan's challenge to the World Cup, and they must know that they will be very well supported behind the stumps by Moin Khan.
 Moin Khan
He may not be the world's most gifted wicket-keeper but he is quite the most inspiring. A wonderful team-man and, in spite of some truly amazing innings, an under-rated batsman, Moin will be the first of three all-rounders that form such a solid bridge for Pakistan between the top order and the tail. Moin plays a very good supporting role to the lead batsmen, but it is with the tail, where he is in command, that he is really at his best.

 Saeed Anwar
But Pakistan will not want him to come in to bat too early and for that to happen, the top order will have to bat solidly. That is not one of their strengths. Flamboyance is, and that may not be the best attribute to possess. Today, Pakistan depend too much on a flier from Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi, and if one of them goes early, which is always on the cards when Afridi is batting, they seem to struggle.

It must also worry them that Anwar seems to carry an increasingly fragile look to him. He doesn't always look like a fit and healthy man, and seems a little too prone to sickness for comfort. In recent times he has looked a tired man once he has got past sixty or seventy. I am not sure a captain can do too much about that, but without a fit Anwar, Pakistan will struggle with the bat.

 Inzamam ul Huq
There is one thing that Akram can do, though, and that is to inspire Inzamam ul Huq to play a bigger role for Pakistan. For a player so richly talented, Inzamam has been in a bit of a slumber and the powerful matchwinning innings are becoming a little infrequent. He is the calm in the centre of the storm that Pakistan cricket so frequently resembles. With most teams, that might have been a good sign, but Pakistan rarely travel well on calm waters. Inzamam has broad shoulders, and if Akram puts a slightly higher load on them, I am sure they will stand up to it.

Wasim Akram likes lifting trophies in England. As captain of Lancashire last year, he posed with two of them. That might well have been the rehearsal. The real one is not too far away, as long as he lets the passion of Pakistan cricket flow on.

Harsha Bhogle

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