Eleven points and wins against three teams ranked higher than them. If you had offered Pakistan, or their fans, that at the start of the tournament they’d have jumped at that. If you’d offered them that at the start of June, with the humiliation against the West Indies being the 12th ODI in their winless streak, they would have bitten your arm off, if they had somehow managed to believe that offer. And yet despite all that Pakistan end the tournament with regrets and what-ifs. It was a tournament that was an over-achievement, and yet not enough to satisfy or qualify for the knockouts.
In the end, it appears the ideal end to the World Cup for Pakistan — they’ve done enough to leave with their heads high, there isn’t a single team that has knocked them out, and their fans and media have enough grievances to fuel them until the next major event. Everyone gets something they desired.
There’s a lot the national team can take from this World Cup. Pakistan had one of the youngest squads in the tournament — nine of the 15 who were in the squad hadn’t even made their international debuts by the 2015 World Cup — and the success of many of those young men is something that Pakistan can build on. And yet there are questions for Pakistan to answer in the aftermath of this, questions they’ll probably try and sweep under the carpet, considering their past record.
Foremost among the positives is the arrival of Babar Azam at the global stage. In his first World Cup, the young Lahori scored more runs than any Pakistani has ever scored in a multi-nation tournament. He might only be 24 but he’s already the best white-ball batsman Pakistan have had since Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf were lording the middle overs. Going into this tournament, there were questions over both his strike rate and his ability to score big in pressure situations. Many of those concerns were washed away by his century against New Zealand. Considering that after a poor start to his Test career he’s averaged over fifty in that format over the last 18 months, there is at least one thing Pakistan can bank on going forward.
Then there’s the rebirth of Mohammad Amir. Not the prince who was promised, but a fast bowling wizard who relies on his smarts and skills over traditional Pakistani virtues like pace or swing. For most of this decade, Pakistan have struggled with the leader of their pace bowling unit — whether it was Junaid Khan, Mohammad Irfan, or Wahab Riaz — not since Umar Gul has a Pakistani pacer been comfortable with the leading role instead of a supporting one. Amir, temperamentally, is best suited to that position, but his performances outside of England in the past few years have not been up to the mark. Perhaps this World Cup can be a turning point for him — he’ll never be the bowler he promised to be before his ban, but even a reduced version is something Pakistan wouldn’t mind as long as it’s an effective one. He was supposed to be the next Wasim Akram, but Pakistan wouldn’t mind him being the next Zaheer Khan or Chaminda Vaas right now.
And while Wahab Riaz might be in the autumn of his career — although with him you never know, he might be part of the 2023 World Cup squad at the last minute too — the likes of Shadab and Hassan have shown Pakistan have enough to build a white-ball attack around. And then there’s Shaheen, who has gone from looking like the sacrificial lamb to the wolf in Pakistan’s pack as the tournament has progressed. After all the concerns over the past 12 months, it’s as per Pakistani tradition — the bowling isn’t the problem.
And as per tradition, many of the concerns are to do with batting. While Imam-ul-Haq was able to score a hundred in the final win against Bangladesh, there are questions over the opening pair which appeared to be one of the strengths going into the World Cup. Both Imam and Fakhar scored big hundreds in the bilateral series against England immediately before the World Cup, but the story of their tournament was one of failure to convert starts. Seven of the first ten innings the duo played in the tournament had them cross 20, but none of those went as far as 65. This was followed by several failures until the final game, by which stage their runs could no longer affect the outcome of Pakistan’s journey. Considering that in this tournament, the top nine run-scorers were all top-3 batsmen, two of Pakistan’s top three not playing up to the mark probably cost them a semi-final spot.
Then there’s Sarfraz Ahmed; like his team, you can make conclusions regarding him in both extremes. On the one hand, he is the inspirational captain who has twice led Pakistan to winning streaks in tournaments, on the other, he is a liability who wouldn’t make the XI if he wasn’t the captain. He is the captain who has led Pakistan to number 1 in the T20 rankings despite question marks over his suitability to the format, he is the one who has led Pakistan to two over-achieving tournaments in the 2017 Champions Trophy and this World Cup. Yet he is also the captain who was outscored by pretty much every one of his contemporaries. Among captains, only Mashrafe Mortaza scored fewer runs.
But neither Sarfaraz nor the openers are to blame if Pakistan truly want a post-mortem. Continuing to have faith in Shoaib Malik even when all data and logic pointed against it; continuing to play Mohammad Hafeez in the top-4 when he was far better suited lower down the order; these are things that have cost Pakistan. Reportedly, Hafeez was asked to bat lower in the order but refused to do so. That is a far bigger issue than any lack of talent — a culture that celebrates seniority to the point that a senior can sabotage the success of a team based on mere whims is what Pakistan have to change.
For now, though, Pakistan will just have to survive a phase of paranoia where everyone believes that the world is out to get them, and there are conspiracies hatched by everyone else specifically against Pakistan. Beyond that, a newer, hopefully better, domestic structure and the slow return of international cricket to Pakistan means that we may have passed the nadir by now. But considering it’s Pakistan, expect all this optimism to come crashing down with a scarcely believable scandal. For now, though, Pakistan can celebrate, or wonder about the what-ifs — whatever suits them.