Pakistan’s first four matches in this edition of the World Cup are probably the best examples of their historic fickleness as a cricket team. Significantly, it is not their fortunes alone which oscillate like a pendulum; it is the very performance of their cricketers that fluctuates from the sublime to the ridiculous.
If at all there is any consistency that could be associated with their cricket, it is in their pedestrian fielding where dropped catches and misfields play out regularly like a signature tune.
Verily, as the Pakistan team girds up its loins to take on arch-rivals India at the Old Trafford on Sunday, the question uppermost in all Indian and Pakistani cricket fans’ mind is: Which Pakistan team would turn up on the day?
Would it be the one that was blown away by the West Indies for a pathetic 105 runs in their opening match, or the one that ambushed favourites England by scoring an impressive 348 for 8?
These apart, Pakistan also had the ignominy of imploding in helpful conditions against Australia. To make matters worse, their match against the relatively weak Sri Lankan team was abandoned due to rains.
Indeed Pakistan’s stock was sky-high after they outplayed England in only their second match of the World Cup. That was the game in which Pakistan’s top and middle order batsmen showed rare consistency as the top five batsmen all put English attack to the sword.
It was a dream start to the match when dogged left-hander Imam-ul Haq dug in while fellow opener Fakhar Zaman and number three Babar Azam batted a lot more freely. Veteran Mohammad Hafeez (84 in 62 balls) and skipper Sarfraz Ahmed (55 in 44 balls) capitalised on the solid foundation to serve England a rude wake-up call on their home turf. England lost by 14 runs.
Importantly, Pakistan’s varied pace attack had stood up to the challenge from England’s explosive batting depth and made the victory an extremely ominous one.
But, Pakistan being Pakistan, showed they were just as apt to let slip the advantage as they a made a hash of the game against Australia.
Pakistan had everything going for them. They won the toss and inserted Australia on a pitch that had some juice in it. The Aussies were down after their loss to India and hence Pakistan had a great opportunity of making the toss count for something.
But their pace bowlers, barring left-arm seamer Mohammad Amir, sprayed the ball around or overstepped. When they got their act together and induced false strokes, the slips and outfielders dropped catches.
Certainly, no team can afford to give a batsman of David Warner’s calibre second and third chances as he emphasised in his match-winning knock of 107.
Pakistan, when they batted, had their chances to make a real fist of it. But like in the match against West Indies, a constant barrage of short-pitched deliveries accounted for most of their batsmen. They ended up gifting their wickets at inopportune times to go down tamely.
India’s foe on Sunday will be complacency and they would need to remind themselves that each match is a new one. While Pakistan’s batting can be as fickle as the English weather — bright and sunny one moment and drab, damp and depressing the next — it has the depth and ability to take a toll on India’s bowlers.
The left-handed Imam would be the glue at the top and others, the aggressive Fakhar Zaman and Babar would strive to bat around him. Pakistanis never tire of telling the world that Babar is their answer to Virat Kohli. Never mind that his tally of 2854 ODI runs is a far cry from Kohli’s 10943 runs.
Veteran Hafeez showed against England and Australia (84 and 46) that he could be handy while Sarfraz Ahmed is a busy player. Asif Ali, who is yet to fire, is supposedly their power hitter down the order where with the other veteran, Shoaib Malik, and tail, Hasan Ali and Wahab Riaz, he is expected to strike a few powerful blows.
India, considering that Pakistan’s batsmen have floundered against the pace of West Indies and Australia, might well bank on a four-prong pace attack, with Mohammed Shami coming in for spinner Kuldeep Yadav.
India also need to be guarded against the Pakistan new-ball attack where left-arm pacer Amir could bend the ball back to test Rohit Sharma in particular. The others, Hasan Ali, a slippery fast bowler who tends to skid the ball through, and Wahab Riaz, a highly competitive and aggressive left-arm seamer, need watching out for.
Amir struck the ideal back-of-length while bowling with the old ball against Australia. India’s batsmen can expect more of the same from him. He is a wily customer who can shape the ball away or bring it back as warranted.
Pakistan will depend excessively on their varied pace attack to try and make inroads into the Indian line-up where, in the absence of the injured Shikhar Dhawan, the others would need to dig deep to ensure that they are the ones who play better on the day.
After all, in India-Pakistan matches, wherever they are played and under whatever conditions, it is players and teams handling the pressure that could chart the outcome. Pressure could be the greatest ally or foe, both individually and collectively. But if India harnesses it successfully, as it has against Pakistan for a while now, it could well make every post a winning one.