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Flailing Pakistan, on notice, run into red-hot South Africa | Cricket


Flailing Pakistan, on notice, run into red-hot South Africa | Cricket

There is little chance that Babar Azam would have a ‘cornered tiger’ t-shirt tucked inside his kit bag which he would come out wearing at the toss against South Africa on Friday. But he sure can draw inspiration, watching a rerun of the statement Imran Khan chose to make to Allan Border at the toss, 30 years back. Pakistan find themselves in a situation eerily similar to 1992.

Pakistan's bowler Shaheen Afridi with Babar Azam(PTI)
Pakistan’s bowler Shaheen Afridi with Babar Azam(PTI)

From three points to show and three losses down, Imran’s Pakistan went on to win five matches in a row to lift the World Cup. Azam’s Pakistan now need to win six matches in a row to repeat the feat. Four league matches come first to qualify for the semi-finals; against South Africa, Bangladesh, New Zealand and England.

Imran’s Pakistan had serious firepower though, he only provided the ignition. The former skipper would rhetorically ask senior players in the team meeting if there was anybody better than them. To the younger talent — he would ask Aaqib Javed to bowl bouncers at ‘so and so’, warn Inzamam; he would play or die, send a message to Wasim Akram through newspaper interviews that all he needed to do was to bowl fast.

If there’s any Imran in Azam, now is the time to channel and exhibit. For he has little support from his cricket board. After three losses in a row in the World Cup, the Pakistan Cricket Board issued a statement on Thursday – a public relations disaster – effectively putting Azam’s captaincy on notice.

“Addressing the media scrutiny directed at captain Babar Azam and the team management, the board’s stance, echoing that of former cricketers, is that successes and defeats are part of the game. Captain Babar Azam and Chief Selector Inzamam-ul-Haq were given freedom and support in forming the squad for the ICC World Cup 2023,” it said.

“Looking ahead, the board will make decisions in the best interest of Pakistan cricket based on the team’s performances in the World Cup. At present, the PCB encourages fans, former players and stakeholders to rally behind the team as they strive to make a triumphant comeback in the mega event,” the statement added.

The reactions at home, expectedly, have been anything but soft. Citing the lack of fitness of some players, Akram has poked fun on air, asking if they had been eating 8 kg mutton. Ramiz Raja, former PCB Chairman, has asked for a complete overhaul of team and tactics.

“It’s easy if you don’t listen to them,” vice-captain Shadab Khan told reporters on Thursday when asked if they can shut out the noise. “So, it’s easy because I always talk to the players – because if you came on this type of a tournament you have to cut off from the social media. Because the mentality is that when someone is not in the team, they are the best. When someone is in the team, they are the worst. It’s like that.”

There are cracks within, though, which Pakistan may find difficult to paper over. A visible failing has been that proven T20 performers have struggled to expand their repertoire for a high-level ODI tournament. In three matches, Shadab has scored 34 runs averaging 17 and picked up three wickets at an average of 65. Harris Rauf has sent down some of the most expensive key overs for his eight wickets. Spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi, barring his five-wicket haul in a losing cause against Australia, has been off-colour. Azam, also the leading batter, hasn’t got big runs to show.

Besides, Pakistan play on a spin-friendly Chennai pitch with a spin attack that has been one of the most unproductive in the tournament. They have a collective strike rate of 96.5 for their six wickets.

Also, they run into red-hot South Africa, whose batting power has been the envy of everyone in the tournament. “They are a very good cricket team and they’re full of confidence because they have played well. I know though that if we do our basics and disciplines right, our skills will come out and we can beat anybody,” team director Mickey Arthur, speaking to PCB’s website, tried to stay upbeat.

“Our perfect game is good enough to beat anybody,” he added.

That perfect game hasn’t been there on display even in the two early wins that gave their legion of supporters hope.

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