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Two weeks away on holiday, and I come back to find Pakistan on a real roll. Winning the World Twenty20 was a remarkable achievement, but if they tame Sri Lanka away from home in a Test series, that will rank even higher. Playing with three debutants in Mohammad Aamer, Abdur Rauf and Saeed Ajmal, they’re perfectly placed to take a big step towards that, needing to chase down just 168 for victory.
And what can you say about Mohammad Yousuf? All that time away, months wasted with the Indian Cricket League and the various contract issues that dogged him, and then he comes back with another Test century. Sheer class. Mind you, if Pakistan win, against a side missing Muttiah Muralitharan, it won’t really be a surprise. Sri Lanka have been nearly unbeatle at home for most teams, but not for Pakistan, who won with a measure of comfort in 2000 [Wasim Akram led the way] and again three years ago as Mohammad Asif scuttled Lankan hopes with a stunning spell in Kandy.

Two weeks away on holiday, and I come back to find Pakistan on a real roll. Winning the World Twenty20 was a remarkable achievement, but if they tame Sri Lanka away from home in a Test series, that will rank even higher. Playing with three debutants in Mohammad Aamer, Abdur Rauf and Saeed Ajmal, they’re perfectly placed to take a big step towards that, needing to chase down just 168 for victory.

And what can you say about Mohammad Yousuf? All that time away, months wasted with the Indian Cricket League and the various contract issues that dogged him, and then he comes back with another Test century. Sheer class. Mind you, if Pakistan win, against a side missing Muttiah Muralitharan, it won’t really be a surprise. Sri Lanka have been nearly unbeatle at home for most teams, but not for Pakistan, who won with a measure of comfort in 2000 [Wasim Akram led the way] and again three years ago as Mohammad Asif scuttled Lankan hopes with a stunning spell in Kandy.

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If you didn’t think Twenty20 was an Asian sport, you know the truth now. In South Africa two years ago, India and Pakistan contested a dazzling final. Now, Pakistan are back to try and clear the final hurdle, but instead of the Indians, they will face a wonderfully accomplished Sri Lankan side that have yet to be beaten in the competition. The Sri Lankans were pushed hardest by Ireland of all teams, but Pakistan will no doubt remember how they went toe-to-toe with them for much of their Super-Eights encounter.
This second semi-final was a tale of two innings, neither particularly well supported, but it was no contest to speak of. Pakistan had made a powerful statement of intent at Trent Bridge, and a day later at The Oval it was Sri Lanka’s turn to showcase their bowling might. The Twenty20 format hasn’t seen a bowling attack like this, and it will be fascinating to see how Pakistan’s batsmen go against them in the final.
As fabulous as Sri Lanka’s bowlers were though, there would have been no total to defend without the greatest innings ever played in a T20 international. Tillakaratne Dilshan had shown during the IPL why he’s the world’s most improved batsman and on a stage where the West Indians traditionally love to strut their stuff, he wrenched the game away from them with an innings that combined brute force, finesse and considerable nous. While Sanath Jayasuriya struggled horribly at the other end, Dilshan clobbered 12 fours and two sixes, maintaining a terrific tempo right through the innings. It took him 30 balls to score his half-century, and but for Angelo Matthews cornering the strike in the final over, a century was on the cards. It didn’t matter. The 96 was worth far more, as Sri Lanka finished with a score that Kumar Sangakkara would have been more than confident of defending.
Much has been made of the Muralitharan-Mendis-Malinga triumvirate, and with good reason, but today it was the fourth M, Mathews, that killed off West Indian hopes in the very first over. Xavier Marshall and Dwayne Bravo both played on, while Lendl Simmons moved too far across and lost his leg stump. Whatever Chris Gayle did afterwards, and he did finish with 63 from 50 balls, was a bit like spit in the rain. Murali wasn’t particularly economical, going for 29 while taking three wickets, but Mendis was once again nearly unplayable, taking 2 for 9.
Malinga went for a few before returning to end the innings with a searing yorker, but it was Mathews that deserved the most plaudits for his four-over stint that cost just 16 runs. He doesn’t do much with the ball, but his accuracy and a happy knack of taking wickets at opportune times has pushed Farveez Maharoof to the periphery.
When asked to preview the event, I picked Sri Lanka, but such have been the travails of Pakistan cricket that it would be a stone-hearted man that didn’t wish them well. It will be a real contrast in styles, with Sri Lankan consistency up against Pakistan’s mavericks. The heart says the mavericks will prevail, but the head is set on the Lankans, who have been different class all tournament.

If you didn’t think Twenty20 was an Asian sport, you know the truth now. In South Africa two years ago, India and Pakistan contested a dazzling final. Now, Pakistan are back to try and clear the final hurdle, but instead of the Indians, they will face a wonderfully accomplished Sri Lankan side that have yet to be beaten in the competition. The Sri Lankans were pushed hardest by Ireland of all teams, but Pakistan will no doubt remember how they went toe-to-toe with them for much of their Super-Eights encounter.

This second semi-final was a tale of two innings, neither particularly well supported, but it was no contest to speak of. Pakistan had made a powerful statement of intent at Trent Bridge, and a day later at The Oval it was Sri Lanka’s turn to showcase their bowling might. The Twenty20 format hasn’t seen a bowling attack like this, and it will be fascinating to see how Pakistan’s batsmen go against them in the final.

As fabulous as Sri Lanka’s bowlers were though, there would have been no total to defend without one of the greatest innings ever played in a T20 international. (more…)

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I had goosebumps walking back from Younis Khan’s press conference. There was bedlam in the streets outside Trent Bridge – car horns blaring, klaxons, guys leaning out of car windows waving flags, traffic at a standstill. Pakistan are the outcasts of international cricket, for reasons way beyond the players’ and fans’ control, and you couldn’t help but be chuffed for them. Soon after the match, I’d had a good laugh as I spotted a placard that read: “Cost of match ticket: £40, Cost of replica shirt: £20, India going home: Priceless.” After two years of putting up with Indian gloating, the lead-toed boot is on the other foot, and the chants of “Pakistan zindabad” will probably still break Nottingham’s night-time silence for a few hours yet.
In the city associated with Robin Hood, Pakistan came out and played like merry men, with an intensity that had been absent from their performances until they hammered New Zealand. No one illustrated that desire better than Shahid Afridi, whose uselessness with the bat in recent times has been in stark contrast to his brilliance with the bat. But sent in at No.3 and given license to express himself, he caught South Africa cold. It would be simplistic to say that his assault on Johan Botha changed the game, but it did ensure that the two-pronged spin attack that had been so lethal against India wouldn’t be repeated here.
South Africa battled back superbly with the ball, with Wayne Parnell in particular showing the composure of a wizened veteran after being walloped for 14 in his first over. Once Pakistan were kept below 150, South Africa were favourites, but there’s something about them in the really big games that makes you wonder if they ever will break that big-cup hoodoo. Graeme Smith was flat and with Jacques Kallis so orthodox in his approach, they really needed someone to be inventive against the spinners. Perhaps they missed a trick by not promoting Mark Boucher.
Kallis and JP Duminy added 61, but by the time Kallis departed, after being riled by what Afridi called a “flying kiss”, the asking-rate needed Gary Sobers rather than Albie Morkel. And after Afridi had starred with a super spell of 2 for 16, Umar Gul was impeccable at the death, sending down yorkers almost at will. Faced with a side that raised their game immeasurably for the big occasion, South Africa had no answers. At least it wasn’t as embarrassing as the 50-over World Cup semi-final two years ago, when Glenn McGrath and friends ended the contest before most punters could grab a beer.
Afterwards, Younis was asked why Pakistan couldn’t be consistent. “Look at the situation in our country,” he said. “It’s not at all stable. Why do you expect cricketers to be any different?” It was perhaps said in jest, but he has a valid point. Like a coin, you just can’t predict which side will turn up.

I had goosebumps walking back from Younis Khan’s press conference. There was bedlam in the streets outside Trent Bridge – car horns blaring, klaxons, guys leaning out of car windows waving flags, traffic at a standstill. Pakistan are the outcasts of international cricket, for reasons way beyond the players’ and fans’ control, and you couldn’t help but be chuffed for them. Soon after the match, I’d had a good laugh as I spotted a placard that read: “Cost of match ticket: £40, Cost of replica shirt: £20, India going home: Priceless.” After two years of putting up with Indian gloating, the lead-toed boot is on the other foot, and the chants of “Pakistan zindabad” will probably still break Nottingham’s night-time silence for a few hours yet.

In the city associated with Robin Hood, Pakistan came out and played like merry men, with an intensity that had been absent from their performances until they hammered New Zealand. No one illustrated that desire better than Shahid Afridi, whose uselessness with the bat in recent times has been in stark contrast to his brilliance with the ball. But sent in at No.3 and given license to express himself, he caught South Africa cold. It would be simplistic to say that his assault on Johan Botha changed the game, but it did ensure that the two-pronged spin attack that had been so lethal against India wouldn’t be repeated here. (more…)

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As Pakistan take their place in the semi-finals at the World Twenty20, it’s a good time to recognise that the team’s success is inspite of the system, which is just about as rotten as can be. Read this fine interview with Geoff Lawson, conducted by Pakpassion’s Saj Sadiq, where the former coach talks about poor administration, his experiences with a young side and the infuriating Shoaib Akhtar.

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Like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, the Pakistan cricket team’s behaviour is impossible to predict. Against England and Sri Lanka, they were horrid, especially with the bat, but against the Netherlands they were good. Today, at The Oval against fancied New Zealand, they were very good indeed. Barring another unimaginable Irish upset though, it’s safe to say that Pakistani fans can start looking at semi-final tickets.
This was as clinical a performance as anyone could have hoped for. And it should have surprised no one that the catalyst for it was a rebel. Abdul Razzaq hasn’t played for Pakistan since throwing in his lot with the Indian Cricket League and it was only injuries to Sohail Tanvir and Yasir Arafat that saw him being called up after he had torn up the ICL contract. A decade ago, Razzaq was a young star as Pakistan went all the way to a World Cup final against Australia. These days, he bowls about 10km/hr slower, but his cleverness was a big factor in a superb bowling performance after Mohammad Aamer had started the innings poorly. Razzaq had Brendon McCullum caught at point off his fourth delivery and he bowled a maiden on his way to figures of 2 for 17.
With an experienced hand ensuring that the new ball wasn’t wasted, Umar Gul was in his element with the older ball. New Zealand’s middle and lower order had no answer whatsoever to wicked reverse-swung yorkers as they went from 73 for 4 to 99 all out. Gul’s contribution was 5 for 6 from  three overs, and he was twice on a hat-trick. In faraway Kolkata, some would no doubt have wondered how much different the Knight Riders’ IPL campaign might have been if one of the world’s best T20 bowlers had been involved.
Statistically, it was the best spell ever in a T20 international, and it gave Pakistan much leeway in the net run-rate stake in a group that might not be as straightforward as some people think. But for some slipshod batting – horrid, to go back to the poem – the margin of victory should have been even more emphatic.
You could have said the same for South Africa earlier in the day. With Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Herschelle Gibbs batting as though they were having a net, a total in excess of 200 seemed possible. But Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor bowled superbly in the final stages to keep the vaunted middle order in check. A target of 184 might have been surpassed had Chris Gayle and a couple of others got going. But apart from an exceptional innings from Lendl Simmons [77 from 50 balls], only two West Indians got to double figures, and neither went past 20. Like the girl with the curl, West Indies too deal in extremes.
Credit to South Africa though. Dale Steyn was fast and accurate and Roelof van der Merwe is a bruiser trapped in a spin bowler’s body. And they have a star in the making in Wayne Parnell. One of the best performers at the Under-19 World Cup last year, Parnell has made the transition to senior level without too many hitches, and today he finished with 4 for 13. The semi-finals loom large now, and the main challenge for the South Africans will be to avoid the mental glitches that have stymied them in big tournaments ever since they returned from isolation. The quality of their players and the form-guide both make them big favourites, but things are seldom so simple in a World Cup. Just ask Pakistan, who go from 0 to 60, and from 60 to 0 so rapidly that it can make the head spin.

Like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, the Pakistan cricket team’s behaviour is impossible to predict. Against England and Sri Lanka, they were horrid, especially with the bat, but against the Netherlands they were good. Today, at The Oval against fancied New Zealand, they were very good indeed. Barring another unimaginable Irish upset, it’s safe to say that Pakistani fans can start looking at semi-final tickets.

This was as clinical a performance as anyone could have hoped for. And it should have surprised no one that the catalyst for it was a rebel. Abdul Razzaq hasn’t played for Pakistan since throwing in his lot with the Indian Cricket League and it was only injuries to Sohail Tanvir and Yasir Arafat that saw him being called up after he had torn up his ICL contract. A decade ago, Razzaq was a young star as Pakistan went all the way to a World Cup final against Australia. These days, he bowls about 10km/hr slower, but his cleverness was a big factor in a superb bowling performance after Mohammad Aamer had started the innings poorly. Razzaq had Brendon McCullum caught at point off his fourth delivery and he bowled a maiden on his way to figures of 2 for 17.

With an experienced hand ensuring that the new ball wasn’t wasted, Umar Gul was in his element with the older ball. (more…)

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The Indians fans that had come early to Lord’s whooped it up in the early part of the afternoon, as Pakistan stumbled badly in pursuit of a modest Sri Lankan total. But any Pakistani supporters that stayed back for the later game soon got their chance for payback as West Indies produced a high-class performance to push India toward the abyss. Lendl Simmons took a mind-boggling catch to dismiss Gautam Gambhir and then batted beautifully for 44, but it was Dwayne Bravo that took the game away, following up 4 for 38 with a dazzling 36-ball 66.

At one stage, the required rate was climbing up to 10, but Bravo cut loose with some gorgeous orthodox strokes, targetting the straight boundary and cover with equal fluency. India lost it in two overs, with Ishant Sharma giving up 16 and Harbhajan 15 in the 17th and 18th overs of the innings. India had done well to take the game that far, but ultimately they paid the price for the poorest of starts. Having slumped to 29 for 3, they were then marooned in treacle for eight overs as the bowlers frustrated Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni. Dhoni’s 11 spanned 23 balls, and it was left to Yuvraj to inject some urgency with some stunning shots in the final overs.

Yusuf Pathan chipped in as well, but you always sensed that they were 10 or 15 short. (more…)

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He may be a dud with the bat these days, but Pakistan can thank Shahid Afridi’s powers with the ball for their safe progress into the Super Eights. With Saeed Ajmal offering superb support, Pakistan were far too strong for the Netherlands who discovered that lightning doesn’t strike twice, not at an event of this magnitude. So, despite the pathetic showing against England, Pakistan are into the business end of the competition, and two wins against Ireland, New Zealand and Sri Lanka should be enough to seal a semi-final place. A lot depends on the remaining matches and which teams take bonus points into that phase. Pakistan won’t, but having no margin for error they might play their best cricket as they did today.

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As press conferences go, this was one of the more bizarre ones. “It won’t be a disaster even if we exit before the Super Eights,” said Younis Khan. “It would be sad if we don’t make it, but I have never attached too much importance to Twenty20 cricket, as it is fun cricket. I mean it is more for entertainment, even if it is international cricket. It is all for the crowd. Twenty20 is all about fun. Everybody expects players to come out and entertain.”
Interesting viewpoint. Last I heard, there was a World Cup on, the same competition in which Pakistan reached the final two years ago. Also, most of the Pakistani fans are not on IPL salaries like Younis was in 2008. The cheapest adult ticket at The Oval was £30, not a trifling sum of money. Was Younis implying that those fans, who cheered themselves hoarse all night, may have been better off seeking “entertainment” at the local cinema?
Oh, and next time you mention the E word, please live up to it. Watching Pakistan snooze their way to 137 was about as entertaining as watching a dentist extract teeth.

As press conferences go, this was one of the more bizarre ones. “It won’t be a disaster even if we exit before the Super Eights,” said Younis Khan. “It would be sad if we don’t make it, but I have never attached too much importance to Twenty20 cricket, as it is fun cricket. I mean it is more for entertainment, even if it is international cricket. It is all for the crowd. Twenty20 is all about fun. Everybody expects players to come out and entertain.”

Interesting viewpoint. Last I heard, there was a World Cup on, the same competition in which Pakistan reached the final two years ago. Also, most of the Pakistani fans are not on IPL salaries like Younis was in 2008. The cheapest adult ticket at The Oval was £30, not a trifling sum of money. Was Younis implying that those fans, who cheered themselves hoarse all night, may have been better off seeking “entertainment” at the local cinema?

Oh, and next time you mention the E word, please live up to it. Watching Pakistan snooze their way to 137 was about as entertaining as watching a dentist extract teeth.

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There was a time, not so long ago, when Pakistan cricket embodied skill, glamour and a fierce mongrel spirit. Those were the days when its scripts were written by the brothers Grimm or Yabo Yablonsky of Escape to victory fame. Now, the stories are a lot more bleak, and in some cases, like at The Oval today, not even worth watching. To dignify the 48-run capitulation against England as a “performance” would be to trivialise the word and to insult generations of great cricketers who have worn the Pakistani colours with such pride. This was a shambles, and barring an extraordinary meltdown from the courageous Dutch, Pakistan, who pushed India all the way in the inaugural World Twenty20, won’t even make the Super Eight.
They don’t deserve to either. Everything about Pakistan cricket stinks of decay and the team’s performances are a mere reflection of that. Let’s start with the administrators. When not humiliating senior players by making public private medical reports, they stop the players from competing in the domestic Twenty20 competition. Remember that Pakistan were the only major cricketing nation whose players had nothing to do with the second season of the IPL. But while the key India, Sri Lankan and South African players warmed up for this competition with at least 12 games each, the Pakistanis were asked to skip their own competition. Preparation, eh? Who needs that?
And with all due respect to Intikhab Alam, a great player from an era long gone, and Younis Khan, a thoroughly nice bloke, the tactics made a skunk’s scent look pleasant. Yasir Arafat is a decent cricketer, a good option as a first or second-change bowler given his experience of English conditions. Nothing more. The very idea of him taking the new ball for a country that has produced some of the world’s greatest fast bowlers is nothing short of preposterous. Mohammad Amir will have better days than he did today, but at least he looks like a new-ball bowler. Arafat never will be one.
Any team can get whacked around a little during the Power Play, but the better ones come back by creating pressure in the field, by harrying batsmen looking for singles in the circles, taking catches and throwing down the stumps. Pakistan’s fielding, by contrast, is a throwback to the days when princes stood around sleep-addled from too much lunch, and then politely walked to the boundary rope to pick up a ball that had just been hit past them. They catch like the ball might detonate at any minute and the less said about attempts to stop it, the better. You see better fielding sides in grade cricket in Australia, and in the northern leagues in England. You can make all the excuses you want about the difficulty in picking the ball out of the background at The Oval, but you can rest assured that the team that wins the title on June 21st won’t be treating the cricket ball like a foreign object.
That brings us to an even sadder tale, of the batsman that was once Shahid Afridi. In his former guise, he failed often, but on the occasions when he came off, he could terrify bowlers with the raw power of his hitting. I’ll never forget a 45-ball century at Kanpur in 2005, when even the great Anil Kumble was dismissed from his presence with some awe-inspiring strokes.
That was a long time ago. These days, Afridi and the middle of the bat are strangers. He walks out and starts swinging with all the menace of a drunk trying to swat a fly. There’s just one stroke, the full-kitchen-sink, and unfortunately he never connects with it. Today, he managed five runs while wasting 12 balls, never once looking like he could clear the rope. That would have been fine if he was batting at No.7 or 8. But instead, he had come in at No.6, ahead of Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s best T20 batsman by a mile, and Yasir, who struck the ball beautifully in the warm-up game against India. By the time Misbah eventually made it to the middle, Pakistan needed three runs a ball. Withholding the big guns really makes no sense if you have no artillery in the first place.
Every team will lose games, but it was the spinelessness of this surrender that will irk fans the most. Had they collapsed in a heap for 120 while going for glory, few would have complained. But to dawdle along to 137 in the full quota of overs was just wretched, and a slap in the face for all those passionate fans who had never stopped cheering for their team.
Think back to the greatest moments in Pakistan’s limited-overs history. The victory over Australia at the WACA in 1992 that was to be the spur for the greatest of all World Cup resurrections. Moin Khan’s stunning assault on Glenn McGrath at Headingley in 1999. The common thread was the team’s indomitable spirit, a stubborn refusal to lie down and accept their fate. That was what made the team such icons even to non-Pakistani supporters. Today, they disgraced that proud tradition. Instead of making them swear on the Holy Qu’ran, Intikhab should ask them all to look at themselves in the mirror, and see just how many hang their heads in shame.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Pakistan cricket embodied skill, glamour and a fierce mongrel spirit. Those were the days when its scripts were written by the Brothers Grimm or Yabo Yablonsky of Escape to Victory fame. Now, the stories are a lot more bleak, and in some cases, like at The Oval today, not even worth watching. To dignify the 48-run capitulation against England as a “performance” would be to trivialise the word and to insult generations of great cricketers who have worn the Pakistani colours with such pride. This was a shambles, and barring an extraordinary meltdown from the courageous Dutch, Pakistan, who pushed India all the way in the inaugural World Twenty20, won’t even make the Super Eight.

They don’t deserve to either. Everything about Pakistan cricket stinks of decay and the team’s performances are a mere reflection of that. Let’s start with the administrators. When not humiliating senior players by making public private medical reports, they stop the players from competing in the domestic Twenty20 competition. Remember that Pakistan were the only major cricketing nation whose players had nothing to do with the second season of the IPL. But while the key Indian, Sri Lankan and South African players warmed up for this event with at least 12 games each, the Pakistanis were asked to skip their own competition. Preparation, eh? Who needs that? (more…)

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