@Ben_Wisden 3 minute read
Ben Gardner worries that the only way might be down for Pakistan at the T20 World Cup.
In beloved mid-Noughties flash game Line Rider, players are offered a blank canvas to draw a course as they see fit. When the player presses the ‘Play’ button, toboggan-bound ‘Bosh’ drops from the heavens, his destiny set as he traverses the hills and bumps laid out ahead of him. If any are too hairy, he will be launched from his sledge. But any manner of improbable tricks are possible, if the route is designed just right.
There are few better metaphors for a Pakistan campaign at a global event. Each downhill slope is merely about gathering pace for the next upward swing, each positive path inevitably ending in a leap into the void. Enjoy it while it lasts. But also, if it is all going wrong, placate yourself with the knowledge that the next high is just around the bend.
Pakistan v Namibia, Live: Updates, score, commentary and where to watch (TV and live streaming) details can be found here.
This is a fact long known to Pakistan fans, and, by the evidence of the last two tournaments, the team themselves have finally caught on too. Sarfaraz Ahmed and Co. finely tuned their narrative-o-meters at the 2017 Champions Trophy and 2019 Cricket World Cup, rebounding from a massive defeat by India to smash that same opposition in the final of the former, and with only a slight miscalibration seeing them knocked out of the latter on net run rate, despite beating both eventual finalists along the way.
This time, Pakistan have gone big. Their head and bowling coach were dispensed with two months out, and their chairman not long after. In their place they appointed an ex-commentator who combines cliche and non-sequitur with abandon and, well, Matthew Hayden. Their captain, reportedly unhappy with the original squad selected, wrangled the recall of a 39-year-old seemingly long since past it in place of the spin hitter the analysts rave about. All their warm-up games were cancelled for reasons of varying legitimacy. But have they gone early?
At first, T20 World Cup glory seemed so improbable it was all but certain. Now it’s hard not to wonder if the opposite might be true. They have imbued enough in-game arcs to keep the dogs of fate away so far. The India victory was so assured you were kept guessing until the end just how Pakistan would mess it up. Against Afghanistan, Asif Ali understood the assignment well enough to turn down a single, making an improbable ask fractionally harder before winning the game by himself. But now, coasting along with three wins from three and just Namibia and Scotland to play, Pakistan are in desperate danger of succumbing to the next inevitable plummet downhill at just the wrong moment.
Ordinarily, teams would relish their position, the two hard-to-lose fixtures a chance to fine-tune plans, perhaps bat first choice to know what that feels like, maybe give the kid a game. Cricketing logic dictates that they are among the favourites for the trophy. They have the world’s most thrilling new-ball bowler and its most dependable opening pair. Spinners previously misfiring are suddenly thriving. That 39-year-old? He’s rediscovered his bandana and his joie de vivre. Boxes are being checked. Everything is in its right place. Pakistan fans should be terrified.
There is a precedent for everything going right, and of course in the end it all went wrong. At the 1999 World Cup, Pakistan cruised through their group, only losing to Bangladesh after qualification was secured. They topped the Super Sixes too and cruised past New Zealand in the semis. A left-arm god was hooping it round corners. A world-class opener was reeling off masterpieces. Sound familiar?
In the final, naturally, everything fell apart. Australia, dispatched nervelessly in the group stage, routed them for 132. Shane Warne claimed four. Adam Gilchrist finished it in 20 overs and one ball. Pakistan are yet to make a 50-over World Cup final since.
Their only hope might be to lose their next game against the Namibians, and lose it big. Try not to irrevocably mess up your net run rate, but a bit of jeopardy wouldn’t hurt. Throw a tantrum or two in there. Maybe Babar could scream at Rizwan? Have fun with it. Give them something to complain about, rail against, just so they can sleep easily at night again. Fuel to the fire, grist to the mill. It’s either that or succumbing to Starc and co. in the semis. It can’t be this good forever. Can it?