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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pakistan's WC hopes rest with Afridi, Shoaib

Despite a no-go zone for international cricket and a team trying to come out of a pile of controversies, Pakistan remain a dangerous prospect in the World Cup and the two men who can fire up the team remain the charismatic skipper Shahid Afridi and Rawalpindi Express Shoaib Akhtar.
But India's estranged neighbour has been surfing on tides that keep getting taller ever since their England tour where Pakistan cricket got 'tainted' with spot-fixing by Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt. The trio eventually got banned by the ICC, which, according to Imran Khan, has seriously dented Pakistan's chances in the World Cup.
As if that wasn't enough, the Pakistan Cricket Board made life difficult for itself with uncertainty over the selection of 'fixing' suspects wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Malik and Danish Kaneria. The PCB made the situation even grim by delaying the announcement of captain's name, allegedly creating a divide between Afridi and Misbah-ul-Haq, the two contenders for the leader's role.
But things started looking up on the New Zealand tour - Pakistan's last chance to impress before the World Cup.
It was a welcome end to Pakistan's victory drought, which not only brought them a Test series win but also triumph in the ODI series just ahead of the World Cup. That incidentally also gave reason to the PCB to retain Afridi as captain for the World Cup, with Test skipper Misbah as his deputy.
Despite all those controversies, there is no denying the fact that Pakistan remain a dangerous but unpredictable prospect in the one-dayers and their World Cup-winning skipper Imran Khan, along with some of his other illustrious teammates, seconds that.
But Pakistan needs to guard against a repeat of 2003 and 2007 editions when they had to catch an early flight back home after making first-round exits in both the editions, with a loss against minnows Ireland in the Caribbean still fresh in fans' mind. Incidentally, their preparation on both the occasions was surrounded by similar controversial circumstances as now.
But worse was to follow in 2007 when the shock defeat to Ireland followed their coach Bob Woolmer's death in mysterious circumstances in the team hotel in Jamaica.
Talking about the team's strengths and weakness, Pakistan's batting looks suspect in the absence of overlooked veterans Mohammad Yousuf and Shoaib Malik. That will make former skipper Younis Khan and Kamran Akmal central to Afridi's batting plans besides promising youngsters Umar Akmal, Asad Shafiq and Ahmed Shahzad.
A second look at Pakistan's batting tells us that all-rounders Abdul Razaaq and the skipper himself would be pivotal in late flourishes while chasing and setting targets.
Traditionally, Pakistan has relied on their fast bowlers but the absence of Amir and Asif got compounded with the late exclusion of Sohail Tanvir from the 15 owing to fitness concerns. He was replaced by young Junaid Khan.
This means that Shoaib and Umar Gul have to step up and do bulk of the wicket-taking job. They will find able assistance in Wahab Riaz and Razzaq.
Shoaib, whose last World Cup was marred by a doping ban and fitness issues, will probably have his last crack in the premier event and would want to end his injury- and controversy-ridden career on a high.
The spin department will be spearheaded by off-spinner Saeed Ajmal who will make a return from injury straight into the World Cup, with Afridi taking over as the leading leg-spinner in the absence of Kaneria. Left-armer Abdul Rehman and part-timer Mohammad Hafeez are the other tweakers in the side.
Camped with teams like Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Canada and Kenya in Group A, Pakistan look certain to be one of the quarterfinalists but their form can swing like a pendulum which makes them unpredictable as well as dangerous.
But a bird's eye view of the Pakistan team helps one single out that the X-factor to take them deep into the World Cup remains with Afridi and Shoaib. If the two con men fire, there is no reason why Pakistan can't fire.

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