Surprised, shocked, and dumb-struck…this was the state of Pakistan’s fans. And this was when they had won every game in their group to march triumphantly into the semi-finals. They were simply not used to a Pakistan team that was so efficient, so calm under pressure, so perfect in all departments. Several would have hoped Pakistan would make it to the last four, but few had dreamt that it would be in such an unequivocal fashion.
Of course, they had no business playing this well. Their lead-up had been as close to imperfect as could be possible. The two incoming tours that were to have provided the team much needed practice ahead of the World Cup had fallen through and they had been forced to play a domestic tournament instead. Even before that, their coaching staff, most notably chief coach Misbah-ul-Haq and bowling coach Waqar Younis had resigned, and the new coach had not had a single game with his team before the main event.
So it was no surprise that Pakistan did a Pakistan…and ended up surprising everybody! The domestic event had allowed them to fine-tune their line-up. They made as many as three changes to their squad, two of whom – Shoaib Malik and Fakhar Zaman – ended up playing vital knocks through the course of the World Cup.
”The XI that ended up playing all the games was exactly the side I had wanted. Malik coming in made a huge difference. Both Babar and I had wanted him in the team from the start but the selectors didn’t agree. Finally, they saw sense and included him and he made a big difference to the team balance,” said Misbah, speaking after Pakistan's defeat to Australia.
Having played so well and raising expectations in Pakistan, the last-minute heist that Matthew Wade and Marcus Stoinis pulled off came as an immense disappointment to their fans and pundits alike. With England having lost their semifinal, they were the firm favourites and the crown seemed to be theirs for the taking.
Waqar believes that perhaps the fact that they had been so dominant right through the game actually led to their downfall. “Perhaps we were complacent. The team had got rid of almost all the top batsmen and this was the last recognised pair, but couldn’t finish the job. Complacency is part of our culture, though having said that, this team should get full marks for commitment. Look at Rizwan, he was in the ICU for two days leading up to this game and he still top-scored!”
This is a young team – apart from the two old warhorses, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik – who raise the team’s average age significantly and it shows immense promise. The quality begins right at the top where Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, both considered too ‘slow’ for T20 cricket not so long ago, have provided the sort of solidity most teams can only dream of. And they are followed by a powerful lineup that is a mix of power-hitters and stroke players. The batting runs deep with both their spinners also being quality all-rounders and they have their bowling bases well covered with a variety of fast bowlers and two spinners who both go about their business in a very different fashion. In case they need back-up, both Hafeez and Malik can provide it. So there is both depth, and quality about this side, and with the next edition of the T20 World Cup just a year away, Pakistan will be a major contender.
“There’s lots of potential in the side. We do need a couple of new faces because Malik and Hafeez can’t go on forever. The next World Cup will be in very different conditions on vastly different pitches, so work needs to start now. We need to start preparing pitches like the ones we expect in Australia, and of course we need to come up with one or two surprises. Just look at how New Zealand has brought in Darryl Mitchell! For us, I think Haider Ali will be an important player in a year’s time,” feels Waqar.
“There are two major white-ball events coming up, not just the T20 World Cup next year but also the 50-over World Cup in 2023,” says Misbah, “It’s great that we have such a good young team, where most of the boys will play for 5-6 years or even more. We just need to capitalise on this performance and build and strengthen this side. It shouldn’t be like after our Champions Trophy win (in 2017) where we relaxed and our cricket actually went backwards.”
Despite the disappointment of losing the semifinal, there was one massive achievement for Babar Azam’s men in this World Cup — Pakistan’s first ever win over India in a World Cup. And before the tournament, most Pakistanis would have taken that over winning the title itself. “Yes, the India World Cup jinx has been broken. After so many defeats, our team had perhaps lost confidence against India in these events, but now the faith is back. The monkey is finally off the team’s back and that is some consolation,” says Waqar.
The only Asian team to make it to the last four, can Pakistan now lay claim to being the best T20 team in Asia? No, says Misbah. “I think Pakistan is a good, young team. But overall, India is still a better side. We still need to improve many aspects of our game and become more consistent before we can claim to be better than India. India may have lost this time, but they have immense resources and a huge player pool. Yes, Pakistan is potentially as good as anyone but we have to keep winning to be the best.”