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Saturday, June 20, 2009

For Pakistan, the dream is alive

Yahoonews, The Indian Express, 20 June 2009

Nottingham: An hour after Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul had charmed their way past South Africa's steel, the train back from Nottingham to London kept bursting into loud, happy and hopelessly tuneless renditions of 'Dil Dil Pakistan'.

For over three-and-a-half hours at Trent Bridge on Thursday evening, the DJ at the ground had belted out the 1987 Vital Signs number - he played it for every boundary Shahid Afridi struck and for every yorker Umar Gul bowled. And each time, the stadium exploded.

There were fears that India's exit would rob the tournament of its most passionate fans. There were fears that England's rain-affected departure would turn all attention in this country to the Ashes. On Thursday evening, the Pakistan team, and Pakistan's fans, ensured that come Sunday, the tournament's final day, all remotely cricket-infatuated eyes will be watching - waiting to see if one of cricket's most dramatic tales has a happy ending or not.

Pakistan's cricket is a throwback to more fascinating times. Their coach, Intikhab Alam, says he doesn't give his players too much advice - just go out and enjoy. Their captain, Younis Khan, reacted to the first defeat by saying ICC World Twenty20 was like WWE wrestling - it was fun. If they do badly, this attitude gets ripped to shreds, understandable in a country as passionate about the game as India.


 

But when it does come off, well, aren't they just beautiful to watch?

A 17-year-old left-arm fast bowler, Mohammad Aamer; running in hard, bowling at pace, swinging it in and cutting it away. There's Younis Khan, always smiling, whether he's getting grilled by the media or fast bowlers in opposing ranks. There's an off-spinner, Saeed Ajmal, who reminds everyone of Saqlain Mushtaq and an ICL rebel, Abdul Razzaq, picked midway through the tournament as pre-tournament strategies went out of the window during the warm-ups.


 

Great expectations

And, unforgettably, there's Shahid Afridi, who once every year or so remembers how to bat. His last half-century in any form of the game, before Thursday, was 28 innings ago against Zimbabwe, and the one before that in 2007. Yet, each time he walks in to bat, a roar of optimism goes up in the stands and beads of sweat roll down opposing captains' foreheads. Is this going to be Afridi time? Thursday definitely was.

First, there was the stunning half-century (stunning as much for its ruthlessness on a slow pitch as for the fact that he did not hit a single six) to take Pakistan to a respectable total. He then came on to bowl with South Africa off to a reasonable start. Afridi got a few to land on off stump, bite the pitch and rip away menacingly. The two deliveries that counted, though, went straight on with the arm - Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers back in the hut, South Africa's perfectly-plotted campaign in as much of a mess as the stumps behind the batsmen.

And what of Umar Gul? Consistency is a rare commodity in Pakistan cricket, but don't tell Gul that. The quirky run-up - like a puppet on strings - ends in a polite hop in the final stride; there's been nothing polite, or apologetic, about the deliveries fizzing out of his hands. With the ball on a string, he's been hitting a coin under the batsman's foot for the last couple of weeks. He's swung the ball so far, and so late, that whispers of ball-tampering have started following him.

"It's all rubbish," Alam thundered, in his quiet, avuncular manner. "Stop embarrassing Pakistan," Younus said, the smile disappearing for a moment.

And yet, the story this time is far bigger. It's not just of a group of supremely gifted but pathologically underperforming stars getting things together for a couple of weeks. When the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked in Lahore, cricket in Pakistan was hit harder than ever before. The Lankans, thankfully and miraculously, escaped with a handful of injuries; Pakistan cricket itself has been bleeding ever since.

They are in desperate need for new, happy memories. Younis and his team are now on the brink of providing it. Relax, Younis. No pressure. It's just, as you pointed out, a game

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