Pakistan has come off a tumultuous year in which three of its outstanding players were handed lengthy bans after being found guilty of spot-fixing.
Then the country and its fans were dealt another — booted out from co-hosting this 10th edition of the World Cup following a terrorist attack in Lahore in 2009.
International teams refused to travel to Pakistan and it has had to find top-flight competition elsewhere, including the United Arab Republic, to host its home matches. With all of this turmoil, few if any gave this team a hope in hell of doing well here.
The Toronto Sun is one of few that tipped this darkhorse to go all the way and, after Saturday’s stirring 11-run victory over favoured Sri Lanka, Pakistan has established itself as a serious contender.
Sri Lanka’s vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene wrote in his blog prior to this match: “I find it surprising that their name is not bandied about in the mix of potential World Cup winners as they have brilliant match winners with both bat and ball.’’
He was right. The vastly experienced Misbah-ul-Haq (83 not out) and Younis Khan (72) tamed the high-quality Sri Lankan bowlers with an excellent stand of 108 runs for the fourth wicket to lay the foundation for a score of 277 for seven. The highlight of the innings was Pakistan plundering 32 runs off the final three overs and that’s what proved the difference.
It was then the turn of the bowlers to silence those explosive Sri Lankan bats. Skipper Shahid Afridi and the much-maligned paceman Shoaib Akhtar (two for 42) did just that to keep intact Pakistan’s seven-match record of never losing to Sri Lanka in the World Cup.
Afridi continued his brilliant form in this tournament with his leg spin that knotted the Kenyan batsmen in the opening game and the Sri Lankans yesterday. He captured five for 16 against Kenya and his haul of four for 34 on Saturday propelled him to the top of the wicket-takers list with nine, one ahead of Australia’s Mitchell Johnson.
The boisterous crowd of 35,000 packed in the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo raised the decibel level to the roof believing Sri Lanka could pull off this uphill run chase.
Upul Tharanga and Tillakaratne Dilshan started off aggressively, thumping every loose ball and Sri Lanka overtaking this huge total seemed possible. The throbbing drum beat and the cheering got louder and as these two motored on to 76 without loss.
Afridi then decided he had seen enough of the rampaging openers by striking the first blow. He clean bowled Dilshan for 41 and that opened the floodgates as Sri Lanka lost three more wickets to slump to 96 for four. Afridi also accounted for skipper Kumar Sangakkara for 49, just as he just as he appeared to be finding his groove. In between Akhtar, the Rawalpindi Express bowling around the 145 k.p.h. mark, breached Jayawardene’s defence to uproot his middle stump for two.
Chamara Silva steadied the ship by firing 57 and Sri Lanka was still in with a chance as Pakistan had a brain cramp that saw two stumpings fluffed and a three catches dropped. But it managed to hold on to stay unbeaten after two matches in Group A and a near certain berth in the quarterfinals.
“It’s a very a very big win for us,” said Afridi at the press conference.
“I think when we go ahead in this tournament our destination will get tougher and tougher and if we commit the same mistakes, then we will return to Pakistan very soon. We must improve. Our fielding has been improving, but I don’t know why in this match we dropped catches and failed to take run-out chances.”
Pakistan faces Canada in its next match on Thursday.