The cricket World Cup is right around the corner and as has been the case in post-2003 World Cup settings, the Pakistani cricket team rank as outsiders. Generally deemed too erratic and unpredictable to sustain a cup run, the Pakistani squad has not been stable over the last two years, and the inexperience might cost them in high-pressure situations. England, India and Australia remain favourites to win the World Cup outright, with New Zealand and South Africa being also considered to be having some chances, albeit to a lesser degree. The Pakistani cricket team however possesses an ability to cause massive shocks and upset the odds, as was evidenced in the 2017 Champions Trophy final victory against India in London, or when they trounced Australia in the group-stage at the 2011 World Cup in Colombo, breaking their 12 year old record of being unbeaten in World Cup matches in the process.

Pakistan got knocked out in the group stage in the first World Cup in 1975, and then lost the semi-finals in 1979, 1983 and 1987. The 1992 World Cup victory was not achieved via completely dominating throughout the cup run. Rainy miracles and favourable results in other matches that Pakistan had no control over, amongst other things, enabled Pakistan to make it to the semi-finals. From there onwards, brisk cameos by Inzaman-ul-Haq and Javed Miandad’s doggedness in the semifinal, and the fast-bowling heroics of Wasim Akram and Mushtaq Ahmed’s orthodox leg-spin in the final enabled the championship victory. The 1996 and 1999 teams were perhaps the most talented on paper, but ultimately failed to deliver, although Pakistan reached the final in 1999 but was defeated in a devastatingly humiliating fashion at The Lords by Australia. The squad was too old and most senior players past their peak in 2003, while the imbalanced squad of 2007 lost to minnows Ireland en route to crashing out at the group-stage. In 2011, with a much more balanced squad, Pakistan improved upon previous performances, but lost an evenly fought semifinal against India, chasing 261 and losing by 29 runs. In 2015, Pakistan upset South Africa in the group stages in scintillating fashion, but fell short at the quarter-final stage, losing out to eventual winners, Australia.

The national team plays its designated home series on flat wickets in United Arab Emirates, after foreign teams stopped visiting in the aftermath of the 2009 terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team bus in 2009. Pakistan’s recent track record of batting in the swinging and seaming conditions in South Africa, New Zealand Australia, and England (to a lesser degree) has not been up-to the mark. The perennial issue with the corridor of uncertainty around the off-stump persists, while playing home games on flat wickets has not helped our batsmen too much. On the other hand, most young players are being selected on the basis of their performances in the country’s flagship T20 league, the PSL, and that might not be the best breeding ground for a skillset that meets the dynamism and completeness required for the One Day International format. Some of the batsmen might not possess adequate technique and their shot selection, at times, is extremely irrational and too premeditated. Recent showings by Babar Azam reflect that he has the potential to play the anchor’s role successfully in the middle overs, possessing a capability to rotate the strike. Can he deliver when it matters, especially while chasing, which has been Pakistan’s Achilles heel in recent times? Imam-ul-Haq and Fakher Zaman, although not as technically gifted, have improved the opening pair dilemma, to a certain extent. Their form is crucial. The middle order is shaky at best. Shoaib Malik, in the lower middle order could prove to either be an experienced balancing act, or have his reputation ruined, like many other Pakistani cricketers in the past, who retired too late and were found out at the biggest cricketing competition of the world. Javed Miandad’s sluggish innings in 1996, comes to mind, as do Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis’s lethargic spells in 2003, in that ambit. Similar questions exist in the bowling department. Can Wahab Riaz maintain fitness and accuracy over the course of the World Cup? Will Mohammad Amir return to his best on the big occasion or will we see more abject fast bowling reminiscent of his spells post the Champions Trophy? Pakistan’s bowling has been the stronger element in the last two decades, and Hassan Ali and Shahdab Khan have been two recent finds who have intermittently performed well on the big stage, but are prone to being highly inconsistent and can have long spells out of form. Ultimately, this current bowling attack seems to be the weakest Pakistan have had in the last two decades in a World Cup setting, and can collectively blow cold at times. Often, Pakistani pundits resort to speaking about the potential of the team, but can potential win you a World Cup where everybody plays everybody before we turn to the semi-finals? Only time will tell.

Beginning with an outside chance of making the semi-finals can work in Pakistan’s favour because there is less pressure, for the most part. Often, in long cup formats, teams also run the risk of peaking too early and running out of steam in the later stages, an issue that the perennial underachievers, South Africa, have faced, historically. It must also be kept in the mind that cricket has changed considerably after the popularity and onslaught of the T20 format which has had consequences for how ODI matches are approached and contested. Shorter boundaries and Powerplays have played their part in making cricket more of a batsman’s game and the margin of error for bowlers is very small. England seem to have perfected the art of this contemporary ODI cricket style, boasting a wonderful record of not having lost a bilateral series in two years, while home advantage as well as a balanced and experienced squad could go in their favour. But they have never won the World Cup, and that must be playing on the minds of some of their senior players. Pakistan begin their World Cup journey against the West Indies on 31st May at Trent Bridge, and play England, Sri Lanka and Australia next, so at-least two victories from the early matches is a must to have any chance of qualification. The big game everyone will have their eyes set upon is against India, of-course, on the 16th of June, which will most probably be the most-watched game, barring the final. Pakistan has not yet beaten India in a World Cup game, and the memory of the ICC Champions Trophy final must be lingering in the Indian minds, making for a mouth-watering contest. If Pakistan perform well early on and win enough games to lose their shackles when they face India, they could change that dubious record. At any rate, the next six weeks shall make for exciting times and banter. Lets hope everyone maintains their wit whilst enjoying the gentleman’s game, and does not resort to jingoistic and unsavoury comments against rival nations. It is just a sport, at the end of the day, and the spirit of the game should be maintained at all costs.