Enigmatic ensemble

There is reason to believe that Pakistan has a realistic chance of winning the World Cup. It may be an enigma, but it surely is a strong contender for the title, provided the players discover the collective way to dominate and not depend on individual brilliance, writes Vijay Lokapally.

The most unpredictable team in world cricket. And the most under-performing bunch. Pakistan cricket has perennially suffered from internecine problems and there is reason for skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq to feel concerned on one important aspect — how to get the best out of his players.

Though Imran Khan taught it to win, Pakistan has been most vulnerable to pressure. Pakistan's problems have more been self-made than caused by opponents. Even Imran has conceded that this trait would be difficult to overcome.

From the first edition of the World Cup, Pakistan has been regarded as the team with the best potential to win it. It has put up some stirring shows, but consistency has not been Pakistan's strong point. "If only the players could understand the importance of giving their best consistently we would have greater success in the World Cup," was how former captain Rameez Raja once put it.

The wealth of talent in Pakistan cricket is negated by this self-destructive quality where set batsmen don't finish the job. Imran, and Javed Miandad in later years as coach, did their best to make the players realise that they had to bury their individual differences and come good collectively.

Pakistan has a line-up that can create self-doubts even in a team like Australia, but the players have repeatedly lost contests from winning positions. The best of cricketing brains in Pakistan have failed to spot the reasons for the team's inconsistency. Under the guidance of coach Bob Woolmer the team has come to understand its potential, but success has not matched the awesome talent at Pakistan's disposal.

An astute cricket guru, Woolmer has concentrated hard on making the players believe in themselves and there have been times when his policy has worked wonders. But Pakistan continues to be an enigma in world cricket. The administrators, too, have played a role in destroying the confidence of the players. Repeated changes have created insecurity among the players and someone like Woolmer would need to take charge if the team is to succeed at the World Cup in the Caribbean.

Pakistan's strength comes from the fact that the team plays its natural game. The flair to play attractive cricket has been a feature of Pakistan's strong presence, but the team desperately needs to translate this approach into achievements on the field. It has the best possible combination in years, even though Miandad, out of favour with the administrators, has been strongly critical of the methods adopted in selecting and preparing the team for the World Cup.

As far as Inzamam is concerned, he can hardly complain. He has an exceptionally flexible list of players who can quickly adapt. It is this ability that makes Pakistan a very dangerous team. Often Rameez Raja laments "lack of education" as one of the key reasons for Pakistan players not playing to potential, but often one has seen the raw element in the line-up coming good because it does not believe in following a set pattern.

Batting has traditionally been a worry for Pakistan, but it continues to discover match-winning bowlers. If only the batsmen could support the bowlers the team would be best suited to take on the mighty Australians.

The last Champions Trophy brought out the inconsistency factor in Pakistan and also openly highlighted the team's self-destructive ways. Under-performance has been the bane of Pakistan cricket and the World Cup would be the ideal stage for Inzamam's team to erase this menace. A lot would depend on how quickly the team finds a settled combination and given Woolmer's shrewd mind and Inzamam's cool approach it would be a huge task for the opponents to contain Pakistan if it places itself on the winning course from the early stages of the tournament.

The team has had sound preparation and looks in the best frame of mind to have a go at the title, despite Miandad's apprehensions regarding selection and the ability of the seniors to deliver. The team can draw motivation from the success in 1992 when it rose from the brink to make a strong statement. There is reason to believe that Pakistan has a realistic chance of winning the Cup. It may be an enigma, but it surely is a strong candidate for the title, provided the players discover the collective way to dominate and not depend on individual brilliance.

Players to watch

Inzamam-ul-Haq: He can be expected to influence the course of a contest. A batsman with tremendous ability to swing a match on his individual skills, there is no doubt that this veteran of four World Cups will be the key. His strong point is his capacity to pick runs with amazing ease, but what really stands out is his quality to instil confidence in his partners. Inzamam makes batting look so easy that his partners often benefit from the pressure he creates on the bowlers. With a reputation for himself consistency and sensational performances he would be the batsman to watch in the Caribbean in what certainly looks like his last World Cup appearance.

Mohammad Yousuf: An asset in any condition and an ideal batsman any captain would aspire to have in his line-up. Yousuf has grown over the years as a performing individual and his success last year on varied pitches makes him the most compact batsman in contemporary cricket. Confidence is his strongest point as also his temperament as he deals with challenges with a cool mind. It is rare to find him play a hurried shot and his presence in the middle would be the guiding factor in the middle overs.

Shahid Afridi: Can there be a greater entertainer in world cricket than this dashing batsman who has only contempt for the bowlers? With his astonishing ability to hit the ball hard and high, he will always remain a threat to the opposition. Form does not matter when one deals with a player of Afridi's calibre. He is often entrusted with the job of destroying the bowlers' confidence and he does it with a selfless approach. It is true he often gets out playing fancy shots, but then Afridi would not be such a dreaded batsman if he changes his approach. He can win a match in a matter of a couple of overs. He has to bat with the same flair if Pakistan has to win the Cup.