The World Cup, in my view, is a high-prestige arena that could potentially show off the tournament’s best—if Shoaib Akhtar plays and remains fit—bowling attack. The batting, unfortunately, still tends to revolve around a few stalwarts like Yousuf Youhana and Inzamam-ul-Haq, and the team is still struggling with their top three slots. The fielding is not yet up to the highest standards, but has definitely improved.
What may prove disturbing is the current form of the bowling attack. And combined with the struggling batsmen, Pakistan may be seen to be a foundering team. But as I said, one just can’t write Pakistan off; the ’92 Cup is just one example of the team, dubbed no-hopers, clicking in one game and sweeping through to take the Cup.
But pre-tournament analysis of any team becomes difficult when one considers the one-day game’s fickle nature. Captains need to be flexible, in attack and in defence. The pitch, the weather, the pace of the innings need to be adjusted for; consequently, then, a supposed team flaw may not manifest itself at all, leading to a thumping win.
However, insofar as the Pakistan team’s weaknesses can be analysed, the lack of a steady opening combination must top the list. Many youngsters have been discussed but few groomed and the handful keep playing musical chairs with the top two positions. I think the side should restrict itself to two of Saleem Elahi, Taufeeq Umer and Saeed Anwar. The team management must be willing to put up with a few initial failures before the pair find their feet and start playing in sync.
One possible change that may arise out of a strategy shift is pushing Shahid Afridi to open the batting. The Pakistani middle-order plays far better when the first 10-15 overs have been seen off, and Afridi can not only ensure this but also put up some quick runs in the process, ensuring that the following batsmen feel no pressure.
Inzamam, Youhana or Younis Khan should go at one down; none of them can be left out and, to maintain balance, one has to bat at No. 3. Then either Abdur Razzaq or Azhar Mahmood can come at No. 6, with Akram and the wicket-keeper lending some additional batting power.
The keeper’s position must fall to Rashid Latif but in his absence, I think Pakistan should opt for Moin Khan instead of Kamran Akmal. Akmal is a fine keeper and has proved himself to be a sound future prospect but for this key tourney, Moin’s experience would benefit the side more.
On SA pitches, Pakistan may be able to play only Saqlain if they are to have an extended batting line-up. Afridi could always chip in with his fastish leg-breaks and the bounce will help both. A glut of riches in the fast-bowling department, on the other hand, means Pakistan haven’t struck upon the right pace combination as yet. Fitness demands, in all probability, will dictate the actual selection in the playing XI, as picked from Waqar, Wasim, Shoaib and Mohammad Sami.
The combinations involved in choosing the final XI, in fact, are more important than they look. The Australians give much thought to that factor but Pakistan have sometimes even entered a game with six batsmen and six bowlers! That problem has hindered the team in the past few years and for all the talk of "vision", it is still missing, even with the World Cup just around the corner.
As for predictions, I have played six of the seven Cups thus far, and my experience has been that the pre-tourney favourites rarely win. But going by recent form, six of the Big Eight—Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, India, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the West Indies—will make it to the Super Six. On form, as a matter of fact, the Windies should be rated higher than Lanka but the latter are very capable of getting there. There is also a dark horse in this eight that has played more finals than any other and still not lifted the trophy—England.
The semi-finals may be played out between SA, Pakistan, India and Australia, though I’ve been impressed by New Zealand of late. Most expect the final to involve SA and Australia, with the former having the home advantage.
India have great potential but like Pakistan, they haven’t got their combination right and they also tend to look for quick results rather than a balanced team for the long run. They tend to favour a long batting and will probably have four front-line bowlers and gamble with the fifth’s quota.
All said and done, though, the World Cup has seen its share of upsets in the past, and the 2003 edition is bound to witness a few more. But invariably, the best team of the tournament has invariably lifted the Cup, and doubtless that will happen in South Africa again, with a lot of exciting cricket en route.