The sixth World Cup begins on February 14 with England and New Zealand playing the opening match at Ahmed-abad. Ten days later, reigning champions and co-hosts Pakistan begin their campaign to retain the title with a ‘soft’ opening against the UAE at Gujranwala.
With the other teams in Pool B being England, South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands, it is fairly obvious that by the quarter-final stage, to be played for the first time, the two minor teams will be eliminated.
From the knockout stage onwards, it is a virtual lottery, with the team performing well on the day getting through. New Zealand in the previous World Cup is one such example. Riding the crest of a wave, the 1992 co-hosts crashed out to out-of-form Pakistan, who went on to record their maiden triumph. That’s one-day cricket for you.
The Pakistan selectors have picked the best possible 14 to defend the crown. Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar make an attacking opening pair ideally suited to one-dayers. They go for their shots right from the first ball, a style that does have its drawbacks. One would like to swap them for a more gritty pair such as Australia’s Mark Taylor and Michael Slater, who are more cautious and wait for their opportunities. The selectors would be wise to send in the more experienced and cautious Rameez Raja to open the innings with Saeed Anwar. The middle order—with Ijaz Ahmad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Salim Malik and Javed Miandad—has a look of solidity about it. All four are capable of turning the tide with their technique and experience. Age and fatigue may, however, get the better of Miandad. He holds the unique record of having played in all the World Cups since the first one in 1975. If Sohail opens with Anwar, Miandad will have to fight against Rameez for a berth.
Skipper Wasim Akram is the best fast bowler in the world today. Unfortunately, neither Aaqib Javed nor Waqar Younis in their present form are in a position to provide the added sting. Much will depend on leg spinner Mushtaq Ahmed to provide support. His googlies will be the centre of attraction and it should be a classic battle against his Aussie counterpart Shane Warne and India’s Anil Kumble to see who is the world’s best spinner.
The Pakistan side has earned the ignominious distinction of having six players in its ranks who have at one time or the other captained the country. Akram, Malik, Rameez, Miandad, Waqar andAnwar were all tried and rejected for the top slot, before Akram was given a second chance. This could be a drawback if there is a clash of egos.
Experience has proved that Pakistan are slow starters. They seem to play their second half better than the first. Sometimes they take so long to warm up that the tournament ends before they reach top gear. In the last World Cup, they came from almost nowhere, and just in the nick of time, to beat the seemingly unassailable New Zealand and then clinch the Cup by beating England in the final.
The rules of the 1996 tournament give Pakistan supporters cause for hope. They can relax in the group stage as their place in the last eight is more or less assured. And the final being staged at Lahore will be an additional advantage for the co-hosts.
The final is a long way off, admittedly. But if the Pakistanis make it that far, they must be favoured no matter which country they come up against, with the crowd, the wicket and the weather all in their favour. An India-Pakistan final? Such are the tensions when they come up against each other that the match may be reduced from a mere game of cricket to a war situation. One simply shudders at the thought.