In an exclusive interview with TRT World, Wasim Akram explains what makes the current Pakistani cricket team unique despite losing the semi-finals of the short-format World Cup.

Sitting in a TV studio in the suburbs of Karachi, Wasim Akram, like millions of other Pakistanis, watched in disbelief as Matthew Wade hit three consecutive sixes to take Australia into the final of the ICC T20 World Cup in Dubai on Friday night. The shocking defeat ended Pakistan’s unbeaten run in the tournament, leaving them with yet another World Cup heartbreak.

Pakistani fans were quick to express their shock and dismay on social media as many of them unleashed their wrath at misfiring pacer Hasan Ali, partly for his poor bowling spell in the semifinal but primarily for dropping Wade in the crucial 19th over.

In the past, the reaction to such defeats would quickly snowball into a storm of abuse together with all sorts of accusations including that of match-fixing.

But for a change, Pakistanis handled this defeat with grace.

Wasim told TRT World in an interview that he knows precisely why.

As a  part of a panel of experts doing a TV show on the T20 World Cup, the former Pakistan captain and Test cricket legend quickly overcame the initial disbelief on Friday night and acknowledged that the current Pakistan squad left a lasting impression on cricket lovers and managed to conquer the hearts and minds of their fans back home.

“It was heartbreaking to see them lose but at the same time I was proud of the way they went out there and played their hearts out throughout the tournament,” said Wasim, who was Pakistan’s star performer in their historic title-winning triumph in the 1992 World Cup.

Wasim wasn’t the only one proud of Babar Azam and his boys who went to the UAE utterly under-prepared for the T20 World Cup and ended it as one of the most impressive teams ever to feature in the history of the event.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was at the helm of a long list of luminaries, who showered praise on the Pakistan team soon after it bowed out of the World Cup.

“To Babar Azam & the team: I know exactly how all of you are feeling right now because I have faced similar disappointments on the cricket field. But you should all be proud of the quality of cricket you played & the humility you showed in your wins. Congratulations Team Australia,” Imran, captain of Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup-winning team, tweeted.

Legendary fast bowler Waqar Younis, who had to quit as Pakistan’s bowling coach just weeks before the T20 World Cup, could have taken this opportunity to settle scores with the country’s cricket authorities. But instead the former Pakistan captain chose to join the chorus in praise of the national team.

“You guys have not Won the World Cup but Won Hearts of every Pakistani. We couldn’t have asked for more. You guys gave your Best. So so proud of you Team Pakistan. Keep your Head High,” Waqar tweeted.

Pakistan's exit from the T20 World Cup after a semifinal loss to Australia broke millions of hearts.
Pakistan's exit from the T20 World Cup after a semifinal loss to Australia broke millions of hearts. (AP)

A transformation few expected 

The question on every cricket buff’s mind is that how a team known for its highly mercurial nature managed to become a consistent side that many predicted would go on to win the World Cup?

Ask Wasim Akram and he will tell you that the transformation didn’t happen overnight.

He believes that the seeds of this consistency were sown two years ago when Misbah-ul-Haq, then head coach, and Waqar Younis took charge of the team.

“You have to give credit where it is due,” Wasim said, referring to the role played by Misbah and Waqar, the two men who are generally criticised for failing to bring any worthwhile improvement in the team’s performance during their coaching tenure.

“Two years ago we had a new head coach and a bowling coach in Misbah and Waqar. It's true that during the best part of those two years we didn't win many matches against the top teams. But the homework was being done. The core nucleus of this current Pakistan team was formed by Misbah and Waqar. The current coaches have just taken over and are more or less relying on the same players, who were drafted in the team and prepared by those two.”

It’s a big compliment for Misbah and Waqar considering that they had mostly been on the receiving end of critics’ wrath and that once included Wasim Akram himself.

“The thing is that Misbah and Waqar gave these guys a lot of confidence and it is now showing in the way they are performing on the field,” Akram said. 

The current Pakistan team isn’t just a confident team. It also comes across as a happy one. Unlike the past there is no infighting in the team despite the fact that younger players like Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Shadab Khan are at the forefront while seniors including Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez have taken the back seat.

Epidemiological blessing

Pakistan’s transformation from an under-achieving team to a well-oiled, winning unit occurred during the peak of the pandemic.

There were lockdowns and there were the depressing bio-secure bubbles. Then there was this talk of players’ mental health and how the pandemic was affecting it all over the sports world.

Pakistan, however, thrived during this period not in spite of but because of the pandemic. For them it was almost like a blessing in disguise.

“These guys have spent more time with each other than with their families during these past two years because of the pandemic,” Wasim pointed out.

But how could that have helped?

At the start of the pandemic, experts raised fears that sportspersons will find it tough to deal with quarantines and bio-secure bubbles. And the fears did come true as the restrictive atmosphere posed psychological and fitness related challenges to athletes. 

“But in Pakistan's case we've seen a positive effect,” said Wasim.

“There is this great bonding and camaraderie between these guys. Most of them are in the same age group. There is a young captain and most of the best performers are also in the same age bracket. So they have gelled well together. The time they’ve spent together (because of the pandemic) has really helped.”

In the past, there used to be a lot of rivalries within teammates in the Pakistan team, especially among star performers. And at times those rivalries hurt the team’s performance on the field. But in this Pakistan side there aren't any personality clashes and it has helped bring players together.

“These boys are mostly on the same wavelength. During our time, we used to go out a lot. But these guys are content sitting in their hotel rooms with each other or talking to their families. Their biggest source of entertainment is social media,” Wasim said with a smile.

There is also this added sense of responsibility in the current Pakistan team.

Take for example the case of Mohammad Rizwan. 

In the lead up to the semifinal against Australia, he developed a severe chest infection and had to spend almost 36 hours in the ICU of Dubai’s Medeor Hospital. 

But fully aware of the fact that he was a vital cog in the Pakistan batting line-up, Rizwan quickly recovered and played against Australia, finishing as the match’s top-scorer with 67.

“These guys are fighters and are setting a great example," said Akram. 

He was of the view that having a star performer as captain also helps instill confidence. 

“Babar is a very confident captain because he is at the moment the world's best batsman. Your own performance on the field helps you as the leader. He is young and will make mistakes but overall he's done a great job and has played a key role in making Pakistan more and more consistent.”

Despite crashing out in the knockout stage, Pakistan’s performance in the World Cup exceeded expectations. 

The Pakistanis ended their World Cup jinx against India by trashing Virat Kohli’s fancied side by ten wickets in their first match of the T20 World Cup. 

They ended the group stage of the tournament with five wins in a row including one against New Zealand, who will be featuring in Sunday night’s final against Australia. 

They ticked a lot of boxes. The opening stands between Babar and Rizwan were rock solid. Both Babar and Rizwan finished among the top run-getters of the tournament. Their pace attack spearheaded by Shaheen Shah Afridi was mostly lethal. Fielding, which has almost always been their Achilles heel, wasn’t bad either.

But then there was Hasan Ali.

Many critics say fast bowler Hasan Ali couldn't perform well and exposed the weak spot on the Pakistani side.
Many critics say fast bowler Hasan Ali couldn't perform well and exposed the weak spot on the Pakistani side. (AP)

The pacer, who was one of the architects of Pakistan’s famous Champions Trophy triumph in 2017, had a poor run in the World Cup and Friday’s semifinal was no exception.

It was the second last over of the Australian run-chase. Hasan was fielding at deep midwicket having finished his quota of four overs quite expensively. The match was at the knife’s edge with the Aussies needing 20 off the last two overs. 

Wade, batting at 21 from 13, was looking dangerous and to seal the fate of the match in their favour Pakistan needed his scalp. A perfect opportunity came Hasan’s way when Wade slogged a Shaheen Afridi delivery towards him. Failing to judge properly, Hasan grassed the catch. Wade went on the finish off the match with 41 from 17.

Hasan was quickly vilified by Pakistan fans forcing his team-mate Shadab Khan and captain Babar to take to the social media in his defence.

But in his post-match media conference Babar did concede that Hasan’s dropped catch cost Pakistan a place in the final.

"When you give teams like Australia a chance they take the match away from you," he lamented. "If that catch that Hasan Ali dropped had been taken, maybe the result would have been different. As a player, you have to be on your toes and avail any opportunity you get. We made a mistake and it cost us the match."

The dropped catch wasn’t Hasan’s only fault. During the best part of the tournament, he was visibly Pakistan’s only weak link.

“My question to the current Pakistan team coaches is that everyone knew that Hasan Ali’s performance has dipped but what have you done to help him?” said Wasim.

Asked as to what he would have done to help Hasan overcome the slump, Wasim responded: “I would have asked him to get a haircut right away!...But seriously, yes Hasan Ali had a bad tournament. He has been in poor form. He did earn his place in the team on the back of some good performances in the Quaid e Azam Trophy but T20 is a different format. It's a cruel format. One bad delivery and you are hit for the maximum.”

Hasan had a long injury-related hiatus before regaining his spot in the national team.

“It's tough for a fast bowler to regain top form and fitness after returning from injury break,” Wasim said. 

Source: TRT World