Unpredictable. Erratic. Mercurial.
They are words that have followed around Pakistan’s cricket team for years. And — surprise, surprise! — they have popped up again ahead of its opening match in the Cricket World Cup.
With some justification.
The Pakistanis should be huge outsiders going into the tournament. Swept 5-0 by Australia in a “home” series in the United Arab Emirates, overwhelmed 4-0 by England this month and then beaten by Afghanistan in its only other World Cup warmup, the team is in the middle of a drought.
There have been late changes to the squad as a reaction to the slump, with fast bowlers Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz brought in from the cold to boost a flagging bowling lineup. Pakistan’s fielding has been leaving a lot to be desired, too.
So, they’ve no chance at the World Cup, right?
Sarfaraz Ahmed has other ideas.
“I think it’s good to be unpredictable,” the Pakistan captain said Thursday, a day before his team begins its World Cup campaign with a match against West Indies in Nottingham.
“All teams are scared because of Pakistan. At the end of the day, the Pakistan team is very dangerous. It’s good to be very unpredictable for the World Cup, so it will affect the whole outcome.”
It’s not an unusual scenario for Pakistan. Not least two years ago in England, when the team arrived for the Champions Trophy as an underdog ranked No. 8 and supposedly lacking star names.
Of course, they went on to win the title, beating an in-form England in the semifinals and then bringing down arch rival India in the final.
And the last time the World Cup was held in England — in 1999 — Pakistan reached the final.
No wonder West Indies captain Jason Holder downplayed Pakistan’s poor buildup, almost rolling his eyes at a suggestion his team’s opponents were in bad shape coming into the World Cup.
The Windies can be just as unpredictable as Pakistan, often because of behind-the-scenes governance issues as much as anything else, but there is a calmness and belief around the team this year.
The West Indies batting lineup can be as powerful as any in world cricket, too, as demonstrated by the 421 runs they put on against New Zealand on Tuesday in a practice game and the four-match ODI series they shared against top-ranked England this year.
“When we’re fearless, we enjoy what we’re doing and enjoy each other’s company,” Holder said. “I can safely see that we’ve got that atmosphere.”
No player sums up that fearlessness and relaxed, happy-go-lucky approach more than Chris Gayle, the team’s 39-year-old opener who is retiring from ODIs after the World Cup.
On a breezy and overcast Thursday afternoon at Trent Bridge, Gayle appeared to have carte blanche during a training session as he spent a few minutes smashing balls in the nets before stopping for some photos on the outfield. Then as his teammates continued to practice, Gayle loitered around the bowling strip, chatting to a few people.
As long as he continues to pile up the runs, West Indies will let Gayle get on with his unique preparations. He smashed 424 runs in four matches against England in that recent ODI series and averaged more than 40 in the IPL this year.
So why, exactly, is Gayle retiring if, as teammate Shimron Hetmyer said, he is in “best form” of his career?
“We are all thinking that way!” said the 22-year-old Hetmyer, who grew up idolizing Gayle. “It’s all down to how he feels — you don’t know how someone feels in their own body. But if he does continue, it would be fantastic for us and for world cricket.
“As it is, we are just hoping he pulls through for us and after the World Cup he is still there.”
Trent Bridge is a ground renowned for high scores, with England posting the two biggest ever ODIs totals there since the last World Cup. Hetmyer, one of West Indies’ biggest hitters, said he was surprised to see how short the boundaries were.
West Indies’ batsmen appear to be in prime form and Pakistan’s bowling attack is in flux. Could Friday be the day the 500 mark is reached for the first time in ODIs?