The lush green banks of Durban’s Kingsmead Garden beamed with a small crowd of enthusiastic Pakistan supporters on the 12th of September, 2007. Pakistan had just walked out of a disastrous ODI World Cup in the West Indies, lost their coach in the process and seen a few 50-over stalwarts retire.
There was a general air of skepticism within cricket fans in the country. This new format did open a sea of opportunities for Pakistan to rise and shine, but the wounds of West Indies were still fresh and fans hadn’t recovered from them.
Pakistan’s encounter with Scotland at Durban was the start of their odyssey at T20I World Cups. Fans back home were glued to the screen – having recently lost to Ireland, Scotland came across as a worthy nemesis.
There were doubts over the longevity of the format, the performance of the team, the overall unity within players and the general attitude as a whole. All doubts put to rest on that day.
A swashbuckling Shahid Afridi did what he did best – walked out and swatted one over cow corner on his first ball. He went on to hit a few more, Pakistan hit a few more, no one kept a count back home. This was a new format, this was cricket at its exciting best, and for once viewers didn’t have to keep a count on sixes.
The very first game created a wave of excitement back home. People were talking. Gul with his yorkers, Afridi with his ‘anywhere for six’ attitude, Malik with his calm leadership – the T20I world cup was here to stay.
The bowl out against India followed in the very next match, oohs and ahhs echoed from every neighbourhood in Pakistan. This was a new form of cricket and Pakistan seemed to be enjoying it. A team of misfits had come together to create what looked like a match-winning outfit.
Pakistan eventually went on to lose to India in the final of the first edition. Misbah rues his odd scoop to date, Afridi pocketed the Man of the Tournament, and the cricketing world knew Pakistan would be the team to beat in T20Is.
The finalists of 2007 went on to win the next edition in 2009. Manchester, Nottingham and Lords were all host to Pakistan scripting their own scripts. Our unpredictability was at its peak. The only constant being Afridi’s raised arms. The Starman took one step forward and won his country the cup. No scoops this time, it’s a leg bye, who cares, as long as the job is done.
Pakistan also went on to become semi-finalists in 2010 and 2012. Only a mercurial Mike Hussey robbing them of the final spot in 2010.
The peak of the first few editions later met a rather timid Pakistani outfit during 2014 and 2016. Both editions saw some individual performances of brilliance; Umar Akmal against Australia in 2014, Afridi against Bangladesh in 2016 and Ahmed Shehzad against Bangladesh in 2016. But the actual laurels have evaded us for long.
Fast forward to today. The unpredictability of T20I cricket has now made way for an era of greater consistency and effort. Pakistan, known for their unpredictability, walk into this edition as outcasts – outsiders that do stand a chance, but would probably deflate in the pressure.
Critics would argue that this is where we perform at our best. 2017’s Champions Trophy comes to mind. The ’92 world cup with our walls pinned to the back. But, is our unpredictability alone a factor to rejoice over today?
As of now, Pakistan’s team has left for the UAE. They have a band of fresh players and experienced prodigies. Our captain – T20 cricket’s most ominous performer – hasn’t played a World Cup in the shortest format yet. To put it right, T20I’s biggest stage has yet to see the class ooze out of Babar’s bat. Babar’s partner, Rizwan, this year’s top performer, has taken the spotlight off Babar; imagine that. These two coupled with Shaheen Shah Afridi give Pakistan something they have generally lacked; consistency. Three consistent performers.
Shaheen also burdening the additional responsibility of helping the Afridi name fly high in UAE. Shahid Afridi’s namesake, Shaheen, is young, he’s fiery and has the Starman pose to top it all.
The days leading to the World Cup saw general pessimism surrounding our chances in this year’s tourney. A successful NT20 cup and a few changes to the squad have squished all that pessimism for greater optimism.
The T20I World Cup is back. After five long years, the grandest stage of cricket’s shortest format is back. We may not be defending champions or clear favourites, but the format is ours.
Honed by the craftsmanship of exciting players before and sustained through the abilities of our current lot, this is where true jazba meets elegance and skills.
We lock heads with India on the 24th . Until then, Babar, Riz, SSA and the lot. Make us proud. Reclaim what’s yours. Position yourself on the throne of Cricket’s most exciting format. We may not be consistent, we may not be predictable, but ‘exciting’ is our tag and we’re not letting go of it anytime soon.