When it comes to the ICC World Twenty20, no team can match Pakistan’s pedigree.
Runner-up in the inaugural event in 2007, after Misbah-ul-Haq attempted sweep over short fine-leg went wrong in the final over, it was a popular winner in front of passionate support in England in 2009.
In the Caribbean a year later, despite indifferent performances in the group and Super Eight stages, it came within a whisker of upsetting Australia, only for a spectacular Michael Hussey heist to deny it in the final over of the semi-final.
Pakistan’s greatest asset heading into the tournament is experience. Of the ten players with most caps in Twenty20 internationals, six are Pakistani. Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Malik, Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal and Kamran Akmal have all played 40 or more games. Afridi leads the way with 50. Misbah, who came so close to snatching victory in that epic 2007 final, is no longer part of the squad, but Mohammad Hafeez, who replaced him as captain, can boast of 34 appearances, at the end of the three-Twenty20 International series against Australia in Dubai that Pakistan won 2-1.
Ajmal (58), Afridi (58) and Gul (57) are also the only bowlers to take more than 50 wickets in the format. With all-rounders like Hafeez, Abdul Razzaq and Sohail Tanvir also in the ranks, bowling is clearly Pakistan’s strongest suit. It may lack a tearaway fast bowler – Mohammad Sami is not a certainty for the XI – but Ajmal and Gul, in particular, are experts at throttling the scoring rate in the final overs.
Nasir Jamshed is a new addition to the top order, and the batting will need to improve on what are likely to be slow and low pitches. Much depends on Hafeez and the hit-and-miss talent of Imran Nazir first up, with the Akmal brothers, Kamran and Umar, to provide the mid-innings firepower.
Razzaq, who first caught the eye at the ICC Cricket World Cup 1999, is also capable of explosive cameos, but it’s the batsmen who have often let Pakistan down in recent times. Since the ICC World Twenty20 2010, it has won ten and lost 11 games. That included a six-match losing streak in 2010.
Progress out of the group stage in Sri Lanka will not be a formality. Pakistan has won all five T20Is against Bangladesh, but New Zealand has had the edge in recent times despite Pakistan leading 5-3 in the overall head-to-head statistics.
On subcontinent pitches, the multitude of spin options and the ability of the pace bowlers to summon up variations, Pakistan will be one of the favourites.
But for it to emulate the 2009 campaign, it will need Afridi to rediscover his best form. He was magnificent in both the semi-final and final of that tournament, combining sensible big hitting with the canniest slow bowling. If he can somehow stop the clock and replicate those feats, Pakistan will be there or thereabouts, as it has been at every ICC World Twenty20 till now.