For a team that has often been labelled enigmatic and unpredictable, Pakistan has consistently been the team to beat in the ICC World Twenty20.
Runner-up in 2007 and semi-finalists in 2010, Pakistan won the title in England in 2009, and showed during the group stages this time around that it will need an inspired team and extraordinary performances to halt it in its tracks.
Pakistan was efficient in overcoming New Zealand and positively brilliant with the bat under some pressure as it swept Bangladesh aside to finish undefeated in Group D. Like a gathering force, it has worked its way into the competition quite superbly – the only blip being defeat to England in a warm-up game last week – but it won’t be unaware that its first genuine challenge, in a high-pressure scenario, will come on Friday afternoon.
Up against Pakistan, in the opening match of Group 2 of the Super Eights – the group whose outcome no one wants to hazard a guess about – is South Africa, itself a veritable powerhouse which was no less impressive during its Group C encounters in Hambantota. South Africa has always been a formidable presence in ICC events over the last decade and more, without actually going on to crown itself champion. Armed with a new outlook and with Gary Kirsten on board as coach fantastic, South Africa can be taken lightly only at one’s own peril.
South Africa relished the conditions in Hambantota – quick surfaces with generous grass covering and plenty of bounce as well – but whether it can expect the same at the R Premadasa Stadium is debatable. For starters, the pitch here wears a barer look, and has baked under the unrelenting sun over the last couple of days. There hasn’t been a drop of rain since the Ireland-West Indies washout on Monday night and while there was a strong cloud cover on Thursday afternoon, it is unlikely to have altered the basic character of a surface that might bring the spinners into play sooner rather than later.
How well South Africa fronts up to the spin of Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi will determine what it gets out of Friday’s showdown. There is enough quality in the South African ranks to counter the guiles of the two spinners, who might be joined by Raza Hasan should his left-arm spin be preferred to Sohail Tanvir’s left-arm medium pace, but as AB de Villiers admitted, not all South African batsmen can actually pick Ajmal.
South Africa, however, is unlikely to bring with it the same doubts and hesitancy that England did against Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla the other night. That could yet be its greatest virtue because cricket is played as much with bat and ball as between the ears, and South Africa will not concede any mental ground to Pakistan.
South Africa itself has a reasonable spin attack – Johan Botha is one of the most accomplished limited-overs bowlers in world cricket and should have Robin Peterson for company – but it will continue to rely on Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis to do the damage against a Pakistani batting line-up that has been in tremendous form in this competition.
Imran Nazir’s success against Bangladesh will have particularly delighted Mohammad Hafeez who, in Nasir Jamshed at No. 3, has a classical left-hand batsman behind whom Akmal brothers Umar and Kamran offer unquestioned quality and Shoaib Malik, the former skipper, lends experience. For a team that has long carried the reputation of cracking under pressure, Pakistan has shown in recent times that it can handle the big moments well, though how well it will cope with the fire of Steyn and Morkel will be watched with no little interest.
This is a mouth-watering contest to kick off a group that, completed by Australia and India, appears by far the tougher and more competitive of the two groups in the Super Eights. All four teams in Group 2 have come away undefeated from their respective groups in the initial phase. Colombo will be the place to be in over the next week.