Cricket World Cup: Wasim thrilled by Shoaib show

West Indies face a fearsome new Pakistan today.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
PAKISTAN HAVE not met the West Indies in the World Cup since 23 February 1992 in Melbourne. Only two wickets fell that day, both Pakistani, and the West Indies scored 221 for 0 to win by 10 wickets, although Brian Lara, who was the man of the match, did not complete his innings. He retired hurt at 88 after being hit on the foot by a Wasim Akram yorker.

Those two great players captain their sides at Bristol today in a belated rematch, and Wasim will be able to chose no less than four more members of that 1992 squad. There are three batsmen - Inzamam-ul-Haq, Ijaz Ahmed and Salim Malik, and the vice-captain and wicketkeeper, Moin Khan.

Lara is accompanied by only two veterans of the West Indies' Melbourne win seven years ago. To name Curtly Ambrose as one would not prove difficult, but how many would pick the name of Keith Arthurton as the second, rather than that of Courtney Walsh?

This history makes it difficult, on the face of it, to explain the confident pre-tournament speculation that Lara's West Indies are a team moving grudgingly past their sell-by date, while Wasim's Pakistan are in blossom and just about to bloom. Don't trust history. Try the facts.

Recovering remarkably well from their drubbing in South Africa in January, the West Indies drew a seven-match, one-day series against Australia in the Carribean last month, but most of the heroes were familiar figures in their thirties. Jimmy Adams is 31, Phil Simmons 35, Arthurton is 34 now - although he does not look it in the field. The most promising new talent is Ridley Jacobs, who rivalled Australia's Adam Gilchrist as a hard-hitting wicketkeeper-batsman at the top of the order, but he has been in waiting for years. Jacobs is 31. Even Lara is 30.

The young talents are Mervyn Dillon (24) and Reon King (23), who back up Ambrose and Walsh. Lara, in a rare public pronouncement since his arrival in England, said that, because they are familiar with English wickets and conditions, the legendary pair are likely to be the strike force. Besides, neither of the young men bowls with the same persistent accuracy as Ambrose. Walsh, whose second home is Bristol, and who has under-performed in the World Cup, will be particularly anxious to do well.

At an earlier meeting between the two teams in 1987, Pakistan's last pair scored 14 off the last over, which was bowled by Walsh, who had voluntarily warned Salim Jaffer that he was backing up too far. (A Karachi manufacturer was so grateful that he presented Walsh with a carpet.)

But the West Indies have two or three match-winners who can distort form and snatch an improbable victory. Wasim said simply: "We have more stars on our side." Not that he is taking this first game for granted: "I always get pressurised before the first game, and the West Indies are a tough start." None the less, Wasim appeared to mock the conventional view of history and the facts: "I think they don't have experienced players like we do, so we have a better chance."

Match the experienced players on both sides and you put Ambrose and Walsh head to head with Wasim and Waqar Younis. Take the batsmen, and compare the West Indies' line-up of Sherwin Campbell, Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Adams with the dab hand of Saeed Anwar, the assurance against fast bowling of Inzamam-ul-Haq, and the unorthodox accumulation of runs of Ijaz Ahmed. Like Jacobs, Moin scores runs, though lower down the order. It is actually a fairly even contest.

But Pakistan get added value from their youngsters. Two celebrated fast bowlers have been joined by a 23-year-old called Shoaib Akhtar, who has been timed as the fastest bowler in the world (96mph). Wasim believes that Saqlain Mushtaq, a year younger than Shoaib, is the best off-spinner in the world. Moreover, he adds, Saqlain took 60-odd wickets playing for Surrey last year before July. The message is that the conditions in this World Cup will suit Saqlain.

Shahid Afridi, who plays the role of pinch-hitter and bats as though he had never learned the meaning of fear, has already won one-day games for Pakistan. "They might not be technically so proper," said Wasim, "but they're tough. They fight. They're lifting us up and we're lifting them up," he said, referring to Pakistan's generation gap.

Wasim said that his team are 80 per cent better than Imran Khan's 1992 side. That team lost to the West Indies, and proceeded to lose two more of the eight qualifying games, just squeezing into the semi-finals. They then beat New Zealand by four wickets, and England by 22 runs to win the Cup. Choose Pakistan to beat West Indies today but, even if they lose, the lesson of history is that this does not mean that they won't go on and win the World Cup. You could not feel so confident about the West Indies.