From Imran Khan to Babar Azam, Pakistan tigers most dangerous when cornered

Nursing his bullet wound at his Lahore home, Imran Khan would have felt the pleasant pangs of nostalgia watching Pakistan reach the final of the World T20. Exactly three decades back, his team had followed a similar script at these picturesque Australian venues.

As was the case in the 1992 World Cup, Babar Azam’s team at this World T20 have lost to India, won three straight games, sneaked into the semi-final by one point and gone on to beat New Zealand to reach the final. Like it was then, this time too it was an outlandishly talented rookie that got them into the final against the same rival.

Inzamam ul Haq was 22 when he dealt the sucker punch to Martin Crowe’s men at Auckland; here it was Mohammad Haris, who turned 21 this year.

Will the fairytale be repeated? Can Babar be the next Imran, if not the future PM? Speculations can wait, first the eerie coincidence.

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Terrible start to the tournament, youngsters failing to deliver, seniors not pulling their weight; Imran Khan’s Class of 1992 had been written off by the world. They were brutally criticised at home, ridiculed by neutrals – exactly what Babar and his boys have faced at this World T20.

Then one fine day, Imran walked to the pitch for the toss wearing a casual T-shirt that had a tiger imprinted on it. It was a do-or-die game against the mighty Australia, led by the master Allan Border. Whoever remembers his epic conversation with Ian Chappell that day would never call Pakistan a complex riddle. For them, the men in green wouldn’t be an enigma. Imran knew the pulse of his team, the DNA of his nation.

This was how the exchange between the great men went:

Ian Chappell (pointing to the tiger on the T-shirt): I thought you were the Lion of Lahore, what’s this?

Imran: That’s what I have been telling Allan (Border), I want my team to play like a cornered tiger. You know that’s when it is most dangerous.

Historically, Pakistan gets classified as the “unpredictable one.” That’s a lazy stereotype, a premeditated leave when facing a mystery ball. It isn’t a fair comment; it’s as good as giving up on cricket’s storied nation.

This is a team that flirts with dangers, leaves it for late and waits for the world to undermine them. When the world no longer sees them as a threat, they rise from the trenches and launch the attack. As Imran said, once their rivals think that the tiger has been tamed and caged, they come out roaring, baring their teeth.

Pakistan is never unpredictable, it’s just that the world has read them wrong. They haven’t really tried to understand them. They are always in a tearing hurry to knock them over and send them home. They forget that cricketers in Pakistan don’t come out from the most perfect of systems. They are rarely hand-held, coaches give them tough love. In the dog-eats-dog world, only the toughest survive. Those who finally make it to the national team are no lily-livered softies.

In the present bunch there have been cricketers who have been denounced and rejected. Shadab Khan started with a dream to be a tearaway fast bowler. Soon he was told point-blank by coaches that he was too short to be in the pace department. He was asked to be a spinner and obeyed the order. Once he started bowling leg-spin, the quick-footed batters on the junior circuit took him apart. So Shadab became a batter, got into the Pakistan u-19 team and later returned to his leg-spin to master it.

Haris Rauf was picked from a crowd of 1 lakh entrants for a pace hunt. Shan Masood for long was dismissed as a red-ball specialist with no future in limited overs cricket. He wasn’t there in the Asia Cup but at this World T20 anchored innings, provided solidity to the fragile middle-order.

A couple of years back, the Man of the Match Mohammad Rizwan was just a game away from being dropped. Former captain and veteran wicket-keeper Sarfraz Ahmed was waiting in the wings. But Rizwan delivered under pressure.

Or take Babar’s example. He wasn’t even considered the best batsman in his family, his cousins Kamran and Umar Akmal were said to be far better. There are stories of the two undermining him. Even during this World T20 campaign, Kamran said that Babar shouldn’t have taken the captaincy. Former players starting from Wasim Akram downwards wanted him out.

Today they will bite their lips, try floating theories that would make their climb down less clumsy. At least they should have known the Pakistan team better.

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