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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barney Ronay in Kolkata

Unwelcome, feuding and beleaguered: Pakistan’s World Cup is on the ropes

Pakistan's players look dejected after losing to South Africa by one wicket
Pakistan’s players have been accused by Wasim Akram of looking like they have been ‘swallowing 8kg of mutton every day’. Photograph: Samuel Rajkumar/Reuters

In the barrage of white noise around Pakistan’s cricketers at this World Cup, the infighting, the political posturing, the accusations, among other things, of eating too much mutton, one detail that may have got lost is the suggestion the players have refused to take counselling sessions with the team psychologist, Dr Maqbool Babri.

According to Pakistani news sources, “Whenever Dr Babri attempted to initiate sessions, players consistently asserted that they did not perceive the necessity for such interventions.” To be fair to Dr Babri, he has a point. Where, if not here, could half an hour in the company of a calm man with a couch and no internet connection be of more use?

There are two notable elements to Pakistan’s World Cup before their final group fixture against England in Kolkata on Saturday. First, the fact Pakistan’s campaign is still technically alive at all. As things stand they need to bat first, score 300 and then bowl England out for 13 in order to reach the semi-finals. This may sound like a steep task. But there are other options. Pakistan could bowl first, dismiss England for 100 and chase the runs down inside three overs.

True, the chances of this happening are, according to the super algorithm Crick-Grift (or similar) something close to 0.043%. But as characters in American movies are fond of telling us: so what you’re saying is … there’s a chance.

Otherwise, Pakistan can console themselves with the knowledge that they have at least pushed this thing right to the end. Before New Zealand’s demolition of Sri Lanka on Thursday night there was still a chance the tournament might dish up the mouthwatering prospect of a knockout match between India and Pakistan at Eden Gardens – always a little too much to hope for at a World Cup styled as a coronational occasion for the BCCI, for India’s economic and cultural dominance of the sport, and for Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu political nationalism.

Which leads on to the other extraordinary element of Pakistan’s World Cup, the relentlessly brutal weather around it. Any members of England’s camp feeling a little beaten down by the odd raised eyebrow after the team’s total collapse inside the secure and supportive bubble of ECB life may be best served having a word with their opponents on Saturday.

There is a trope, applied without context, that Pakistan cricketers are by nature brittle and collapsible things, lacking in some quality of basic grit. If anything the opposite is true. Consider for a moment what it takes to rise though the ranks, even with the aid of a little nepotism along the way, to become a functioning and successful Pakistan cricketer.

This is a group of players required to operate against a ceaseless barrage of external noise, a process intensified by playing in India. To this extent Pakistan’s tournament has perhaps been one of the most embattled, politicised World Cups of any team in any sport, a tournament where fans and media have been treated like undesirables, the team beleaguered from without and within.

A recap then, of Pakistan’s tournament. The most obvious start point: as of the end of October the players still hadn’t been paid for the past four months.

The chief selector, Inzamam‑ul-Haq, then resigned mid-tournament over talk of a conflict of interest after it emerged Inzamam and various Pakistan players are shareholders in Yazoo International Ltd, a company also owned by a powerful player agent. And yes, it really is that Yazoo, the milky drink, although Inzy has since revealed he originally intended to use the company to sell bicycle helmets (“unfortunately we didn’t achieve success”), which presumably clears something up.

The squad has been accused, variously, of laziness, cowardice and favouritism in selection. A PCB statement has been released denying rifts in the camp that nobody had really claimed existed to that point. There was outrage (and also support) as senior players were seen crying after the defeat to Afghanistan. Shadab Khan has been accused – weirdly – of faking injury against South Africa. Wasim Akram says the players look like they been “swallowing 8kg of mutton every day”.

Pakistan bowler Haris Rauf reacts while New Zealand’s Daryl Mitchell takes a run
Haris Rauf has been expensive at this World Cup, particularly aganst New Zealand. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

As ever Babar Azam, the captain, is the muster point for this tournament turmoil. Babar has been criticised for swapping shirts with Virat Kohli. His private WhatsApp messages have been read out on national TV, collateral to yet another political storm. At one point mid World Cup he had to release a statement vehemently denying allegations he had been out shopping for “clothing and jewellery” in India, claims Babar dismissed as “misinformation, disinformation, or propaganda”.

The noise around Pakistan’s captain can be confusing. To the neutral observer Babar appears to be polite, mild-mannered and entirely concerned with making silky middle order runs. Yet he remains a wellspring of outrage and digital tribalism, condemned for perceived weakness and poor form, worshipped by those who like to worship distant cricketers (search: #babarazamisourredline).

Babar has been a lightning rod, like many before him, for internal tensions around city cliques and sporting-sectarian division. Externally, well, he’s a devout Pakistani Muslim slash sometime world No 1 batter, at a tournament where the shrillest, loudest voices are those of Indian sporting nationalism.

Certainly, India’s treatment of its cross-border neighbours has been less than hospitable, at what is technically an ICC tournament, but is in reality a BCCI power show. Pakistan fans have been refused visas and discouraged by delays. Of 200 journalists to apply to work in India only 45 were offered accreditation letters, and only after the humiliation of constant lobbying.

The team has felt the burden, too. Mickey Arthur has compared their enforced seclusion in India to being stuck in a Covid lockdown. Warmup games were disrupted by security concerns. The players were booed and jeered during the India game at the Modi stadium.

Against this backdrop it has been heartening to see Kohli maintaining his very public and supportive friendship with Babar, just as Kohli also supported Mohammed Shami when he was the object of religiously framed abuse. Kohli’s profile carries great weight, and these are significant interventions.

For all the noise around them Pakistan’s star players have still performed well below their levels. Babar has been a peripheral presence, with only England left to redeem a low throttle tournament. Haris Rauf has been regularly hoisted into the stands. His record in the game against New Zealand for most expensive figures by a Pakistani bowler at the World Cup was broken just 15 minutes later by the other pace bowling gun, Shaheen Shah Afridi.

Yet it has still been possible for Fakhar Zaman to smash it to all parts, for Shaheen to snake the new white ball around, and for Pakistan’s campaign to stagger along to its final hurdle still just about breathing.

It makes for a fascinating semi-dead rubber on Saturday. Pakistan’s cricket team are in a sense the anti-England. Here is a cricket nation that has everything: talent, charisma, cricket hard-wired into its daily life. Everything that is, except for power, stability, settled structures and a place at the main table.

English cricket must fret constantly over its own status as a moneyed minority sport with a shrinking talent pool. Pakistan remains one of the cricket’s great popular cradles, source in its diaspora, of players and fans, light and heat, in every league in the world.

Pakistan’s tournament will end in Kolkata, probably within the first 10 overs of the match. For all its low comedy, its notes of brittleness, it has, as ever, been an outsider story.

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