As Pakistan prepare to take on the World Cup holders on Tuesday in a replay of the 1999 final, the odds must heavily be against them. Yet, this is a game that is guaranteed to attract the maximum attention as either team is capable of winning the Cup. The Pakistanis, let it not be forgotten, beat Australia in Australia no more than nine months ago and yet managed to lose a Test against the Australians in the much more familiar conditions of Sharjah in the space of two days. That is just the sort of unpredictability that can be infuriating for their supporters; that is just the sort of unpredictability that attracts people and will ensure all eyes are on this game.
Australia have been a formidable power particularly in the last year-and-a-half and have swept aside all that dared to come in their path. Their strength is based on a batting machine that has shown itself capable of performing against any attack, a bowling line-up that is clinically accurate to the point of being mean and a fielding side that has raised the concept of fitness and training in cricket to new heights. Anyone of their top six batsmen is capable of playing a match
winning innings single handed and anyone of their four leading bowlers McGrath, Gillespie, Lee and Warne
could bowl a spell that could destroy almost any international side. That said, I do feel Warne, particularly now returning from an injury, is less likely to be a threat against teams from the subcontinent like Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.
For Pakistan, the main bogey man is likely to be Glenn McGrath whose unerring accuracy in the corridor of uncertainty -- just short of a good length on and just outside the off stump -- never fails to get Pakistani batsmen, although by now it is clear what is to be expected.
Pakistani battle plans will largely feature Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram, for these are the two bowlers who can win matches for Pakistan. The Australians seem to be quite alive to this threat. Matthew Hayden has already pointed out the dangers posed by Shoaib. They will look to dull his sharp edge and would expect the Pakistan attack to be much more manageable after that.
Pakistan's notoriously unreliable batting means a score of anything in excess of 220 could be difficult to get, so Shoaib and Wasim have their work cut out for them. If Pakistan bat second, these two, with the help and support from the field, must get wickets regularly to ensure Australia do not get much in excess of that 220 mark. If they can achieve that, they have a chance of really putting the cat among the pigeons.
If, on the other hand, Pakistan bat first, they must look to put on a score of around 250 to give their bowlers a realistic chance of attacking the Aussies. The Australians are such fine stroke players that I think no matter what target Pakistan sets them, they will have to bowl the Australians out if they are to win. It is almost impossible to contain this Australian side. In order to get to a score near that 250 mark, the Pakistanis will depend heavily on Inzamam who, by some distance, is Pakistan's top batsman, and Yousuf Youhana. They will have to be backed up by Younis Khan whose form in the practice games has been most encouraging.
But Inzamam has not had much match practice since arriving in South Africa and has not batted even once in the problematic number three position which captain Waqar Younis said he would be playing in in some games. The opening match against Australia is a crucial one and the big question is whether Inzamam is going to be sent at
number three in this match without any match practice.
The other big question is about Saeed Anwar. He too has not had any match practice having been sidelined after being hit on the elbow by Shoaib in the nets. Saeed has had virtually no international cricket for the past six months and the decision whether he is to be asked to open the batting against Australia will present the tour selectors with their greatest dilemma. If he is played, then the only place available for Shahid Afridi is as the other opener. That opening partnership will not inspire great confidence.
If Taufiq Umar is selected to open with Saeed, it will mean that either Afridi or Saqlain Mushtaq will sit it out. Since that does not appear a viable option, the conclusion must be that Saeed and Shahid will open.
The Pakistanis are fully aware of the great importance of this opening encounter. Their performance in this game could make a huge difference to their confidence level. Tournaments of this nature are as much about confidence and mental strength as they are about cricketing talent. Being the underdogs, as they must be in this game, Pakistan should go into the match knowing they have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Asif Iqbal is the former captain of Kent and Pakistan.