Cricket World Cup: Will Steve Smith get runs? Will Shaheen Afridi find rhythm? Pakistan, Australia ready for big encounter with big stakes

Some moments not only take one back in time, but also recreate the exact emotions and passion of the Australia-Pakistan rivalry. Eight years and two World Cups later. Wahab Riaz’s spell against Shane Watson reproduces the same cold dread, as though one is watching it for the first time.

There are others of course, Javed Miandad waving his bat at Dennis Lillee, the latter fronting up, puffing his chest, the unbuttoned shirt and headband giving him a rowdy menace. Or Shoaib Akhtar tearing off like an airplane after nailing Steve Waugh with a devilish in-swinger in the 1999 World Cup league game.

As the two teams prepare for the latest installment of their rivalry on Friday, two outfits searching for their best form, a lot is at stake.

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Whenever they meet, even if they have not been at their healthiest best this World Cup, even if Australia is quite un-Australia and Pakistan un-Pakistan, context and anticipation automatically falls in place. They have traversed the opposite routes this tournament — the only similar thread being their hands and hearts burnt by India. Australia have ended their two-match losing streak and logged in their first points. Pakistan’s two-match winning run ended at the hands of India. One seeks momentum; the other wants to find lost impetus.

Festive offer

So, Pat Cummins admitted his team is “in search of perfection”, in a sense still striving for their perfect outing so as to be called genuine contenders. Fast bowler Hasan Ali whipped up an apt and hilarious metaphor on their defeat.“Chalte chalte gaadi ruk gaya,” he would say, adding, “lekin kaafi door chalna hain is gaadi ko,” promising two points in each of their next six stops. leaving the room in splits. Pakistan would seek to reclaim lost momentum and put the wounds of the India hammering behind them.

“A defeat to India could make or break careers, but this is not the end of the world. There are more games to be played,” he said.

No time to relax

Though a long tournament offers the chance to regroup, Cummins is aware of the need to extend their winning run. “I think what we’re seeing in this tournament is, it’s 10 really strong sides. It’s not sides that are just making up numbers. They’ve all qualified and they’re all here because they’ve earned their spot. So, there’s no easy games. Everything’s pretty full on,” he said.

Both Australia and Pakistan are flawed teams, imperfections running through them, fussing over the form of some of their talismans. Australia’s finest batsman, Steve Smith, has been quiet. He has not looked out of sorts, but not looked fluent either, his three innings providing only 65 runs. He vented out his rage in the nets, cutting balls from the stumps and chipping down the track and lofting the net bowlers flat over their heads. In all three games, none of Australia’s batsmen have looked utterly authoritative. But it could all change if Smith rediscovers his best touch, and suddenly everything will fall in place.

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Similarly, Pakistan have been fretting over the rhythm of Shaheen Shah Afridi. The left-arm tearaway has looked constrained, his pace reduced, lengths off-kilter. It has exacerbated the absence of Naseem Shah. Ali pointed out that “only one bowler has changed.” What went unsaid is that he happened to be Pakistan’s most influential bowler in this format.

In a similar vein, both spin stocks look thin. Though Adam Zampa bagged four wickets in Lucknow, he was far from his best. For Pakistan, Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz have looked horribly insufficient.

But for all their imperfections, a Pakistan-Australia clash never fails to excite. To get into the mood, maybe one could rewatch the Riaz-Watson duel. Or maybe, another iconic moment is just around the corner of MG Road.