Twenty years on, the joy of winning the World Cup remains undimmed.
Mushtaq Ahmed licked his fingertips and gripped the ball tightly, sensing that a long-awaited wicket was close at hand. This might be the chance to put the tigers among the pigeons, he thought as he hopped in to deliver a perfect leg-spinner to Graham Gooch, the England captain. The plan was to entice Gooch into a drive, to force the ball to spin more than usual and for Moin Khan to snap the edge. But Gooch, looking to break the shackles, brought his front foot outside the line and went for a slog sweep against a leg-spinner.
It wasn’t the meat but the top edge that confronted the extra spin that Mushtaq had applied and, as the ball sailed towards the vacant square-leg position, it seemed destined to meet the grass in no-man’s land. Suddenly, galloping in from the boundary came Aqib Javed, his eyes on the ball and his mind on the crystal trophy.
“Gooch was their captain, their key player,” recalls Aqib. “We weren’t renowned for our fielding so not many would’ve expected me to reach the ball. But as I went running towards it, my mind went numb. I could feel my legs move but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so focussed on the ball sailing through the air, I couldn’t think of anything else.
For a moment, I even forgot where I was and why I was running. My aim in life, it seemed, was to grasp this opportunity God had hurled at me.” He was now in that near-mythical state of unthinking action that sportsmen refer to as ‘The Zone’.
When Aqib landed on his elbows, clutching the ball with both hands, around eighty-seven thousand jaws inside the Melbourne Cricket Ground simultaneously dropped. Mushtaq went running towards Aqib, pumping his fists in celebration but Aqib, arms aloft, evaded him and eight other teammates as he covered half the length of the field in celebration, refusing to let go of the ball he had just caught.
“Every single team at the event was there to win it,” says team manager Intikhab Alam. “We were not the best nor were we considered the favourites to win and the fact that we still won, made it a special win. It wasn’t an easy road to the cup, we had an awful start and that really did a number on team morale.”
The stuttering start
An ‘awful start’ is an understatement. Pakistan’s opening match had been nothing short of a disaster — a ten-wicket loss at the hands of the West Indies. Waqar Younis, touted as the ultimate trump card, especially on Australia’s pitches, had pulled out of the tournament at the last minute due to a back injury.
Waqar’s absence was a huge blow so close to kick-off and, according to Aqib, it ruined the planning and the strategic composition of the team.
“We didn’t look like the team we thought we were. We weren’t the best out there but we were still capable of doing well and that’s why such a stutter right at the start hurt us,” says Intikhab.
To Aqib, while the loss of Waqar was certainly a blow, it wasn’t a fatal one. “You can rue the fact that you don’t have great bowlers or batsmen and then lose and go home. Or you can play with what you have, perform your best and come out winners,” he says.
The Pakistan squad pulled itself together and went on to win the match. That much is history. But on that day, the task of picking up the team from its slump and instilling them with a sense of hope fell squarely on the shoulders of captain Imran Khan.
Enter the captain
After their horrendous start, Imran Khan had to work even harder to keep the team focused. Conflicts existed, opinions differed, egos clashed and the suspicion of bias infiltrated even the most minor of decisions. But despite that, Imran kept them together.
“When things weren’t working out, the captain stood firm,” remarks Aqib. “Imran was sure that we’d win, especially after the semi-final, and that’s the attitude he instilled in the team as well. He kept telling us that it was our World Cup, that there shouldn’t be any negative feelings and we shouldn’t be afraid.”
The approach worked. According to Intikhab, the captain had one message: “Don’t give up.” As the match progressed and the team started peaking, there was a time when the entire squad felt they were destined for greatness.
But there was still a long way to go. Not only were there injuries and other niggling complaints to deal with, there were also issues of morale and, sometimes, a combination of all three. In the absence of a permanent coach [team manager Intikhab Alam was serving as interim coach] and fitness trainer, and with the concept of a team psychologist being an alien one, the captain had to wear all these hats himself.
“Inzamam had a hamstring injury, which was affecting his performance,” recalls Aqib. “He was also feeling down and thought he wasn’t important for the team. But Imran saw that Inzi could play a huge role in the semi final and the final, and so he came to me and Mushtaq and said, ‘Isko kiya problem hai? Yeh kehta hay menay nahin khelna. Yeh adhi taang say bhi khelay lekin khelna ho ga!’ So we went to Inzi and told him: ‘Soch kiya rahay ho, the captain wants you to play!’”
“Imran was crucial to the team’s success,” agrees Intikhab. “In the end, it was a team effort that landed us the cup, but on the way, Imran ensured we remained on the right track. The team selection was on merit and there was no favouritism. The message from the captain was very clear: only those who perform will get a chance. That was the kind of environment created by Imran and he not only helped others get back on their feet after each demoralising performance but also chipped in when it was needed — with the bat, ball or advice.”
There’s no ‘I’ in team
But for the advice and the helping hand to be effective, Imran needed the players to come forward and work together whenever the team was in trouble. And that they did.
Bolstered by their captain’s trust, the players rallied behind Imran. The ‘tigers’ were famous for their reputation of ruthlessly attacking their prey. And attack they did, with the young and slim Inzamamul Haq and the cricket prodigy Wasim Akram spearheading the assault and delivering deadly blows to the opposition. Then there was the legendary Javed Miandad.
Through his silent and unorthodox approach, he lulled his victims into regrouping and framing news tactics, only to see them being outfoxed. No amount of sledging could get him off his game, and in that tournament no obstacle was unsurmountable.
“When I look back at the World Cup, I can safely say it was my World Cup,” says a justifiably proud Miandad. “I scored in almost every game [He was the second-highest run-scorer of the tournament] and that’s what the team needed. We had to put the runs on the board for the bowlers to take up the challenge. There were a lot of expectations from the team and from me but I’m glad that despite some minor injuries that I and some others had, we played well and, riding on the nation’s love and prayers, managed to end up on top of the world.”
And as far as Miandad is concerned, it was those very prayers that carried the day. “The point that we got against England, when we avoided defeat because of rain, was the point that took us through to the semi-final. And you could see how God wanted us to win.”
Miandad did not score a century in the tournament but, with the help of five half-centuries, including a crucial half-century in the final match, he demonstrated that he was still at the top of his game. Ironically, this is the same Miandad who had previously been considered extra baggage in the team.
“It was surprising to see that people couldn’t see his role in the team,” recalls Aqib. “He wasn’t the best fit (in the team) but big players like him are special for the very reason that they can perform on the biggest of stages. He was a big-hearted player and aggressive, perhaps not in his stroke-play but certainly in his nature. He wanted to win it all for Pakistan.”
When it all came together
But it wasn’t just Miandad who experienced the fairy-tale ending. Imran was the top scorer in the final, Akram let his bat do the talking with a 33 off 18 balls and, when the time came to bowl, he proceeded to make the ball dance to his tune.
Mushtaq chipped in with three important wickets and Inzamam blasted a 35 off 42 balls after a 139-run stand between Imran and Miandad that provided the stability the Pakistani team desperately needed. Aqib complemented the catch of the match with two more wickets and Moin Khan, with three catches and plenty of chirping from behind the stumps, rounded off a perfect display of teamwork, one that is not seen nearly as often as it should.
From the depths of despair to the heights of glory, the script written on the field that day remains as unparalleled, unmatched and frankly unbelievable twenty years on as it did then. It was a moment that brought the nation together in joy, and for those lucky enough to be part of the squad, it was a moment they will never forget.
“It all came down to the momentum that the team created by virtue of winning,” says Aqib. “We peaked at the right time, became the only team to beat New Zealand twice and won the World Cup. Twenty years on, I’m glad I was part of it.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 25th, 2012.