Including the two first-class games (one of which they nearly lost), Pakistan won just one of their six warm-up matches. That began a tournament start in which they won just a solitary game in their first five (and that too against Zimbabwe, who then were yet to become the formidable side of the late 1990s). Imran appeared for the first time in that Zimbabwe match, but didn’t bowl or bat. ‘It was the perfect day’s cricket for me; no batting, no bowling and no catching,’ he said after the game. ‘It’s the sort of day Aamer Malik [an all-rounder around that time who never quite made it] would have loved.’ Perfect days were few and far between in that stretch and so low did they get, it was difficult to know which was the lowest. Was it the 74 all out to England in Adelaide, where rain rescued an improbable point for them? It could have been the loss to India in Sydney three days later, with all the baggage that contest carries. Maybe it was the South Africa game, in which the ominous dark, grey clouds over Brisbane seemed to reflect Pakistan’s mood and prospects and in which they were at their most shambolic in the field.
No two successive elevens were the same. They didn’t know their best batting order (Inzamam opened and played one down, Fazal opened as well). Miandad developed debilitating gastritis after the India loss and missed the South Africa game after prolonged vomiting. Malik was being pushed up and down the order. The bowling threatened but was schizoid, typified by Akram’s six wickets and twenty wides in those five games. Akram was so despondent that he had watched Naked Gun 2 1⁄2 and Backdraft four times already.
So bad was it that in Imran’s absence, players were refusing to take the captaincy. ‘He said to a couple of players, you take over as captain and they said, no, give it to someone else,’ Aaqib recalls. ‘Javed [Miandad] was vice-captain but he declined asking to be left alone. Malik was also in the running but he just wasn’t getting bat on to ball throughout that entire tournament. Ijaz was hardly batting, he was bowling. This was how low the team had fallen: Miandad unfit, Imran – shoulder injury, Malik batting like a number eleven, Ijaz as bowler, Mushy and Wasim both struggling, Inzi in really bad shape. There wasn’t one guy who was doing anything.’
Once Imran had said his bit before the Australia game—for a nation conceived in blood, not unused to wars, it is hardly surprising such a leonine speech tugs so forcefully on the imagination—Pakistan’s disparate galaxies and stars and planets began to pull together into one universe. Sohail was caught off a no-ball before he had scored and went on to top-score with 76, the only half-century in the match against Australia. Aaqib had been the most stable of Pakistan’s bowlers, but in Perth he set up Pakistan in a wonderful opening spell, clearest proof that aggression had little to do with pace where fast bowling is concerned. Perth was a fast-bowling haven but it was kind to Mushtaq, the other player most transformed immediately. He sliced through the middle order, instigating an eventual collapse of 8 for 56.
‘Australia were always difficult opponents for us, always,’ says Aaqib. ‘But after we won that match, we thought, this isn’t a problem. We had Sri Lanka next who weren’t so good then, followed by New Zealand, and if you take New Zealand’s record against everyone and then place it against ours, it’s awful. Against Pakistan they’ve never done anything. We used to look at them and think, “No way, we can take these guys on for sure.” After Imran’s talk and the Australia win, the team’s mood totally changed.’
The most vital coming together was in Akram’s mind. ‘I was really struggling with extras,’ Akram remembers. ‘I was running in quick and the ball was swinging quite a bit. In those days, with two white balls from each end, it was difficult. So I was bowling a lot of wide balls, and the game against Australia was very important. I was low on confidence. I was a bit wary, running a bit slow, and I wasn’t trying to bowl quick because I couldn’t control my wide balls. The next morning, I woke up and I was having breakfast with Ijaz and a couple of junior players, and I was reading the newspaper. And it had a huge headline. Imran had made a statement: “I don’t mind Wasim bowling no-balls as long as he bowls quick.’’’
Akram was now unchained.
Swiftly, inevitably, pieces began to fall into place. In their last five games, Pakistan made just one change to their eleven (bringing Sikander in to the semi-final in place of Ijaz before switching back in the final). The batting order assumed shape and identity, pivoting crucially around Imran’s promotion of himself to one down. The idea was to have the two most experienced batsmen right in the heart of the order, to staunch early losses and build, and then to allow freedom to Inzamam, Malik, Akram and Moin. ‘The confidence he had as a batsman, as a decision-maker, as a captain – he came in at number three and it was a big decision,’ recalls Akram. ‘You imagine now, if somebody, as a captain makes a decision to bat at number three and if he doesn’t do well … what will happen? It was very brave of him to do that.’
As it had done at the Nehru Cup in India in November 1989 and numerous times in Sharjah, momentum was gathering, like a whirlpool in which a Pakistan win was the central force which drew everything in. After Pakistan beat New Zealand in their last group game, a deflated Australia still had to beat the West Indies for Pakistan to go through to the last four (before the start of those two games, all three sides could’ve gone through). The side gathered together at their hotel in Christchurch to watch the game. Some did so nervously. Others like Aaqib believed there was no doubt. ‘We just didn’t have any negative thoughts after our Australian win, so we didn’t think too much of what would happen in this match. My feeling at least was that there is nothing that can stop us, nothing.’
Once qualification was assured, Akram and others went out for a celebratory meal. On return, Akram wrote a note to the taxi driver, signed and dated. It read: Pakistan will win the World Cup.
The most uncertain moments came in the semi-final against the home side and overwhelming favourites, New Zealand. The oval shape of Eden Park took some getting used to. ‘It was a very difficult ground to play in, as far as the dimensions were concerned, because one side was only forty metres and the other side was eighty metres, and the fine-leg on that particular ground comes in front of the umpire, like square leg on a normal field,’ describes Akram. In a team meeting, Imran delegated the task of drawing an accurate map of the ground with the correct angles to Ramiz. He drew it as circle. ‘Even I could’ve drawn a circle,’ Imran jokingly admonished back.
It almost cost them when Martin Crowe put together a spectacular innings, helping New Zealand reach 262. Pakistan looked out of the match for a major duration of the chase—their top order was solid, but couldn’t keep up with the required run-rate—until Inzamam arrived and with him, destiny: it was a literal and metaphorical arrival. The young Multani had pleaded with Imran to drop him from the side on the morning of the match, as much because of illness as his confidence being shot after a poor tournament. ‘Imran told him, “Are you mad? I am telling you to play, so just play,”’ Aaqib recounts. Inzamam continued to make excuses, saying he was sick and wouldn’t be able to walk. ‘So Imran told me and Mushy, look, he’s your friend, make him understand, he needs to play. So we went and spoke to him and convinced him that he had to play,’ says Aaqib. So Inzy did play and so was forged his twilight surge, fulfilling Imran’s prophecy that he was a batsman among the best. His form also paralleled his team’s late, successful swell: his 60 off 37 balls won the semi-final and his 42 in the final set it up.
Imran again roused his men on the morning of the final, one last time invoking the cornered tiger. He wore the T-shirt to the toss. At 39, he was older than his English counterpart Graham Gooch by just a few months, but looked fresh, upbeat and honed enough to be his son. In reality, it hardly mattered what Imran said to his men that morning because precisely how conspired the universe was in Pakistan’s favour was on clear, unashamed display through that late March day and night in Melbourne.
Pakistan won their fourth, most important toss of the tournament and chose to defend a target, which is traditionally how they’ve preferred to go. After losing two early wickets, they were lucky to not be four down; Steve Bucknor was in one of those cussed moods in turning down an early lbw appeal against Miandad. Imran was dropped by Gooch when he had made only nine. They had made only 70, halfway through the innings. Miandad had to use a runner after his stomach began to play up again. And if the tournament were taken as a whole, Inzamam’s runs were still a surprise, though with the gold chain and gum-chewing swagger of Viv Richards, it was an ominous indicator of how confident and transformed he was after the semi-final. Even more surprising was Akram’s little sprinkle of batting magic, to ensure that the very risky strategy Pakistan applied—waiting, waiting, waiting and waiting some more before accelerating—worked perfectly: Akram had made only 29 runs in seven innings before this game but had been feeling ‘very light all day, like I could just fly, that sort of feeling’.
Then, in the field, even more. In dismissing Ian Botham, fate conspired twice over. He hadn’t edged it at all. But by coming in from round the wicket, Akram was protecting what he thought might be an injury. ‘I had played a little innings, faced only 18 balls, but I ran quite a bit,’ Akram says. ‘I was superfit. I was just twenty-five years old, it was the pressure. I came out, and I bowled the first over from over the wicket, and I was getting cramps. My hamstring was cramping up, so I had a word with Imran. I said, “I should try and come round the wicket, because the ball is not coming in, I am releasing it instead of just going all the way down. So from round the wicket I would have a proper follow-through.” He said, “Okay, just don’t run in too quick. Get your rhythm.” Then I bowled that ball to Botham which came back in and he still thinks that he didn’t nick it.’
Mushtaq’s googly to dismiss Graeme Hick — about as emphatic an undoing of a batsman as you will see — spoke of talent, but Aaqib’s catch to dismiss Gooch was evidence enough that Pakistan’s victory was destined. In a team of poor catchers, Aaqib was the poorest, awkward and comically bad. Here he ran in from deep square leg, tumbling forward to his left to hold on, with both hands, the ball a few inches off the ground. He rolled over, stood up and in disbelief, ran a little lap of honour by himself. ‘It was a good catch,’ he remembers sheepishly. ‘I tried, it happened. That is when I thought, that’s it. That is the turning point of that game.’
The final flourish was provided by Akram. Imran was assessing various options at a drinks break to confront a pesky, mildly threatening partnership between Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother. Akram told Imran he should come back on for a couple of overs. Imran agreed. That produced the two cherries with which Akram and Pakistan topped this ice cream of a decade, both a blur of late swing, pace and, especially in Lamb’s case, unplayable length: not full enough to drive, but full enough to tempt a little prod forward. Chris Lewis never stood a chance next ball, wider, shorter, but honing in sharply and soon it was over.
The definitive history of Pakistan cricket.
Osman Samiuddin is a sports writer with The National in Abu Dhabi. He is a former senior editor at ESPNcricinfo, where he still contributes as a columnist and editor of the site’s digital magazine, The Cricket Monthly. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, India Today, The Wisden Almanack, The Age (Australia) and Dawn.