MOHALI, India, (Reuters) – Shahid Afridi arrived for the World Cup with a “rag-tag bunch of players” and in the space of six short weeks turned them into a strong Pakistan outfit.
India beat Pakistan in the semi-finals to dash their hopes of a second title but Afridi’s men can return home with their heads held high after putting on a great show in the sub-continent despite their tumultuous run-up to the showpiece event.
Unable to play international matches at home and tainted by a spot-fixing scandal that robbed them of the services of three of their best players — Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir — Pakistan cricket had been in disarray.
But Afridi took it upon himself to prove the team can create headlines on the pitch and not just off it.
“It has been a difficult 10 months for us,” Afridi admitted after bowing out of the Cup on Wednesday.
“We had a rag-tag bunch of players coming into the World Cup and considering that it has been a good performance.”
The World Cup was a chance of redemption for Afridi’s men and the captain was proud of their exploits.
“In my opinion we have played better than 2003 and 2007 when our teams were much better. Nobody was expecting anything from this team. I am proud of this team,” Afridi said.
There was indeed a lot to be proud of.
They finished top of Group A even though it included four-times world champions Australia and tournament favourites Sri Lanka.
They beat Sri Lanka in their own back yard by 11 runs before pulling off a feat that no one had achieved in 12 years — beating Australia in the World Cup.
They snapped Australia’s 34-match unbeaten run in the tournament and then followed that up by handing twice Cup winners West Indies a 10-wicket thrashing in the quarter-finals.
But on Wednesday, the team looked ill at ease with the worldwide attention and made schoolboy errors as they dropped Sachin Tendulkar four times during his knock of 85.
The contest between the neighbours, who have fought three wars since their 1947 independence, attracted two Prime Ministers, a multitude of Indian business tycoons and Bollywood celebrities.
The flamboyant Afridi, the highest wicket-taker in the tournament, was not disappointed.
“The boys have really done a great job in this competition. Some of the youngsters are very promising. We played as a unit so I’m very happy as a captain,” he said.
“Asad Shafiq and Umar Akmal played well and I hope they will do well in the future.”