Cricket: Pakistan thrash West Indies

Shahid Afridi's Pakistan squad has shrugged off a pre-tournament corruption crisis and transformed into a leading World Cup contender after thrashing West Indies by 10 wickets on Wednesday to reach the semifinals.

Three key players were banned last month in a spot-fixing scandal that had hung over the squad for six months, yet it only seems to have galvanized Pakistan under skipper Afridi and coach Waqar Younis.

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Afridi took 4-30 to help skittle West Indies for 112. Mohammad Hafeez chipped in with two wickets, then scored an unbeaten 61 in a 113-run opening stand with Kamran Akmal (47) as Pakistan coasted to victory with almost 30 overs to spare at Dhaka.

"This is a great gift to give back to the nation on Pakistan Day," Afridi said. "The boys have done a great job.

Next up is a semifinal at Mohali against either archrival India or defending champion Australia, who meet in an epic quarterfinal on Thursday.

Australia is coming off a four-wicket loss to Pakistan in Colombo last Saturday, which ended a 34-match unbeaten streak at the World Cup and put skipper Ricky Ponting's job in the spotlight.

Reports this week have suggested Ponting could be forced to quit or be fired if Australia loses to India, suggestions the 36-year-old batsman rejected outright on Wednesday.

India has its own pressures, not least the huge expectations in the cricket-crazy country of more than 1.1 billion, adding to the burden on the brilliant but sometimes brittle batting order.

Pakistan cricket was seemingly in chaos before the tournament after Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were banned by the International Cricket Council for their involvement in a spot-fixing scandal.

The ICC found the players guilty of taking bribes to ensure no-balls were bowled at set times during a test match against England last August - the allegations first exposed in a British tabloid newspaper sting.

Even before that, Pakistan was supposed to be one of four co-hosts for this World Cup, but was stripped of its rights when international cricket ceased in the country in the wake of a terror attack on the Sri Lankan team's convey en route to a match in Lahore.

Amid the endless politicking within Pakistan cricket, Afridi wasn't even confirmed as World Cup captain until after the deadline. Afridi and Waqar were also criticized by Pakistan great Imran Khan for picking too many batsmen, potentially reducing the bowling department to address problems atop the batting order.

None of it seems to have distracted them.

Hafeez opened the bowling and the batting for Pakistan in a man-of-the-match performance. Afridi's haul gave him a tournament-topping 21 wickets.

"The coach told me a couple of days back that I would bowl with the new ball ... I just kept them on a line and length today, and it worked," Hafeez said. "My batting form came back at the right time and I hope to carry it on."

The lack of a good start from the openers had been Pakistan's only major issue at the tournament. The bowling has been outstanding, with paceman Umar Gul working effectively in tandem with the spinners.

After wins over 2007 finalists Australia and Sri Lanka in the group stage, the pressure was on Pakistan for a change ahead of its match against the West Indies.

"It was a pressure game. When you're favorite, it creates pressure. That pressure has given us a boost," Waqar said. "Picking up (Chris) Gayle early made us believe we can do it straight away. The pressure got the best out of us."

The West Indies lurched to their third consecutive defeat after a promising start to the tournament.

After wasting potentially winning positions against England and India in their last two group matches, the West Indies were never in game against Pakistan. Coach Ottis Gibson warned of a "serious" overhaul among the senior ranks in the wake of three consecutive batting failures.

Chris Gayle returned to the starting lineup and scored two nice boundaries but played an irresponsible shot and was out for eight. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, recalled to add some stability in the middle order, was the only West Indies batsman to show real fight, finishing unbeaten on 44 after helping the Caribbean team avoid its lowest total ever at the World Cup.

Ramnaresh Sarwan (24) and Kemar Roach (16) were the only other batsmen to reach double figures.

"Definitely not enough runs on the board ... We didn't counter the bowling well, and fell well short," skipper Darren Sammy said. "We lost wickets in clusters in spin through the tournament, and today was no different."

The next quarterfinal in Dhaka is South Africa against New Zealand on Friday. The winner will advance to a semifinal against either Sri Lanka or England, who meet Saturday at Colombo.

Sri Lanka coach Trevor Bayliss on Wednesday said he was confident Muttiah Muralitharan, the world's leading bowler in both test and ODI cricket and the only survivor of Sri Lanka's World Cup-winning squad in 1996, would recover from a hamstring strain to take part against England.

- AP

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