Even by the standards of the often crazy, chaotic and unpredictable world of Pakistan cricket, this year’s Champions Trophy tournament has been an eye-opener and rollercoaster ride.
The Pakistan cricket team have mystified, confused and broken the hearts of millions of its followers for over 60 years. Man has since landed on the moon and produced many great inventions but nobody over the years has been able to work out what makes this group of individuals tick.
After their opening match against India on June 4, if anyone had predicted that Pakistan would be facing the same opponent in Sunday’s Champions Trophy final at The Oval they would have been openly ridiculed. As Pakistan trudged off the field on that evening at Edgbaston, shoulders drooped, hands were in pockets, heads were bowed and there were shocked looks on their faces. They resembled a team that appeared as though they did not want to be a part of the tournament and would rather be at home in places such as Lahore, Karachi and Sialkot.
There was a sense of ‘I told you so’ after the humiliating defeat to India. Nobody had given this squad a chance of even getting out of the group stages, with expectations of it being dominated by India and South Africa. The clash between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Cardiff on June 12 was a match that was expected to be one for the wooden spoon. Most experts had felt that this was a weak squad and one that would be among the also-rans in the tournament, entering it as the lowest-ranked team. Even the most die-hard Pakistan cricket fan was apprehensive about their chances and many feared humiliation for a proud cricketing nation.
However, in true Pakistani cricketing style, Sarfraz Ahmed’s band of experienced and streetwise cricketers combined with the exuberance of youth have dumbfounded the critics. The fielding since the defeat to India has been alert, catches being taken, stumps hit by direct throws and the energy levels while out in the field have been very high. Was this really Pakistan fielding, asked many?
The batting up until the semi-final against England had been regarded as the weak link and while it was barely adequate against Sri Lanka and South Africa, the Pakistan top-order shone against the favourites and tournament hosts in the semi-final in Cardiff, leading to the rare sight of a trouble-free run chase for Pakistan.
The bowling, as with most Pakistani cricket teams throughout history, was regarded as the strong point and they have not disappointed. Pakistan’s bowlers are always at their best when they look for wickets, their genetic makeup does not allow them to be effective when trying to contain the opposition. It’s been fantastic to once again see the tried and tested formula of forget how many runs you concede, just get them out, being implemented by the likes of Hasan Ali, Junaid Khan and Mohammad Amir.
Then there is the little matter of wise leadership and some out of the box thinking which had hitherto been in scant supply. The decision to replace a struggling Ahmed Shehzad with the promising talent of Fakhar Zaman has brought unprecedented advantages to the Pakistan top order. Suddenly, Pakistan now have an attacking option and the opposition think-tanks are having to work on containment strategies for the opening overs instead of sitting back and looking for a mistake.
On the other hand, a little misfortune in the shape of an injury to Wahab Riaz – who also happened to bowl the worst bowling spell by any bowler in the Champions Trophy in the defeat to India – has brought unexpected dividends. The immensely talented Junaid stepped in to fill Wahab’s place and has immediately made a difference with some fantastic performances to partner Amir in the opening overs.
The good news for Pakistan’s bowling doesn’t stop there. The uncapped Rumman Raees, flown in to replace Wahab, has already made his mark with an ODI debut performance to confound the naysayers when he played in place of the injured Amir against England. The embarrassment of riches that Pakistan’s head coach and captain are now facing what would be the envy of many teams around the world and it would appear that the ODI team are well set for future challenges, one of which is to take on their rivals India in Sunday’s final.
But all the resources that Pakistan can muster would count for nought without the guidance and leadership of a captain who Misbah-ul-Haq once dubbed as the “oxygen” for his team. Sarfraz may have come in for some criticism for his lack of English speaking skills, but whatever language he speaks with his team is bringing success after success on the field where it really matters.
Sarfraz’s own form behind the stumps and with the bat has been equally impressive. When the chips were down for Pakistan in the must-win game against Sri Lanka, the Pakistan captain stepped in and with able support from Amir, and some gifts from Sri Lankan fielders, steered his team to a hard-fought victory which took them to the semi-finals. As Amir was to remark later, Sarfraz’s calm leadership at the crease was his inspiration on that day and one can foresee many such occasions for Pakistan in the future.
Pakistan have a great opportunity to drive home the advantage they have from this new-found optimism and lift the Champions Trophy at The Oval. Along the way, they can lay to rest the demons that have haunted them for a while in terms of losses to India in major tournaments.
But the most uplifting aspect of Pakistan’s journey to the final has been the fact that victories have come at the hands of their younger team members and not from those who have been tried and tested before. The likes of Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali and Fakhar have shown that fresh talent is ready to take over from the old-guard. This alone will fill supporters and fans of the mercurial brand of Pakistan cricket with great joy.
It is also true that this team which was termed as ‘underdogs’ has now exceeded all expectations and regardless of the final outcome, can walk away from the Champions Trophy with their heads held high. All that remains for Sarfraz and co is to go out at The Oval on Sunday and enjoy themselves, play the brand of cricket they are known for and play their natural game without pressure. The world of cricket will always be indebted for the pleasure they bring to the game.
So hold on to your hats and enjoy the ride on Sunday, as with the Pakistan cricket team anything and everything is possible. Their admirers will be hoping that they get out of the right side of the bed and cause a major surprise by lifting the Champions Trophy.
Watch India take on Pakistan in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final, live on from 10am this Sunday.