Conquering the Odds

by Ali Gauhar

 

“I used to think that Pakistan were the most interesting team in the history of sport. I now realise that they’re the most interesting team in the history of mankind. Their ability to teleport between farce and genius is unparalleled, and at best they are like watching sport directed by David Lynch. Nothing makes a blind bit of sense, key characters appear out from nowhere, supernatural forces are at work and inanimate objects can talk. All you can do is run with the mood and the madness.” – British Commentator Rob Smyth

 

 

Introduction

We have seen stunning surprises over the last year. Brexit, a hung parliament in the last general election in Britain, Leicester City winning the English Premier League, and now Pakistan, the lowest ranked team in the Champions Trophy winning the tournament in typical Pakistani fashion.

After their massive loss to India in their first match, Pakistan’s bowling suddenly became magical, as if Merlin had cast a spell on the balls. Their outdated bowling somehow got the ball to reverse, which is now a lost art in white-ball cricket. Their outmoded batting suddenly clicked in their final two games. Their dominance with the bat in those matches was random and bizarre, like Hugh Grant playing Rocky Balboa and making it work. Their horrendous fielding miraculously picked up after their defeat against India.

In sum, all the statistical analysis suggested Pakistan didn’t have a chance. So how on earth did they do it? It was a combination of heart and thought. Sarfraz Ahmed and his boys did some soul searching and their self-respect and self esteem woke-up, they played like men possessed. Their demons were out to prove a point. Moreover, they figured out exactly what they needed to do after they beat South Africa in the second game. Hope to bowl first, get the side out cheaply, and accumulate the runs. It really was an incredible journey.

 

Why no one Believed

During the 2015 World Cup, it was clear that Pakistan were far behind the modern game. Despite that they still managed to reach the Quarter Finals. After that Pakistan’s white-ball cricket woes escalated. The modern game exposed their glaring weaknesses.

Pakistan’s batting was their core issue. Top teams were making and chasing down 350, while Pakistan were content with 260-270. 300 for Pakistan was a bonus. Last summer in England, it was alarming that they only went past 300 once given the fact that England now produce featherbeds. It was a similar story in Australia. The amount of dot deliveries played on these tours was staggering. The inability to rotate the strike and turn ones into twos was shocking. There was no destructive ball striker down the order, which meant that they couldn’t catch up the way they used with the likes of Moin Khan, and Abdul Razzaq. Pakistan’s laborious approach left them far behind the rest. In the age of smart phones, Pakistan were still using Nokia 3310s.

If you go back about eight years, Pakistan’s batting even then was slow and inconsistent. It was their bowling that made them a force in white-ball cricket. However, in the recent past, Pakistan’s outdated batting became infectious and made its way to their bowling. Ajmal was banned after his action was called, Afridi’s bad back took the venom out of his bowling, and Umar Gul’s lack of fitness finally caught up with him. In the last two years Pakistan consistently conceded scores over 300. They leaked runs with the new ball, clueless during the middle overs, and at the death, which at one time was their biggest strength, became their biggest weakness. It certainly didn’t help that Pakistan’s reputation as a hopeless fielding side came to the fore at the most crucial stages of the game.

To make matters worse, Pakistan had a captaincy crisis on their hands, something, which they have become accustomed to over the years. Azhar Ali was given the boot after the Australian tour, which meant that the new captain only had a series before the Champions Trophy 2017 to make his plans. When Sarfraz Ahmed was named captain, many thought that he would provide aggression that was missing when Azhar Ali was captain. His T-20 performances as captain made Sarfaraz the obvious choice as the new ODI leader. In his first game against the West Indies in Guyana he made glaring mistakes. His mannerisms on the field immediately came into question. There is a fine line between being passionate and being hysterical. Sarfaraz in his first game as captain was definitely the latter.

One can hardly blame anyone for thinking that Pakistan could make it through to the next round of the Champions Trophy, let alone win it. Even before the tournament began they suffered setbacks. The squad that was announced produced scathing criticism from a number of former cricketers and analysts. To compound Pakistan’s issues further, Umar Akmal was sent back home after failing fitness tests. The decision to send Akmal back was also criticized, as he is the only middle-order batsman in the country who can clear the boundary with consistency.

Pakistan’s first game against India in Birmingham created the hype we expected. Some experts in Pakistan were saying that if they beat India it is as good as winning the Champions Trophy. India went in as favourites given their record against Pakistan in ICC tournaments, but most importantly, they were a better team. Pakistan before the game said that they were going to come after India with all guns blazing. Sarfraz mentioned that he was going to think out of the box to surprise the Indians. It turned out to be a box full of crazy.

Pakistan won the toss and opted to bowl, thinking that the new ball would swing. Mohammad Amir’s first over against Rohit Sharma suggested that there was enough encouragement for seam bowlers early on. After the first over, Sarfaraz introduced Imad Wasim, the left arm spinner into the attack. The decision was clearly pre-planned. Perhaps one of those “think out of the box” moves the skipper had in mind. As expected, it backfired. Imad was steady, but not threatening. Pakistan’s poor fielding early on set the tone for the Indians. Pakistan’s most experienced fast bowler Wahab Riaz was erratic. Throughout his spell Riaz was continuously releasing the pressure. The most concerning thing about his spell was that he kept using his variations at the wrong time. It is hard not to feel for Wahab Riaz. One has to realize that he plays all three formats of the game, which surely takes its toll. Let’s hope that this is not the last of him.

Not surprisingly, the Pakistani bowlers got a fearful battering. After India posted 319, the Pakistanis were never going to chase it down. In the end they collapsed to a 124 run defeat.

Pakistan’s woeful performance against India confirmed what most expected. Their bowling lacked thought, their fielding was comical, and their batting was not in-step with the times. Their plans turned out to be a casserole of nonsense.

The experts, especially the ones in Pakistan set up a grand clearance sale of all their unfair and uninformed ‘analysis’, some hardly able to hide their desire to get into the PCB. Pakistan certainly deserved criticism, but the kind of criticism that they got was unwarranted, especially since the competition was not over yet.

From then on Pakistan had to win every game to qualify. Their next game was against the South Africans. After Pakistan’s performance in their first match, South Africa went into this game as firm favourites. Although Pakistan have had the wood over South Africa in ICC white-ball tournaments in the recent past, this Pakistan side looked severley under-prepared against a team which had four batsmen in the top ten and the number one bowler (Imran Tahir) at the time in ODI cricket.

 

The Turning Point

South Africa won the toss and elected to bat on a used wicket, which turned out to be crucial in the context of this game, and for Pakistan’s other games going further. With Wahab Riaz being sent back home due to injury, Junaid Khan came in. Ahmed Shehzad was also dropped for his poor fielding and timid batting, and was replaced by a debutant, the left-handed Fakhar Zaman. These new inclusions changed Pakistan’s fortunes dramatically.

After a steady start by Amir and Junaid, the spinners were brought on and made an immediate impact on a tired wicket. ImadWasim, who was taken to the cleaners in the final over of the first game became close to unplayable in the second. The batsmen couldn’t get him away at all. Not only did he dry up the runs, he picked up two crucial wickets of Hashim Amla and the captain A.B De Villiers off his first ball. Mohammad Hafeez, who did not bowl a single ball against India, delivered his full quota of overs in where he stifled South Africa’s batsmen, and got the wicket of de Kock. The spinners got them on the back-foot, but it was the unlikely looking fast bowler Hasan Ali that broke them. His length was spot on, he was quicker than he looked, and his passion was infectious. The three wickets that he took, particularly the one of Wayne Parnell was nothing short of magic. If that was not enough, Amir and Junaid came back at the death and got ball to revere swing, which is now a rarity in ODI cricket, because of two balls being used from both ends. The Pakistanis restricted the South Africans to 219, a low score, but those who follow Pakistan cricket closely would know that their batsmen have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. No matter what score they have to chase, their fans will never be sitting easy.

Aggression was what Pakistan were looking for at the top, and that is exactly what they got from another unlikely player in Fakhar Zaman. His confidence was refreshing. His play showed intent, something that Pakistan were missing up top. His brief 31 run cameo was vital not just in this match, but going forward. As Pakistan’s innings progressed they were looking nervy. Morne Morkel softened them up nicely with some hostile bowling. Thankfully, Shoaib Malik came in just at the right time and played a priceless little cameo. His innings took Pakistan ahead on Duckworth-Lewis, which meant when the rain came down Pakistan were 19 runs ahead of South Africa.  It was a stereotypical performance by both teams- South Africa’s reputation for being perennial chokers, and Pakistan’s unpredictable nature of soaring up after hitting the bottom.

In hindsight, Pakistan’s victory against South Africa was a major turning point, not just because they were back in the tournament, but because this win gave them the clarity that they were lacking. They identified key players and each was given a clear role.  The opening bowlers in Amir and Junaid were given the task to deliver consistent probing overs, and then come back at the end to extract reverse swing. The spinners were required to frustrate the batsmen by bowling nagging lengths. They also had just the man to lead the way in the middle-overs. Hasan Ali’s ability to examine the middle of the pitch was vital to Pakistan’s success. His “into the wicket stuff” similar to England’s Liam Plunkett made him a very difficult prospect. Not only was he taking wickets, he was also bowling dot deliveries, constantly piling up the pressure.

Taking what they saw against South Africa, the Pakistan think-tank believed that the only way they could win was by bowling first and restricting the opposition under 250. Knowing that their batsmen would struggle to chase a big score, they clearly felt their best chance was to attack in the middle overs instead of the final ten. Deciding to be aggressive between the 30th and the 40th over was critical.  Gone are the days where batting sides look to set themselves up for the final ten overs. It is now the middle overs where power-hitters come into their own and take games away. Pakistan strangled the opposition in the middle overs by taking wickets and only conceding 3.53 per over. As for the batting, the team management expected Zaman to lay the foundation by attacking in the first ten overs in order to make life easier for Pakistan’s workmen like middle order to knock off the rest of the target at their own pace.

 

An Ugly Win

Pakistan won the toss and not surprisingly asked Sri Lanka to bat on a used pitch at Cardiff. It went down exactly how they planned. Amir and Junaid were steady upfront. Hasan Ali came a little before the 20th over and got the key wicket of Kausal Mendis. The skipper Angelo Mathews and opener Dickwella were putting up a solid fight till Mohammad Amir was brought into the attack. It was once again those middle-overs where Pakistan came into in their own. When Amir picked up Mathews after the drinks break, the momentum shifted towards Pakistan. Amir and Junaid were making the ball sing. The fact that the Pakistanis were the only ones to extract lateral movement is extraordinary, and to get a ball which is not even 20 overs old to reverse is mind boggling.  Junaid and Amir took four wickets between overs 30 and 40 knocking the wind out of Sri Lanka.

After bowling Sri Lanka out for 236 the Pakistanis would have pleased, even more so when Fakhar Zaman continued from where he left off, giving his team another  blistering start. After Zaman was dismissed for 50 an all too familiar story started to unfold. The Pakistani batsmen were collapsing under pressure. The middle-orders stroke play was faulty against a bowling side, which lacked skill and penetration throughout the tournament.  They allowed Sri Lanka’s veteran fast-bowler Lasith Malinga who looked innocuous in his first two games to find his mojo. When the Sri Lankans had Pakistan 7 down for 162, it was their game.  From then on it was up to the skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and Mohammad Amir to see Pakistan home. In the middle of their partnership, Malinga produced not one but two chances for his team against the run of play. Thisara Perera dropped Sarfraz at mid-on, and a few balls later Sarfraz was dropped again at square-leg by Prasanna. One had to feel sorry for Malinga.  In the twilight of his career, showcasing all his skill just at the right moment could have been made for a great fairytale, but in the end it turned out to be a nightmare. It reminded me of Shoaib Akhtar’s last game against New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup when Kamran Akmal dropped two catches in a row of his bowling.

 

A Complete Mismatch?

Through missed catches and run-out opportunities, Sarfraz and Amir steered Pakistan home by three wickets, securing a place in the Semi-Final against the hosts England. The home-side was in white hot form, and firm favourites to win the title. Jarrod Kimber, who writes and reports for ESPNcricinfo gave Pakistan no chance. In his pre-match analysis he mentioned that there were too many glaring weaknesses in Pakistan’s ODI game, and England with their modern dynamic outfit were just the ones to exploit them. To be fair, he was not wrong. England were and continue playing ODI cricket of the future, and Pakistan were stuck in antediluvian times. Pakistan’s middle-order looked completely out of sorts. They got lucky against the Sri Lankans, and very few thought the rub of the green would continue to be with Pakistan. On paper it was a complete mismatch.

Before the start of the match England would have taken some important details into account. Firstly, they were playing on a used pitch, something that had worked for the Pakistani bowlers in their last two games. Secondly, the square was rough, which meant that the fast bowlers could again get the ball to reverse in the middle and at the end. And finally, Pakistan’s uncanny ability to galvanise themselves in big competitions.

Pakistan knew exactly what they needed to do, and that was to stick to the original game plan. Before the start they suffered a massive setback. Their ace fast-bowler Mohammad Amir was out with a back spasm, which meant another debutant in left-armer Ruman Raees had to come in. That certainly did not sit comfortably with the Pakistani supporters.

Sarfraz Ahmed won the toss and elected to bowl. Once again, the knives were out back home. Before the first ball was bowled a number of critics were attacking the captain  for not batting first. This had been going on every time Sarfraz opted to field first. The problem is that these critics are stuck in a time warp. They feel that Pakistan are bad chasers, which they are, so come what may they have to bat first even if the conditions suggest otherwise. What these analysts fail to understand is that this Pakistani batting line-up are uncomfortable chasing as well as setting targets. This is not the 90s where Pakistan had destructive players up and down the order who could post big scores. Sarfraz knew that his bowlers could put England under pressure from the outset on this wicket. He understood that his bowlers enjoyed bowling in these conditions, and he backed them to bowl them out cheaply. What’s more, the wicket became easier batting second at Cardiff- as we saw in Bangladesh’s successful chase against New Zealand, and Pakistan’s narrow win against Sri Lanka.

Once again, Pakistan’s plan worked to perfection.  Their lengths were spot on throughout. The talented debutant (Raees) bowled splendidly upfront, picking up the important wicket of Alex Hales. Hasan Ali, Pakistan’s main man was bowling like a man possessed. Shadab Khan the leg-spinner picked up the key wicket of England’s best Joe Root, and then Junaid Khan and Hasan came back in the middle overs and completely stifled the English batsmen.

Hasan, Junaid, and Raees utilized the tired pitch superbly. Hasan Ali was bowling his “into the wicket stuff,” Junaid extracted lateral movement in the middle, and Raees who was just the right bowler for this slow Cardiff track used his variations wisely. The perfect illustration to sum up Pakistan’s dominance was the fact the Ben Stokes, one of the finest ball strikers in the game, was not allowed to hit a single boundary in his 64 ball innings of 34. England were blown away for 211. It has to be said that Pakistan were fortunate to get used pitches in three games. However, it must be pointed out that the bowlers executed their plans superbly. They forced modern bastsmen to play 90s cricket, something which Pakistan have been accused of for ages. Azhar Mahmood, Pakistan’s bowling coach who has a wealth of experience playing in England deserves special mention for guiding his bowlers in the right direction. It should also be highlighted that familiarity does not guarantee success. On similar decks in the UAE, Pakistan has lost six of their last eight bilateral series.

After Pakistan’s narrow escape against Sri Lanka, England certainly would have had hope of bowling Pakistan out. They were certainly going to test out Fakhar Zaman with some short deliveries. They did exactly that, but Zaman thwarted England’s plan with some smart and proactive batting. Once again, the left-hander got his team off to a flyer, belting another timely half-century against a quality bowling attack. Azhar Ali looked as organized as ever. He ably supported Zaman, and played a few shots off his own. His 76 runs was crucial to Pakistan’s cause.  Azhar Ali has long been scrutinized for his laborious style of play. It has to be pointed out that no batsmen had worked as hard to develop his game, particularly in ODI cricket.

He may not be the typical modern ODI opener, but he was just the right batsmen for Pakistan’s plans- if you dismiss the opposition for a low score, Azhar Ali is exactly the kind of thoughtful opener Pakistan needed.  Pakistan’s batting peaked just at the right- in the Semi-Final against an unbeaten England.

Who would have thought that Pakistan’s batsmen would dominate England like that? This competition had already seen loads of surprises, so perhaps one should not have been too shocked. The manner in which Pakistan went about their chase unexpected and refreshing. Their new found confidence with the bat certainly would have buoyed them going into the final.

 

The Mother of all Finals:

No one could have imagined it. It is the kind of thing you pretend to be a part of when you are a kid in your room, imagining that you are Mohammad Amir bowling to Virat Kohli in a final of a Champions Trophy.  Now it was actually happening.  After their match, the last team India would have expected to meet in the final was Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan managed to dust themselves off after their first game and make it to the final was already an extraordinary achievement. To win it would be something else.

India were going in as favourites. Past matches aside, they would have been happy with the fact that they were going to play on a fresh Oval pitch. Pakistan had won all their games playing on used wickets. However, India knew full well that this was not the same Pakistan side they played in the first game in Birmingham. This was your typical Pakistan in big tournaments-hitting rock bottom, but then somehow geeing themselves up.

India won the toss and elected to bowl first. That raised a few eye-brows given the fact that it was a fresh wicket, and runs on the board in a final would be tough for any team, let alone Pakistan. One could also argue that Virat Kohli knew that Pakistan’s bowlers had been successful bowling first, and he did not want to give them that advantage. Pakistan now had to adapt by batting first.  What lay ahead was completely unexpected, almost unacceptable.

From the very beginning, the rub of the green was with Pakistan. Kohli’s plan all but worked. He left cover open expecting the nervy Zaman to drive at the ball tentatively, which he did, and then got a thick outside edge through to Dhoni. The problem was the bowler, Bumrah, overstepped. Fakhar Zaman was given a life on 3. After that Azhar Ali took charge. As the senior batsmen he made a concerted effort to attack the India bowlers. His stroke play and calmness at the crease was exemplary. Azhar’s approach rubbed off on Zaman. After a difficult start, the left-hander grew in confidence and started playing his shots. Good fortune certainly was with the openers. First the ‘wicket’ of a no-ball, run-out chances, balls falling into ‘no-man’s-land.’-but they deserved it. Their aggressive approach thwarted India’s strategy.

When Azhar was run-out by his partner with score on 128, one would have felt a bit nervous for Pakistan. Although the openers gave them exactly the kind of start they were looking for, it often happens that after a big first wicket partnership is broken, the other opener tends to follow soon after. Zaman had other ideas.

His maturity and his match awareness was a game-changer. It was his billergence against the Indian spinners after Azhar got out that gave Pakistan the impetus that they need to go above and beyond. It was those ten overs- between the 23rd and 33rd where Zaman unleashed and took Pakistan firmly into pole position. His century is something that dreams are made of, something more special anyone could possibly imagine. This was his moment.

To make it more bizarre, Mohammad Hafeez who had a terrible tournament with the bat somehow came good at number five. His contribution powered Pakistan to 338. With the way Pakistan’s batsmen had been going in the recent past, it was the last thing that India were expecting.

India, with the most powerful batting line-up in the world, with a fantastic record chasing surely backed themselves to reach their target. The new-ball had not swung throughout the tournament, so the Indians would have planned to consolidate in the first ten overs, and then launch in the middle. Unfortunately for India, the unexpected kept happening.

Amir, who was out injured in the semi-final came back for the all important final and justified why people wanted him back so desperately after his ban.  At that moment, he was the ultimate whisperer. He brought the ball sharply back into Sharma’s pads and it was going nowhere but the stumps.

He found Virat Kohli’s outside, only for it not to be accepted by Azhar Ali at slip. You would think that would bring Amir’s morale down. Instead, he decided to do something better. He bowled it straighter, expecting Kohli to go for his go to flick on the on-side.  He did exactly that, but sadly for him the ball seamed away just enough to get his outside again, only this time it went to point, and most importantly the catch was taken.

Amir was in the middle of a Houdini like spell, and he was doing it on the most important occasion. Sarfraz knew Amir was in the midst of something special, which is why he gave him an extra over- another plan which worked, finding Shikar Dhawan’s outside edge through to Sarfraz. Amir’s 3 wicket opening burst put India on the mat. It was a performance that made everyone believe that quality fast-bowling is still alive.

Pakistan’s bowling in the final will always be remembered for Amir’s brilliance upfront.  However, one should also highlight the dismal of Yuvraj Singh, for that summed not only the team spirit, but the humility in the camp. When the young 18 year old leg-spinner wrapped Yuvraj on the front pad, it was given not out as there was bat involved. Shadab however, insisted that his captain go for a review. He actually forced him into to it. Sarfraz, showing a great deal of trust in his leg-spinner went for it. Shadab was spot on. He knew the ball struck the pad first. That moment shed light not only on Shadab’s confidence, but Sarfraz Ahmed’s growth as a captain.

India were staring down the barrel. Even a late flurry from Hardik Pandya was not going to save them. In the end Pakistan bowled India out for 158. They handed India the worst defeat (180 runs) in the history of the Champions Trophy. Fittingly Hasan Ali took the last wicket as it was he that captured the spirit of Pakistan’s campaign.

One of the greatest things about sport is that the underdog has the ability to rise up on any given, and inspire everyone watching, and make people believe that there is greatness inside all of us. Let us make no mistake,  Pakistan were the underdogs in every game they went into. They had no right to storm back the way they did after losing their first match, they had no right to bowl teams out under 250 on three occasions, they had no right to blast 338 runs in the final, and they certainly had no right to win the Champions Trophy.

This reveals that data is irrelevant when it comes to Pakistan in big tournaments. The inclusion of new players, a key change in strategy, thoughtful leadership, and unbelievable passion took them to the summit. Their natural is the unnatural. You can take cricket away from their country, you can exclude them from franchise tournaments, you can continue not to invest in their domestic structure, Pakistan cricket will continue to live on, and inspire everyone. Team Pakistan is here to stay.

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