BELIEVE it or not, miracles still happen, and the eighth-ranked Pakistan playing the Champions Trophy final today is a real-life testimony to that. Sarfraz Ahmed and company smothering mighty England, the firm title favourites, with incredible ease on their home turf in the high-profile semi-final was the highest point of this miraculous development.
The most significant part of this astounding story is the resurgence of the team on the back of some great performances from its younger players. Those who still doubt the quality of natural cricketing talent in Pakistan should pack up simply because several of these youngsters — opener Fakhar Zaman and paceman Hasan Ali being the standouts — have proved their credentials in a handsome manner in this Champions Trophy. As Indian captain and batting genius Virat Kohli recently declared, the mega event featuring top eight teams in world cricket is a much tougher contest compared to the World Cup. And just how well the Pakistani young guns have responded to the challenge is for everyone to see and applaud.
Pakistan cricket players for the last few years had lacked the audacity, the boldness in their game which used to be their hallmark. Thank God it is back. Hats off to Mardan-born southpaw Fakhar for reviving it with some breathtaking strokeplay on his ODI debut at the big stage. Such was his confidence and nimbleness that it made ex-players like Michael Vaughan and Stephen Fleming sit up and ask where this young lad had been hiding.
Fakhar’s dashing strokeplay and attacking approach clearly rubbed off on his teammates and Pakistan, which was outplayed in the opening game against India and were on the verge of exiting the ICC event, got a newlease of life and went on to win three successive game to enter the final.
Fakhar’s more experienced opening partner Azhar Ali — usually a cautious batsman in ODIs — changed gears against England to put up a brisk opening stand that proved a match-winnig one for Pakistan.
Hasan, the highest wicket-taker in this Champions Trophy so far, has also progressed by leaps and bounds. The belligerent-looking pace merchant from Mandi Bahauddin did not let Pakistan feel the absence of their pace spearhead Mohammad Amir in a huge contest like the Champions Trophy semi-final which signifies that the 23-year-old right-armer holds a bright future.
And here too, Hasan’s exploits inspired senior pace partner Junaid Khan to raise his game and take important wickets in the three wins.
With fit-again Amir returning for today’s all-important decider at The Oval, hopefully Pakistan’s pace bowling will be handful for India to handle.
While talking of current Pakistani youngsters, it will be an injustice not to mention the 18-year-old Shadab Khan. Though still in early stage of his career and yet to shine fully at the top level, the leg-spinner has shown the nerves and attitude to compete with the best in business.
All these new faces have a few traits in common: passion, aggression and fearlessness. This is a clear message for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and national selectors who otherwise remain in their bureaucratic and ‘senior-first’ mode — an approach that has led to a sharp decline in Pakistan cricket in the last few years.
The fresh batch of talent also shows that if a proper system is implemented and followed with consistency in Pakistan cricket, there is no reason the country cannot make progress in the long run.
When a pumped-up Pakistan take the field against India today, it is hoped the youngsters as well as the seniors combine well to turn the tables on the defending champions whose batting powerhouse will indeed pose a major challenge to our bowlers.
Regardless of who in the end win the coveted trophy, the right attitude will be the key for Sarfraz and his men.
Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2017