PAKISTAN cricket is the romantic outsider of international cricket. The rebel. The fiery band of artists that tugs on heartstrings and brings tears to eyes. Whether those are tears of joy or devastation is never quite certain but it is the promise of an unexpected thrill that captivates.
Today, with the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy, Pakistan’s popular uprising is within one victory of overthrowing cricket’s ruling elite. In the unfathomable history of Pakistan cricket, this is the most unfathomable of all unfathomable cup runs.
Imran’s Tigers of 1992 were a powerful outfit before that year’s World Cup. It was the disastrous start to the tournament that was a surprise, not the ability of the players. By 1999, Pakistan assembled possibly their greatest ever one-day team, albeit prone to an unscripted disaster.
It showed in their vibrant play that led them to a World Cup final at Lord’s. Wasim Akram’s Pakistan didn’t perform. The greatest team had delivered the biggest disappointment.
In 2007, the first World T20 final was between India and Pakistan. Shoaib Malik’s men brimmed with T20 talent, and looked set to win a tight final until Misbah-ul Haq found short fine leg, ending Pakistan’s hopes. It wasn’t long before Pakistan were in another World T20 final at Lord’s in 2009. Again, it was a strong Pakistan team. It was the tournament of Shahid Afridi’s star celebration, of Mohammad Amir’s breathtaking wickets, and Younis Khan’s resignation from fun cricket immediately after winning the trophy.
In all these escapades, Pakistan’s success was potential fulfilled. That’s why this feels different. Nobody expected Pakistan to be at The Oval today. This raw, new Pakistan, formed by years of cricketing exile and haphazard organisation, is poised to win a major trophy.
Their opponents, India, are a model of consistency. A powerhouse batting order that boasts the world class skills of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. The rest are proven limited overs performers. Big names with big reputations.
But the greatest challenge isn’t the ability of their opponents. The modern dynamic of India-Pakistan matches features a psychological barrier that Pakistan must overcome. Over the last decade against India, Pakistan won three and lost seven. In major tournaments, India lead Pakistan by 10-2. But the overall record is in Pakistan’s favour.
In all One-day Internationals, Pakistan lead India 72-52. And there is the crux. At one time, most notably following Javed Miandad’s last ball Sharjah six in 1986, Pakistan held a psychological advantage. Pakistan were to India then the mental monster that India is to Pakistan now. That hold was loosened around and after the 2003 World Cup, by an Indian team including Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid.
While India called on their greatest players to turn the tide, Pakistan are relying on rookies and newbies. That is, of course, classic Pakistan, the romantic outsider, the rebel. And while India are favourites, Pakistan have more than a chance. As good a chance as in many years. Providing Pakistan can master their nerves, an upset is possible.
The main reason is Pakistan’s bowling, which has shone by shackling the mighty talents of England and South Africa. Even India’s batsmen were under control until the death overs. This Pakistan will have learnt from that embarrassment. Indeed, what has followed is little short of brilliant.
The pace attack of Amir, who is expected to play, Junaid Khan, and Hasan Ali is performing to world class standards. The spinners are enjoying the dry and worn nature of the pitches. This is all backed up by smart field placings and a higher standard in the field.
Sarfraz Ahmed is a new captain but is a bundle of energy and encouragement. Plans are clearly made in advance with the coaching staff and executed to the letter.
While the middle order is suspect, Pakistan’s opening partnership, featuring the unbridled aggression of Fakhar Zaman, sets a strong platform to chase totals. Pakistan’s main hope is that the formula works again, that the bowlers curtail India leaving a manageable target. But cricket is rarely straightforward. Hopes can be quickly dismantled. It is dangerous to expect too much. And, perhaps, that’s the way to deal with the emotion of a final against India.
Savour these rebels, this fiery band of artists, this new Pakistan, and expect too much. For, to many who have followed Pakistan cricket for enough years to make them weary, it is the return of the thrill of the fight, the passion, the aggression, and the attitude of the unfancied that fires our imaginations and binds us forever to their side.
Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2017