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THINGS I LEARNT FROM THE CHAMPIONS

June 25, 2017

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‘We are the champions’; Fakhar Zaman celebrates his century in the final
‘We are the champions’; Fakhar Zaman celebrates his century in the final

SARFRAZ IS SUPER

It is almost unimaginable for a Pakistan captain to have a smooth ride, ever. If performances on the field aren’t going to get him, those off it might just. The near-rise of Mohammad Rizwan could have been a distraction; it wasn’t meant to be. Junaid Khan could continue to be overlooked for selection but injury and suspension to the others took care of that. And ill-discipline and bad behaviour could have been tolerated; the new coach has taken care of that. In theory, Sarfraz has most of his worries sorted.

And yet, Sarfraz crumbled at the first Test, against India, in the first group match that Pakistan played. His captaincy was awry, decisions weren’t as quick or thought out, and his team seemed to crumble like a naan khatai.

But it was the response that mattered.

Six conclusions drawn from Pakistan’s CT2017 win

Not since Wasim Akram has a Pakistan team been on permanent offensive for the full 50 overs — not Waqar Younis, not Inzamam-ul-Haq, not Rashid Latif, hell, not even Shahid Afridi. The captains of the post-2003 era can graciously be described as calculated risk-takers. But there is something unique about Sarfraz.

Written off almost by everyone, Sarfraz returned to the field with a much clearer head. He shouted, he screamed, he raged and he abused — all Wasim-esque. But then he cajoled, he encouraged and he instilled confidence — all Wasim-esque too. Make no mistake, Pakistan’s win comes at least two years too early. There is still loads more that needs to be sorted out. But in Sarfraz, they have the right man at the helm.

AZHAR IS AWARE

Let’s talk about Azhar Ali. I love Azhar the Test opener, I would never go to war without him. But I admit that for a long, long time, I was sceptical of his involvement in one-day cricket. His penchant to find the fielder was worrying; he was part of the dot ball problem and not its solution. I could even justify this bias despite Azhar quietly racking up the runs — he was a remnant of the Misbah-era that had its due place in Test cricket but not limited-overs cricket.

Until the final, when I had newfound respect for Azhar Ali, the astute reader of the game.

Till that match, he had largely been steady without being flashy. He took no particular initiatives to attack nor did he display any intent to do anything out of the ordinary. On the other end, Fakhar Zaman had been taking to attacks as if it were his ancestral trade.

But in the final, as India started targeting Fakhar’s leg side game and had him visibly flustered and badly bogged down, Pakistan held its breath. Would Fakhar survive? Who would score briskly were he to fail? Will our dot ball problem resurface? As we asked these questions, Azhar decided to answer them most emphatically.

As the senior batsman, Azhar took it upon himself to attack the opposition. On the first ball of the third over, Jasprit Bumrah had Fakhar caught behind only to discover that he had bowled a no-ball. Fakhar went off strike and Azhar began facing Bumrah. The fourth ball was smacked for four, and in Bumrah’s next over, another two reached the fence.

Yes, Fakhar was rattled but the onus of attacking the opposition was shared. No, Fakhar will not fail, because pressure will be relieved off him. Yes, there will be a few dot balls but the run rate will chug along too. By the time Fakhar found his groove — a four off the third ball of the 11th over — Azhar was motoring along at 30 runs off 33 deliveries.

Zaman celebrates his century in the final
Zaman celebrates his century in the final

The role reversal isn’t significant; it is the reading of the match situation that is most crucial here. Understanding that a young gun was struggling, finding him enough time and space to breathe, and handing him the opportunity to settle his nerves all went to Azhar’s credit. Such tactical awareness has been sadly absent for many years in the ODI team. Azhar might well not be everyone’s cup of tea but for the boys in green, he is a vital cog that allows the others to shine.

IMAD NEEDS IMAGINATION

Twitter throws up the most fascinating ideas. I recently came across the term “Beaconhouse-type all-rounder” to refer to Imad Wasim: a slur meant to denigrate the sanitised form of all-round play that we have come to expect for the past decade or so. From Wasim Akram, Azhar Mahmood and Abdul Razzaq, we were reduced to Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, and recently, to Hammad Azam and Imad Wasim.

Now, Imad has a definite role in T20 cricket, to choke runs and to ensure that the opposition does not get any width to manoeuvre the ball. But with a full 10-over load added to his responsibility, how long before the batsman would figure him out and smack his non-turning deliveries out of the park?

Imad only bowled three deliveries in the final but the lack of turn he generates will slowly become a concern, particularly on South Asian and Middle Eastern pitches. And as Pakistan continue their hunt to refine the combination that has emerged victorious, Imad looks to be in trouble with those behind him pushing him to the limits. There is the fast-bowling all rounder Fahim Ashraf already in the squad and of course there is a fast-maturing Shadab Khan, too. Fahim, in particular, is not a Beaconhouse-type all-rounder; he has been groomed in the cut-throat world of street cricket played in Rawalpindi. Imad’s 25 runs off 21 deliveries gave the final innings some thrust although it stands to reason that Fahim Ashraf could have done the job a little better. In Shadab, Pakistan have found a genuine spinning all-rounder who can outwit the likes of Yuvraj Singh with relative ease. The old fox Imad needs new tricks, and fast.

PSL WAS A ‘PLAYAA’

Much has already been written about the products of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) taking the Champions Trophy by surprise. Fakhar Zaman, Shadab Khan and Hassan Ali all stood out, proving that given the right kind of exposure, there is enough raw talent in Pakistan for the team to keep pace with the times.

But the victory in the Champions Trophy has also proved how the PSL has, in the short-term at least, allowed selectors to bypass the domestic system in their hunt to discover new talent. The systemic failings of domestic cricket in Pakistan are well-known; attempts to restructure and revive it have also generated plenty of debate. But for young players, getting to the PSL must now surely be a priority given how a two-month stint of rubbing shoulders with the best has elevated the mental strengths of Fakhar, Shadab and Hassan.

In one interview, Fakhar credited Brendon McCullum for having instilled in him the confidence to back his game. “He saw me batting in the nets, and came to me and said, ‘Fakhar, you will play every match of the tournament. But you must carry this style of batting wherever you go.’”

Such fortitude cannot be constructed in Pakistan’s domestic system. This does not mean that the PSL is a permanent solution — the nursery of cricket remains domestic cricket — but it was a window into modern cricket that some have already taken great advantage of. Long may it continue.

AMIR HAS ATONED

When Pakistan won at Lord’s last year, some believed that Mohammad Amir had finally redeemed himself. Talk of redemption again reared its head at this tournament: while heart-broken Indians complained that he was still a tainted bowler, some quarters within Pakistan have also held that view for long. Indeed, the same noises became louder after the semi-final win against England, with some arguing that we didn’t need Amir to begin with since Hassan Ali was now our spearhead.

We need to stop.

Humans make mistakes, they atone for their sins. And when they are made to feel loved again, they have the ability to bounce back and some. From an Amir who started bowling a yard behind the crease when he returned to international cricket, he has slowly found his groove and the confidence of his team mates. If we are looking for redemption, it came twice at this tournament alone, first with his match-winning partnership with the captain against Sri Lanka and then with his magical spell against the Indian top-order.

It stands to reason that every time Amir will have a bad game (and he will), talk of him being tainted will rear its head again. And every time he does well, talk of redemption will also get louder. This is a vicious, unending cycle that needs to be broken.

DETENTE IS BETTER THAN DERISION

Suspension of bilateral cricket between India and Pakistan has meant that people-to-people contact has shrunk dramatically. This in turn has helped demonise those that we don’t know. With Hindutva’s rise in India and the simultaneous rise of parochial nationalism in Pakistan, people on both sides of the border have been pummelled with the idea that their neighbours harbour ill intent towards them, how they are terrorists, how they don’t want peace between the two nations.

Cricket has shattered this illusion and the artificiality of hate constructed by our rulers. If ever there was a referendum on how the two countries should proceed, it was at its ironic best held at the home of our former colonial master. And the result has been devastating for the status quo: the new generation of Indians and Pakistanis have little to do with historical hostilities, they’d much rather get on with each other.

It wasn’t too long ago that a young man was jailed in Pakistan for being a diehard fan of Virat Kohli. Today, Virat has filled much of Pakistan with love and admiration through his statesmanship and sportsmanship. Even when Kamaal R. Khan accused the Indian captain and his players of having thrown the game, Virat and his team found supporters in Pakistan. At the Oval, Indian fans leaving the ground once their top-order was decimated handed over their tickets to Pakistani fans stuck outside the stadium.

For a long time, many have argued that Indians and Pakistanis bring the worst out of each other, that we look at the other with great suspicion and mistrust. The Oval has busted that theory — we might well bring the worst out of each other, but we do bring the best out of each other, too. It is a quintessentially desi relationship. Time to end the hate.

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 25th, 2017