Pakistan comes full circle at The Oval

Pakistan put behind the caning it received against India in Edgbaston. And on June 18, it left The Oval with the ICC Champions Trophy after posting a stunning victory over India, a result even the most ardent of Pakistan supporters would not have predicted at the start of the tournament. It was a triumph of talent, persistence and belief.

The winning moment... Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, along with team-mates, erupts into wild celebration after handing India a hiding in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy at The Kia Oval in London. “This win will be remembered not just today or tomorrow but for a long, long time,” says Sarfraz.   -  Getty Images

It was the sort of script only Pakistan could have written. Only two weeks ago, it was being caned at Edgbaston, with Mickey Arthur, the Pakistan coach, calling the result a ‘reality check’ of the side’s situation in one-day cricket. But on June 18, it left The Oval with the ICC Champions Trophy after posting a stunning victory over India, a result even the most ardent of Pakistan supporters would not have predicted at the start of the tournament. It was a triumph of talent, persistence and belief.

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“This win will be remembered not just today or tomorrow but for a long, long time. Now, nobody can talk that we have not beaten India in the World Cup or a major tournament like that. When we arrived, we were No. 8 in the world. Now, we’re champions. Hopefully this will boost Pakistan cricket. Hopefully all countries will now visit Pakistan,” Sarfraz Ahmed, the Pakistan skipper, said later.

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Pakistan did what teams should ideally do in a final: bat first and post a big total. In ordinary circumstances, 338 is a big total. In a final, it is worth far more, for the pressure of chasing on such an occasion cannot be underestimated.

Fakhar Zaman batted with absolute liberty, hitting through the line, swinging his bat at everything within reach, unafraid of the consequences. That approach paid off, as India, having reprieved him once, struggled for ideas in the field while the opening partnership grew.

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“Azhar Ali is a very conventional cricketer; he plays shots that you can plan against, and you can still have bowling plans and so forth, but a guy like Zaman plays a number of shots. When players like that get going on their day, it becomes real difficult to stop them because I think 80 per cent of his shots were high-risk and they were all coming off. You can only do so much as a bowler and as a captain. But sometimes you have to sit and say, the guy is good enough on the day to tackle anything. Our control becomes very little when people are going well like that, and we certainly tried to make them hit in areas that we felt it would be uncomfortable, but we just didn’t have anything going our way in that partnership,” said Indian skipper Virat Kohli.

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And then, with the ball, there came Mohammad Amir. Rohit Sharma was like a deer in the headlights, trapped in front in the first over by a ball that was angling away and then moved back in. It is not easy to play a left-armer swinging a ball at pace first up. Amir then got Virat Kohli — dropped at first slip one ball, caught at point the next. The movement did for Kohli, who tried to work the ball to leg and offered a catch to point off the leading edge.

Pakistan’s Fakhar Zaman kisses the turf at The Kia Oval after scoring a century against India in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy. The opener batted with absolute liberty, hitting through the line, swinging his bat at everything within reach, unafraid of the consequences.   -  Reuters

 

Shikhar Dhawan was also undone by Amir, whose effort on a flat pitch cannot be overstated. His opening spell of 6-2-16-3 broke the back of the run chase.

What then happened to Pakistan after the defeat at Edgbaston in the group stages?

“The team’s morale was down after losing to India in Birmingham,” Sarfraz said. “There was lots of hard talk after that. Then we played every game like it was a semifinal, a knockout game.”

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Arthur had been frustrated in the immediate aftermath of that game but at The Oval he dismissed that opening game as a rare bad performance.

“It sort of feels surreal really, to be honest. But the thing about that loss was we knew that was an aberration. It wasn’t the norm because we had prepared properly. We knew the calibre of players we had. So we just had to keep believing. And it was one or two personnel changes, they brought in a little bit of a breath of fresh air, and the younger players that have come into the set-up have been fantastic because they’ve both been a breath of fresh air, and they’ve played the fearless brand of cricket that we want to play.”

What had he done to the players after that game, he was asked.

Mohammad Amir broke the back of Indian batting with his robust opening spell.   -  Getty Images

 

“To be honest, not a hell of a lot. We had some good, hard conversations, but we didn’t train any more because we knew the base had been done. All that had been put in place. If we had tried to train any more, we would have — as coaching staff — seemed to be panicking, and that’s the last thing you want to do in those situations. We trusted the players. We trusted what we had put in place, but we had some good honest conversation. We had some conversation about stepping up, had conversation about standing up to our position. And the players almost drove that conversation, which for us was very new, but also showed a maturity, and the way they turned it around was unbelievable.”

Against South Africa, Arthur’s country, Pakistan turned it around.

Hasan Ali — later declared the Player of the Tournament — starred with the ball, taking three for 24, striking crucial blows in the middle overs with his reverse swing, as South Africa was restricted to 219, and the target then overhauled (DLS method). Zaman, brought in to replace Ahmed Shehzad, gave a brief glimpse of what he was capable of.

Against Sri Lanka, Hasan Ali was at it again, before Zaman scored a half-century. Pakistan rode its luck — Thisara Perera’s failure to hold on to that Sarfraz catch will haunt him forever — but teams need them sometimes.

It was in the semifinals that the other Pakistan — inspired, brilliant, and unstoppable — emerged. England — host, favourite and full of batsmen who scored for fun — was bundled out for 211 on a slow, grippy pitch in Cardiff. Hasan Ali took three for 35, claiming Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. An injury to Amir would have worried Pakistan, but Rumman Raees replaced him and turned in a brilliant performance. Zaman and Azhar Ali then made short work of the target.

The opening pair was on target again in the final, as India stumbled.

This was a Pakistan side without superstars, without experience or exposure. But the likes of Zaman and Hasan Ali, still new to international cricket, delivered on the big stage.

“The youngsters are good; they’re very committed. This is the first ICC event for many of them. Nobody believed we’d win. Many people felt we couldn’t beat India. So credit to all the players and the coaching staff for working hard,” Sarfraz said.

“I told the youngsters: ‘Just play the way you play in domestic cricket. Don’t think, just hit the ball. And Fakhar played like he does in domestic cricket.’ People say Azhar is slow; today even he played well.”

On the eve of the final, Arthur had made the point that Pakistan’s exclusion from the IPL was hurting its players — not financially but in terms of exposure to modern methods of fitness and batting. The lack of action at home was a bigger problem, he noted.

“I’m sure that the nation of Pakistan is really happy tonight because they deserve it,” Arthur said. “For what they’ve been through — you talk about our players not playing at home. 

“But also the fans cannot identify with heroes because they just don’t see international cricket. That’s massive for the country. So let’s hope that this really kick starts that momentum in Pakistan again.”