Pakistan wouldn’t be intimidated by the opposition

Importantly, Pakistan has worked its way around obvious flaws for favourable outcomes.

Pakistan players during a net practice on the eve of the Champions Trophy final against India.   -  REUTERS

In an unusual era in Pakistan’s cricket, the team has frequently fought unhelpful circumstances to make its presence felt. The team participating in the Champions Trophy is shorn of stars and led by a wicketkeeper who has only recently cemented his spot in all formats. So recent has Sarfraz’s ascension to captaincy been that the final will be only his ninth match at the helm — the three-match One-Day International series in the Caribbean in May was his first series as full-time captain. Yet, he has overseen his wards’ impressive run to the final, to face a team far different to its own journey, to this stage. On paper, the final is a mouth-watering ‘India versus Pakistan’ clash, to casual observers a prospect of reliving gladiatorial battles in the past. But in the present context, the gulf between the teams could not be larger. Reversals and surprises abound in sport, and therefore no encounter can be a foregone conclusion, but after Pakistan’s obliteration in the group stages, the final is akin to sheep offering itself again to the lion.

As it turned out, the 124-run defeat to India was not a crystal-ball of Pakistan’s Champions Trophy campaign or a mirror of its capabilities. What is evident after three consecutive victories since then is that the team has strategised well and pulled up its socks in its fielding. Moreover, as is the case with successful teams without world-class stars, the proverbial ‘team effort’ has done the trick. Junaid Khan and Imad Wasim have bowled well in the initial overs, before Hasan Ali stifled batsmen with a tight line and length, and foxed them with the occasional movement off the seam. Its batsmen have then performed adequately to chase down the moderate totals. This has been the template of Pakistan’s victories — against South Africa, Sri Lanka and England — so far.

Of course, the team is fairly capable in setting up gargantuan totals for its bowlers to defend. Azhar Ali, the erstwhile captain, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik are seasoned batsmen who can tackle good bowling attacks and set up victories, batting first, especially in slow and flat tracks that abound in ODIs these days. However, after the first loss, they have played a secondary role for their team. Against Sri Lanka, even a middling total looked daunting for the team at one stage; struggling at 162 for 7, Sarfraz rallied with No. 9 Mohammad Amir to cross the line.

The top-order performed better in the semifinal, but only on the back of an effective bowling performance. That no Pakistan batsman is among the top run-getters in the tournament suggests its batting line-up hasn’t shone brightly, but it has done just enough to get the result.

Importantly, Pakistan has worked its way around obvious flaws for favourable outcomes. Misbah-ul-Haq was a master of foresighted thinking under the constraint of resources, and it seems this present team has stripped its ‘showy’ and aesthetic appeal that characterised its cricket in the past, to dust itself off after defeats and execute well-planned strategies regardless of the opposition — ala Oakland Athletics in Moneyball. Wins without frills.

Pakistan may not sustain its run against the tide; the prospects of its victory over a well-oiled India in the final are very slim. However, what is certain is it wouldn’t be intimidated by the opposition. It will be interesting to see its adaptability if it bats first for a change. But even in the case of a one-sided loss, the runner-up tag would suggest an impressive capacity of the team to adapt in changing times, with or without Misbah. No stars? No problem. No IPL? No problem.

And this narrative is why sport is special. Kenya’s run in the 2003 World Cup and the occasional trip-ups by Zimbabwe and Ireland form some special memories in cricket. This Champions Trophy may be a battle of ‘champions’, but in a pleasant surprise, it has been a team without that aura that has found a way to shine in the limelight.