The great and unique thing about tournament sport is that anything can happen. It may be a cliché but as form and past history starts to go out the window, it becomes hard not to be engrossed in the thrills and spills taking place on the field. It’s about how you play on the day and nothing else. The Champions Trophy can especially be applied to this – a tournament with only eight of cricket’s elite where unpredictability is so often a key theme.
So after Pakistan’s dismal display in their first match against India, you have forgiven many for writing them off so early. There was a predictable, insipid showing with the ball, weak and careless batting and, most disappointingly, a dire fielding effort full of dropped catches and misfields that made India’s task a whole lot easier. There looked to be no hope already after just game one.
Then came the changes. Out went opener Ahmed Shehzad, who suffered a poor day both with the bat and in the field at Edgbaston, for 27-year-old Fakhar Zaman. Despite Shehzad’s woes, it was a slightly surprising move considering coach Micky Arthur saying before the tournament, “We have a lot of faith and a lot of confidence in our opening pair. The two guys that we’ve been working with have done exceptionally.” Nevertheless, the bold move outlined the need for Pakistan to force a result from somewhere. Wahab Riaz was also given his marching orders in order to accommodate fellow left-armer, Junaid Khan.
Those alternations sparked a huge turnaround. Against the No.1 ranked side, South Africa who boast enormous batting power, Pakistan put in a display full of energy and confidence in the field and one much more deadly and accurate with the ball. The wickets were shared around as South Africa made just 219-8. In response, Pakistan were 119-3 before the rain arrived at Edgbaston. Who knows if Pakistan would have reached their target, but they got the rub of the green and lived to fight another day. And that day would be at Cardiff in what essentially was a quarter-final against Sri Lanka.
Finally, the tournament spirit had been embraced by Pakistan. Their much-improved bowling attack did phenomenally to restrict Sri Lanka’s batsmen, who had chased 322 against India just four days before, to just 236 after Angelo Mathews’ men had earlier looked well set on 161-3. The reply was always going to be tricky, especially given Pakistan’s shaky batting order. And as they slipped to 162-7, it looked their bags were set to be packed. Captain Sarfraz Ahmed was still out there, though, and he was the last hope. It was do or die.
So for the wicket-keeper batsman to play as well he did in partnership with Mohammad Amir was a thrill to watch. Not only was he calmness personified, but Sarfraz played the match situation almost perfectly, picking gaps with ease and finding the boundary when needed. The ‘almost’ in that previous sentence was because had Thisara Perera taken a simple catch offered by Sarfraz at mid-off, the outcome may have been entirely different. Those are the moments that define matches and even tournaments. Perera won’t forget that particular drop for a long time, however much he wants to forget it. In the end, it was Sarfraz and his men who reigned supreme and qualified to the semi-finals.
If anything, the game summed up Pakistan. They are a side full of unpredictability, capable of going from village cricket imitators to world beaters in the space of two games. And that is how they have been for a long time. They may seem to have regressed as a team over recent years, but they are always capable of causing a major upset and performing above expectations when a major tournament comes around. This Champions Trophy campaign is no different.
While their batting is vulnerable, they possess a bowling attack capable of blowing any opposition away on any given day. Amir leads the line, while Junaid’s Khan performances since his tournament introduction against South Africa raises the question of why he has not been picked more often. Hasan Ali has made his name as a skiddy and pacey impact bowler that is well utilised in the middle overs and with that has helped him take seven wickets this tournament – the third most out of any bowler. Imad Wasim offers a reliable and accurate spin option and while the fifth bowler’s spot still remains a concern, 23-year-old Faheem Ashraf showed plenty of encouraging signs for a man on debut in such a pressure match at Cardiff.
So despite England being rightly favourites for their semi-final with Pakistan, they will be extremely wary of the threat that the visitors possess. England’s batsmen, such is the attacking nature of their approach these days, are capable of self-exploding from time-to-time, as their encounter with South Africa at Lord’s in June shows. And if opposition bowlers can put the ball in the right areas early on, there are inroads to be made. Pakistan will no doubt hang on to that and are more than capable of causing serious damage.
What Pakistan will also bring is hope. This is a cricket nation that has endured far more highs than lows over the years and you could argue that they deserve a successful campaign more than anyone else. From having Test cricket at home being taken away, to the 2010 spot-fixing scandal, to poor showings away from home, times have been tough. Yet joy is now not too far away.
It has been a remarkable turnaround from the pitiful performance in such a high-profile match against India. And Pakistan have proven that, however much written off, the uniqueness of tournament cricket offers any side the chance at redemption if they can perform on the day. As a result, Pakistan march on and now have their best shot at winning a major 50-over tournament in many a year.