The ICC Champions' Trophy, like all cricketing tournaments, exists solely to distract us from our meaningless lives while we wait between various World Cups, league matches and Test series. When the tournament started back in 1998, the ICC thought one major world cup every four years wasn’t enough to satiate our cricketing needs and instituted what was then known as the “ICC Knockout Tournament”.
The tournament now exists in the context of multiple T20 leagues, a World T20, an overbooked international circuit and an excruciatingly long ODI World Cup, which is why the Champions' Trophy is no longer held every two years. One could argue that Pakistan’s poor showing at the Champions' Trophy has been a long performance art protest against the futility of this tournament as a whole - we will never know for sure.
To put Pakistan’s failures into perspective, here is a short summary of how the team has done in the past editions of the tournament.
Pakistan has been knocked out at the pool stage on three occasions, reached the semifinals on three and never taken part in a single final.
In light of those depressing odds, let’s trudge through the litany of reasons why Pakistan been unable to win a single Champions' Trophy tournament.
Given that five of the seven Champions' Trophy tournaments have been played in the 2000s, it comes as no surprise that Pakistan was caught at an awkward time as a one-day team. These results merely mirror our dismal performance in other major tournaments; World Cups in the 2000s (2003 and 2007) were particularly dark days in Pakistan cricket and the Champions' Trophy was no exception to that norm. The frequency at which the Champions' Trophy took place during the 2000s makes it an interesting metric through which to gauge Pakistan’s performance, which brings me to the second reason.
Watching the Pakistan team attempting one-day cricket these days, is like watching a time-travel movie. These players have clearly been transported from the early days of one-day cricket, forced to grapple with this new and strange format using strategies which would have made sense decades ago. Either that, or we have devolved into one of worst ODI sides in competitive cricket right now.
“Watching the Pakistan team attempting one-day cricket these days, is like watching a time-travel movie”
Pakistan’s performance in the Champions' Trophy is a great barometer to track this decline. There were flashes of good-ish/average performance, with Pakistan making it to the semi-finals on three occasions. However, these flashes in the pan were more of a resistance from the time-travelers than anything else.
These Champions' Trophy results could offer a reflection into this overall trend almost as accurately as Dr. Nauman Niaz’s killer glasses over here.
I’m going to contradict myself here. While Pakistan has been on a steady decline, that downward trajectory has not been linear. Its inability to perform at Champions’ Trophies has sometimes been an anomaly. I averaged the team’s average ranking in the year of each Trophy and it’s ranking in the month before the tournament, with its actual performance during the competition.
The two out of the three times (2004 and 2009) when Pakistan has scored a “good” on my very scientific scorecard (apologies for any unintentional colour-coded subliminal messages) it has coincidentally had an average ranking of 5. On the flip side, two out of the three times (2002 and 2006) when Pakistan has scored a “bad” has been a time of relatively high rankings. This means that there is more going on than just a general decline. Pakistan has not been able to translate good performances leading up to the tournament into the same during the tournament. There is also something particular about big tournaments, and there is no denying that the pressure of big competitions is considerable. In several events, Pakistan has just been unable to rise to the occasion. The weights of expectations combined with a weakening ODI side have been the two main factors that have prevented Pakistan from reaching champion status.
For a team not known for its clinical performances, the classic trajectory for a Pakistani tournament (as per cricket folklore) consists of four stages: 1) pre-tournament injuries and discipline issues; 2) a mini-disastrous start unites the nation in collective invective; 3) a lucky break and a left-of-field individual performance rescues the team from the jaws of elimination and 4) dramatic turnaround just in time to win the trophy and everyone’s hearts. While ICC tournaments change formats more than Pakistan changes openers, the Champions' Trophy has historically been a shorter tournament than most, with pool matches leading directly into semis. If one is to follow the logic of this theory, then this format does not lend itself to Pakistan’s dramatic tournament plot twists--it ends even before Pakistan is done playing out the first stage of its four part act.
Now that India has confirmed its participation in the tournament (it’s unbelievable that this was an option in the first place), the fourth of June is filling us with collective dread & fear—the big Pakistan-India match. But don’t despair, out of the three times the teams have met (2004, 2009 and 2013), Pakistan has won twice (2004 and 2013)—that’s 66.6% odds!
If we manage to mentally survive that first match, there’s South Africa and Sri Lanka to contend with. But with Sarfaraz Ahmed at the helm and a decent one-day performance in the West Indies as momentum, you have enough reason to go buy that latest team jersey and make plans for screenings.