It was fitting that in a tournament blighted by rain, on the final Sunday the sun shone on London and the city was sprinkled by stardust as Pakistan completed one of cricket’s greatest stories: a tale of passion and redemption, of skill and intelligence and of fire and fury. Make no mistake, what we have witnessed over the past two weeks will be remembered for generations to come.
Heading into the Champions Trophy Pakistan were the lowest ranked team in the tournament and had qualified for it after postponing a 2015 series against perennial strugglers Zimbabwe due to fears that playing, and losing, may jeopardise their top eight ranking before the cut-off date for qualification.
Not only did their ranking suggest an inferiority but the style of cricket Pakistan played was increasingly at odds with the evolution of contemporary ODI strategy.
Since the 2015 World Cup and before the Champions Trophy, among competing teams, Pakistan’s average scoring rate of 5.56 runs per over was the third lowest and their average balls per boundary of 10.67 was the second highest. Meanwhile the aggregate ODI scoring rate among the top eight ranked teams had risen by almost half a run per over since 2014. England, the tournament favourites were scoring at 6.27 runs per over since the World Cup.
“Since the 2015 World Cup and before the Champions Trophy, among competing teams, Pakistan’s average scoring rate of 5.56 runs per over was the third lowest and their average balls per boundary of 10.67 was the second highest.”
Pakistan’s inability to keep pace with a rapidly changing game, in which ODIs were increasingly contests of bat versus bat, rather than bat versus ball—was seen as a fatal flaw to their title credentials. The change had been particularly pronounced in England, where the Champions Trophy was being held, with aggregate scoring rates rising from 4.87 runs per over in 2014 to 5.70 in 2016.
To make matters worse for Pakistan they entered this tournament without their two batsmen whose style most suited this new age: Sharjeel Khan—banned for his involvement in a spot-fixing scandal—and Umar Akmal—sent home from a pre-tournament training camp after failing a fitness test.
Sharjeel khan and Umar Akmal were notable omissions in Pakistan side
After Pakistan’s first match of the tournament, in which an utterly abject display against a rampant India, consigned them to a thumping 124 run defeat (DLS method) it was difficult to see Pakistan winning a match, let alone qualifying from their group. In the immediate aftermath of the match rumours circulated on social media that the Pakistan Cricket Board had commissioned an investigation into the team’s performance in the tournament with two matches still to play.
Mickey Arthur addresses the Pakistan huddle, after the heavy defeat against India in their first game
What followed was classic Pakistan. Ever since a dramatic and improbable World Cup triumph in 1992 they have forged a reputation as cricket’s most romantic and fascinating team, but even by their heady standards, this was fairytale stuff.
For the last ten years or so there has been a sense that Pakistan have lacked an identity in ODI cricket. As match-winning bowlers have been marginalised by the predominance of powerful batsmen, of which Pakistan have lacked, they have existed in a vacuum of mediocrity.
“For the past decade or so there has been a sense that Pakistan have lacked an identity in ODI cricket.”
After the India defeat Pakistan went back to the future, and quite suddenly everything changed. Fakhar Zaman debuted and rekindled the role of pinch-hitter—a strategy strangely abandoned by teams to keep wickets in hand, but one that forgoes the advantage of the field restrictions. His advent in the team increased Pakistan’s run rate in overs 1 to 10 to 5.71 - the second highest in the tournament. More importantly, South Africa's middle order collapsed and just like that the bowlers fought back and Pakistan dared to dream. Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan and, for the semi-final against England, Rumman Raees. There was pace like fire, swing, seam and zip; fast bowling’s wink from the abyss. Spin played a role too, Mohammad Hafeez, Imad Wasim and the effervescent Shadab Khan quietly tied teams down, forcing them to attack the pacers. Pakistan, kings of the middle overs - they had their identity back.
Pakistan found new pinch hitter in the form of Fakhar Zaman
South Africa were brushed aside under moody Birmingham skies before Pakistan somehow found themselves on the right side of a heart stopping thriller against Sri Lanka. Then things got real: the hosts England, clinically dismantled in Cardiff and a date with destiny against arch rivals India in the final.
And so, onto The Oval, where the tournament had begun 17 days previously. Pakistan, who have lost seven matches in a row v India in ICC events, lose the toss and are put into bat. Captain Sarfraz Ahmed says they wanted to bowled first, as they had done in their four preceding matches. The quicks of fate.
It was a good toss to lose for Pakistan in the Final”
The worst possible start. Fakhar is caught behind for three. But, no, Jasprit Bumrah has overstepped. It is written. Fakhar makes them pay, punishing Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja’s defensive lines, charging down the pitch and flaying them to the leg side boundary. Hafeez makes his fastest ever score. Pakistan post 338, Pakistan are flying and the dream is real.
Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli had scored 80% of India’s runs in the tournament before the final. Amir, in the city where seven years previously he had fixed and sinned takes the new ball. Context within context.
Two balls are angled across Rohit, the third curves beautifully back in. One down. Kohli is next, the crowd is up, the game is alive and amazingly the edge is found - the catch however, is dropped. It matters not, Kohli pushes hard at the next ball and gets a leading edge, Shadab takes the catch. Two down. Pure Pakistan. Dhawan is the last line of defence. The ball is older now, there is no swing. Amir bowls a cross-seam delivery and finds some extra bounce, a nick and Dhawan is gone. Three down, retribution for Amir, glory for Pakistan.
Rohit, Kohli, Dhawan scored 222 runs per match coming into the final. Amir got them in 23 balls for 14 runs
Their eventual victory, sealed by the man of the tournament Hasan, by a margin of 180 runs, is their biggest ever v India. Pakistan headed into this tournament as the bottom ranked team, only to thrash the pre-tournament favourites South Africa, England and India on their way to the title.
Pakistan’s triumph—one of cricket’s greatest—is a victory for love over logic; for passion over percentages and the magical madness of it all is a reminder of what makes sport so utterly compelling.