You’ve got to love this Pakistan team. They’ve written this great underdog story at the ICC Champions Trophy and as we all know everyone loves the underdog. So barring a few (read a billion) Indian fans, most of the cricket aficionados around the planet will be rooting for Pakistan when they take the field at The Oval against favourites India, looking to win their first ever Champions Trophy title.
This Pakistan side is very much like the Greek football team that featured in the 2004 Euro Cup. With little or no hope, the Greeks who were playing in the tournament for the first time in 24 years, somehow made it to the quarter-finals. The mighty French side stood in their way. Les Bleus were the overwhelming favourites but Greek striker Angelos Charisteas scored a stunning goal to give his team a famous 1-0 win. From then onwards, Greece seemed unstoppable as they shocked Czech Republic in the semis before taming hosts Portugal in the final to complete one of the most remarkable victories in the history of football.
Pakistan are just one step away from completing a similar achievement. They, too, came to the Champions Trophy as a team that had little hopes of progressing to the knockout stage of the eight-nation tournament. Defending champions India and reigning world number one South Africa were the overwhelming favourites to make it to the last-four from Pool B. Even Sri Lanka seemed to have better chances than eighth-ranked Pakistan. And when India hammered a listless Pakistan team by 124 runs at Edgbaston in their opening game of the tournament, even the most ardent of Pakistan fans lost hope. It seemed that Pakistan didn’t belong. With the cricket world’s eyes transfixed on the Indo-Pak game, the Pakistanis just froze. Their bowling wasn’t up to the mark, their fielding was horrendous and their batting just flopped. That one single result forced many to write off Pakistan. But as always, they did it at their own peril.
Since that loss, it seems that the universe has conspired to put Pakistan in the final.
Two days after falling to India, Pakistan conquered the Proteas at the same venue. In fact it was more like the South Africans just succumbing without much of a fight. They were outplayed by Pakistan’s bowling attack and just when South Africa were beginning to bounce back rain helped Pakistan’s cause. The game ended abruptly and Pakistan won by 19 runs (DLS method).
In another must-win game, this time against Sri Lanka at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, Pakistan’s bowled their hearts out but the batters almost threw the game before skipper Sarfraz Ahmed shepherded them to victory. But it could have been a different had the Sri Lankans took their catches. Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’ head coach, rightly described it as an ‘ugly’ win.
The biggest upset, however, came in the semi-finals. Despite Pakistan’s back-to-back wins, not many gave them a chance against in-form England. But the universe conspired again, this time in the form of a used, abrasive wicket which was fully exploited by Pakistan. England came to the game hoping for a ‘home advantage’. But that advantage went to Pakistan as Cardiff was unusually warm on that particular Wednesday and the Sophia Gardens wickets was unusually dry, low and slow. The English were totally outclassed.
And now, we are here awaiting the biggest limited-overs game in the last ten years. The last time the world waited so eagerly for a cricket game was back in 2007 when Pakistan and India met in the final of the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 championship in South Africa. It was a see-saw game that saw Misbah-ul-Haq rescuing Pakistan with a heroic innings only to let them down with a shot that he will regret playing for the rest of his life.
Let’s just refresh our memories of that historic game.
The Indians had to fight hard to post 157-5 but their bowlers put Pakistan on the back foot, leaving them with 54 to get from 24 balls and a mere three wickets in hand.
Misbah, who was yet to become the great Misbah we know today, lifted Pakistan by hitting off-spinner Harbhajan Singh for three sixes. In the last over, Pakistan needed 13 runs but the last pair was on the crease.
The inexperienced Joginder Sharma was asked to bowl the last over. He began with a wide and then bowled a full toss that was hit for a six by Misbah. Now they just needed six runs from four balls. That’s when Misbah played the most infamous shot of his international career. Moving across his stumps, Misbah miscued a scoop down to fine leg where Shanthakumaran Sreesanth took a simple catch. It was game over for Pakistan as the whole of India burst into celebrations.
That loss changed everything for Pakistan. It turned out to be one of those key, game-changing moments. It was role-reversal. More than twenty years before the inaugural World T20, Pakistan were the beneficiaries of a similar game-changing moment when Javed Miandad hit a last-ball six off Chetan Sharma giving his side a famous victory against India in the AustralAsia final in Sharjah.
That six changed everything. Pakistan became the masters of India, beating them at will even in their own backyard. For several years after the victory in 1986, Pakistan ran roughshod over their arch-rivals. Their 72-52 win record is a result of that winning spree.
The tables turned after Misbah’s failed attempt to hit a match-winning six at The Wanderers. For the last ten years, it’s the Indians who have dominated Indo-Pak clashes. Their 14-run win at Edgbaston on June 4 aptly underlined India’s superiority in all departments of the game.
But Pakistan have transformed since that defeat. They are a team brimming with confidence and self-belief. Today’ game at The Oval is their chance to turn the tables. A victory in the Champions Trophy final will end their losing spree against India in knockout games of ICC tournaments. More importantly, it will put an end to India’s dominance and instill more self-belief in a young Pakistan team that was in awe of India at Edgbaston. But to achieve that Pakistan’s players will have to show Miandad-like, death-or-glory spirit. I’m sure the likes of Hasan Ali and Fakhar Zaman are up to it.