It has indeed been a rollercoaster ride for fans of Pakistan cricket as the team which started the tournament as underdogs has in the space of three games, catapulted itself to the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy.
The transformation from a team that looked set to board a flight back home after the hammering to India in their campaign opener to become one of the finalists has been nothing short of a miracle. One of the key members of the Pakistan squad, the 32-year-old opening batsman Azhar Ali, explained how his team recovered their composure after an embarrassing 124-run defeat to India in their opening game of the tournament.
“I must give credit to our team management for this change, as the best thing that they did for us was to continue believing in our abilities even at a time when things did not look so good for us after the India game. Some inspiring words were spoken to us by the coach and (the) captain in a special team meeting and we were told to pursue our best game in the next matches to reach the semi-finals, which we did.
"Any team can have a low point, which we did after that India loss, but the main thing is that we have (a) management that stepped forward to support us, and helped us believe in our own abilities. Of course, apart from mere words, we also put in some practice and worked on a few problem areas.”
The victories against South Africa and Sri Lanka were achieved with some excellent performances, but it was widely assumed that the semi-final game against the tournament favourites England would be beyond the capabilities of the Pakistan team.
The eight-wicket victory in Cardiff was therefore a stark reminder of what the former World Cup holders under the leadership of an able captain could do when they played to their potential as Azhar explained, “I don’t think this was a high-scoring pitch but our bowlers do deserve a lot of credit as they bowled really well to restrict England's batsmen to a low score. Given England’s overall strength as we have seen in this tournament, to bowl them out on such a low total on any sort of pitch is commendable and for that we must congratulate not only the bowlers but also to the leadership of our captain, Sarfraz Ahmed. Our fielders also backed up our bowlers which was tremendous. The bowlers set up the game for us and once the batsmen put in a good opening partnership then the game was ours to win.”
Azhar's personal form had come under lot of criticism in the recent past. His removal as ODI captain, and subsequent exclusion from the squad that toured the West Indies would have been great setbacks for the opener. However, the selectors, gave him a second chance to establish himself in the ODI team when they chose him for Pakistan’s Champions Trophy squad. With two half-centuries in the tournament so far including an excellent performance of 76 in the semi-final, Azhar seems to be answering his critics with the bat in style.
“I am always focused on my batting and performances as I am always honoured by the opportunity to play for Pakistan. I always do my best to utilise my abilities for the sake of my country and I do not worry about what is being said or other outside factors. As a professional, it is my duty to accept each challenge and give it my best without fail. I do not feel that I was more defensive in the first two games or became more aggressive in the last two games. It is all to do with the match situation and scenario at hand.
"When the target was 300-plus, then that is what I had in mind and I batted accordingly. It also depends on the partnership you are involved in as sometimes if the partnership is doing well, you can hold yourself back as well. If you are chasing a small target like we were in the semi-final and as we saw Fakhar (Zaman) was taking on the scoring with ease, it allowed me some comfort to take my time to score without taking risks.”
Fakhar debuted against South Africa after the team management decided to rest Ahmed Shehzad following his lacklustre display against India. The manner in which Fakhar confronted the much-vaunted South African bowling attack which comprised of the top ranked ODI bowler Kagiso Rabada surprised many.
For Azhar, who has seen the Mardan-born batsman at close quarters during the Pakistan Super League (PSL), Fakhar’s progress is no surprise as he explained, “Fakhar and I have not been playing together for long but even in these few games, we have built a good understanding. He is in excellent form at the moment and looks very confident in the way he is playing. It is amazing to see someone start his career in an ICC event and also play with such assurance.
"What is impressive is the fact that regardless of the tournament he is playing in, he is playing his natural game. Even during the Pakistan Super League, all the overseas players associated with the Lahore Qalandars really liked his style of play. In modern-day cricket, you need players like Fakhar who can take on the game head on and deliver. No one has ever doubted his abilities and he has also shown what he is capable of in the games he has played for us. He has made a fantastic start to his career and I wish him all the best in the future and hope he can play for Pakistan for a long time.”
The success of young players like Fakhar, Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, and Rumman Raees can only be described as phenomenal. What has impressed all who have observed these talented youngsters play for Pakistan in the past few days is the level of maturity in their approach and the energy they have brought to the Pakistan team. To Azhar, it is important that the younger players are given ample opportunities and guidance so that they can continue their success for the benefit of Pakistan.
“I am really impressed by the youngsters and the performances they have put in so far. But, we need to understand that all players who play for Pakistan obviously have good abilities, and sometimes you need luck to succeed as well. Along with luck, if a player has the temperament to succeed at the highest level then he can do well for the country. It is also the responsibility of the senior players to encourage and advise the younger players so that they can give good performances for Pakistan which will help us all in the long run.”
If there were any doubts about Pakistan’s abilities to challenge the top teams of the world despite their low ODI ranking, they were dispelled by the results of the group games and their victory over a highly-rated England side in the first semi-final. Even the harshest critics of Pakistan are now beginning to believe that this team has what it takes to go the distance. The belief in the Pakistan team, as Azhar explained, has never been an issue.
“Whilst we can say that we had nothing to lose when we came into the Champions Trophy, but make no mistake, we were in it to win it as well. Everyone would have seen us fight as a team and play together as a gelled unit. To me, winning or losing is part of the game but if we can carry on playing with the same spirit as we did in the last three games then you never know what we can achieve in the final on Sunday.”