It was labelled as the iconic clash between two arch-rivals. The marquee match-up to honour what is generally known as the greatest cricketing rivalry known to man. The hype for the game was immense, with hours of TV programming and columns of newspaper space devoted to discussing the upcoming Champions Trophy encounter between India and Pakistan. It wasn’t enough to analyse the current squads as the complete history of all past games played between the neighbours was also rehashed in great detail.
And so, on the 4 June, close to 24,163 people (a record for an ODI at Edgbaston) made their presence felt in Birmingham. They came from all parts of the UK and the rest of the world to what they felt was a game they would tell their grand-children about in years to come. What they expected was a high-voltage game where each ball would be contested like it was the last, where no quarter would be asked for and none given by the adversaries. The stage was set for the ultimate game of the Champions Trophy 2017.
But that is where the fairy tale ended.
In reality, what the audience in the stadium saw was a team ranked 8th in ODIs, the lowest ranked team in the eight-team tournament attempt to box above its weight, based upon adrenaline and effort alone.
Their opposition was a team ranked number two in the world and a team armed with actual proven match-winners with a track-record which would make them the envy of many.
The result, whilst disappointing for the romantics who wanted to see an India-Pakistan-fight-to-the-last type battle, was in actual fact a true reflection of the gulf in quality between both teams.
The problem that head coach Mickey Arthur and captain Sarfraz Ahmed faced one day before the game was a simple one. They had to choose a squad of 12 which whilst representing the correct blend of youth and experience, had the requisite abilities to challenge India on all fronts.
It was no secret that despite the display of all the bravado which is par for all India-Pakistan games, Pakistan were going into the encounter as huge underdogs. It therefore stood to reason that the team selection would be an exercise in finding a combination which had the maximum chance of success against tough odds.
To the relief of many Pakistan supporters, Sarfraz Ahmed alluded to some ‘out of the box thinking’ which he had in mind to unsettle the opposition. That feeling of euphoria lasted a few minutes until the realization dawned that the 11 men chosen for the job at hand seemed to have been picked upon deeply flawed logic.
So Wahab Riaz, who’s only claim to fame in the past few years was “that spell” to Shane Watson in the 2015 World Cup, was picked ahead of Junaid Khan who had only a few days ago emerged as the top wicket-taker in the warm-up game against Bangladesh.
Whilst it was true that Pakistan had limited choice for their batting line-up, it was expected that the inclusion of someone of the capability of Fakhar Zaman or even Haris Sohail would have been qualified as a good example of the type of thinking that made Pakistan sides unpredictable in the past.
Of course what transpired in the game was nothing short of a nightmare for the Pakistan supporters with the team unable to field, bowl or bat in any meaningful manner. As many commentators were to remark, the game only helped India iron out their combination for bigger and better games later in the tournament. The hype associated with the game was great for the marketing men but as a cricketing contest, it bore no resemblance to the classics of yesteryear.
The body language of Pakistan players, schoolboy fielding lapses, dropped catches at crucial points in the game were the order of the day for a team that looked shell-shocked and out of their depth. The man marked as Pakistan’s most aggressive captain in years, Sarfraz Ahmed, appeared a shadow of himself as he seemed bereft of ideas and more importantly appeared unable to get any positive feedback from his senior players.
The coach-captain connection which Mickey Arthur described as a ‘husband-wife’ relationship seemed to bear no positive results for Pakistan as it appeared that both were on different wavelengths resulting in a comical display on the field.
It was clear to many that the days when Indian fans and players would fear an encounter with Pakistan were long gone and this game only reinforced that view. Granted that Pakistan did not have the likes of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram in their midst but the fact that no replacements were found for such great players is one that lies solely at the doorsteps of the Pakistan Cricket Board.
Whilst the BCCI busied itself in creating the infrastructure which would produce a better version of Kapil Dev or Sachin Tendulkar, the Pakistani establishment was more concerned about who could take the position of the Chairman and how long they could hold on to it.
Of course the tragic events that lead to international cricket coming to a stop in Pakistan were not something that were under the control of the PCB but one wonders what stopped the organization charged with the running of cricket in the country from creating a viable domestic system.
Pakistan have now got two very tough games to win if they wish to make something out of the Champions Trophy and given the current levels of performances, it seems unlikely that anything positive will come out of it.
When the dust from this latest fiasco settles down, it would have become clear to many in Pakistan cricket and for those away from it that the current team is no shape to take on the best even with the best of intentions. What is needed is long term measures, some of which have been suggested by the likes of Imran Khan. In the short-term, given the malaise effecting the cricketing setup in the country, there is nothing more to expect but more misery for the die-hard fans of Pakistan cricket.