Pakistan's journey at the ongoing Champions Trophy makes for fascinating reading. Branded as the underdogs by no less than their own coach, captain and most experts, the 1992 World Cup winners started the tournament as the lowest ranked side in the eight-team tournament.
And if things could get any worse, they were pitted against their arch-rivals India in the tournament opener. Whilst the hype surrounding that game would have made many think that this was a match of equals but, as the scoresheet would show later, the truth was far from it.
The inability to restrain a rampant Indian batting line-up would have been a challenge for most bowling attacks around the world, but Pakistan's bowlers were shown some harsh realities in that game as they conceded 319 runs, including 72 from the last four overs by a rampant Indian batting unit.
It is a well-known fact that Pakistan have historically prided themselves on their ability to produce world-class fast-bowlers on demand. In that context, the fact that an attack comprising big names like Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz and the talented and highly-rated Hasan Ali was smashed to all parts at Edgbaston was a sobering reminder to many that Pakistan’s fast-bowling reserves have depleted in recent times.
Pakistan's inability to contain the Indian batsmen really made the exclusion of Junaid Khan from the Pakistan line-up one of those mysteries that only the high and mighty in the Pakistan set-up can answer or explain.
A beneficiary of the vacancy created by the spot-fixing scandal in 2010, Junaid was a regular in the Pakistan side until May 2015 where he took part in the historic home-series against Zimbabwe. He was not picked again to play for Pakistan until their tour of Australia in early 2017.
The explanation offered by selectors, who oversaw his exclusion from the national side, was simply that the injury he picked up and recovered from in 2014 had taken something out of him. The loss of swing and pace were a troubling factor for Junaid’s future and it appeared that the fast-bowler’s career was heading for the scrap-heap.
The return to the fold in 2017, thus, was an important milestone in his career as under the new selection committee headed by the former Pakistan captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Junaid was offered a lifeline to resurrect his career. It was a must-grab opportunity and for some Junaid was in last-chance saloon as far his international career was concerned.
The journey to his return to the Pakistan side, however, was fraught with uncertainty and self-doubt. At one point, Junaid even contemplated moving to England to restart his career. The feeling that the odds were against him constantly troubled him as he saw good performances in the domestic level as well as in the Pakistan Super League (2016) being ignored by the selectors for no apparent reason.
The common theme of opposition to his selection was centred around the perceived fitness issues as well as the selectors preference for someone like Wahab Riaz, who was deemed to have the demonic pace and aggression that would prove to be the difference in crunch situations. The captain's and coach's general consensus was that Wahab Riaz offered the Pakistan bowling attack something different.
While Junaid Khan was selected for the West Indies series at home and away, he was afforded the second-class citizen treatment when it came to selection matters and apart from biding his time and hoping for the best, there wasn’t much he could do to improve his situation.
The Champions Trophy in 2017 has seen Pakistan recover from their demoralising loss to arch-rival India and defeat South Africa first and then overcome a strong Sri Lanka challenge to progress to the semi-final in the most incredible fashion. One of the key factors in this amazing turnaround has been the inclusion of Junaid Khan in the team. Granted, he owes his inclusion to an unfortunate injury to Wahab Riaz but this is the mark of a man who has accepted this chance with both hands and made the most of it. Although, many wondered what wrong did he do to warrant exclusion in the team that took on India, after he was the highest wicket-taker against Bangladesh in the Champions Trophy warm-up game in Edgbaston with figures of 4/73.
Nevertheless, Junaid has been the key go-to bowler for his captain Sarfraz Ahmed in both group games against South Africa and Sri Lanka. Against the Proteas, it was his fine bowling that helped Pakistan get into a strong position with figures of 2/53. He then bettered his own performance in the next game and helped his side limit a strong Sri Lankan batting line-up with fantastic figures of 3/40.
For Junaid Khan, the international return is another fresh start towards his ambition of establishing himself in the Pakistan side. Given his determination and self-belief Junaid will be hoping that this current change of luck is not temporary, rather the start of a better phase in his cricketing journey.
The next game for Pakistan is the crucial semi-final versus a team many have anointed as the favourites to win the Champions Trophy. Junaid’s current form will be important if Pakistan are to challenge England and dream of a place in the final on 18 June at The Oval.
Junaid will be familiar to the English batsmen as he has had county stints at Lancashire and is set to join up with Lancashire once again this summer. In Junaid's world, he always seems to have to prove his worth to fans, critics and media and there is no better chance for him to silence his critics with continued excellent performances in the Champions Trophy.
Given Pakistan's batting frailties as demonstrated in all of their games so far, the onus will be on the bowlers to contain the opposition batsmen and it is Pakistan’s good fortune that they have an in-form and firing on all cylinders bowler like Junaid Khan in their ranks.