Shortly after Pakistan’s 124 run loss in the Champions Trophy game against India, a fuming and clearly hurt Mickey Arthur confronted the equally belligerent press-pack to explain how his team had capitulated to their arch-rivals.
A barrage of barbed criticism disguised as questions were launched at the Pakistan head coach during this press conference. Most of the questions were related to how and when his team would be able to recover from the seemingly never-ending slump in form that it was going through at the moment.
While a visibly perplexed Arthur did his admirable best to thwart questions, he was not the first Pakistan coach to have felt that feeling of emptiness as his wards seemed to throw away months of hard work in a few hours of woefully inept and unacceptable cricket.
Pakistan’s Number 8 ODI position, which happens to be the lowest in the Champions Trophy has not been attained overnight. This was, in a perverse manner, a product of many years of decline, which the Pakistan Cricket Board, due to their negligence, had failed to arrest in time.
And while the Pakistan teams of yore had conveniently explained their inconsistencies as ‘unpredictability’, the manner of defeats in ODIs in recent years had gradually turned this from a term of respect to that of ridicule.
It had been said that you never know which Pakistan turns up at the field. In one game they would be mediocre, and in the next, sublime in their skills and execution. Those were the days when the Pakistan team featured names like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. They were players of extreme talent who could turn it on at will. That was the past.
The present was what we saw in the much-anticipated game against India. The manner in which the proverbial wheels came off the Pakistan bowling and batting would have shamed many a fan but sadly this is the true reality of Pakistan cricket. This was no longer a team of 'unpredicatables' but a team that was fast gaining a reputation for being predictable losers.
A forlorn yet defiant Sarfraz Ahmed faced the press before Pakistan’s must-win encounter at Edgbaston versus South Africa. Ranked number one in ODIs, the Proteas were a team which could make quick work of Pakistan. The number of match-winners that the South Africa team boasted was enough for many to think that the flight to Lahore was a real possibility for Pakistan after their final group game against Sri Lanka on Monday.
While the questions centred around his side's embarrassing loss to India, the Pakistan captain was at pains to explain that his side had the ability to make amends for their earlier follies. His message to all those who had an open mind was clear: We have the ability and we can win purely based on our skills.
The naysayers looked away and the TV shows and critics continued to pour scorn over Sarfraz’s pleas for belief in his team. And there was good reason for that as empty statements had been made by many a Pakistan captain in the past , but the current ODI ranking was living proof of those hollow claims.
And so, Pakistan and South Africa met at Edgbaston for what appeared to be a mismatch of two teams at the opposing ends of their abilities to win games. But there was something different on 7 June.
Where Pakistan bowlers bowled without passion or direction in their game against India, largely the same bowlers, who looked toothless bowled as men on a mission. The fielders who looked lost on the field against India, threw themselves at every ball like their lives depended on it. The yorkers were back, the passion was back, the spirit was back. The South African batsmen must have wondered if all that they had been told by their coaches and planners about a Pakistan bowling attack, bereft of pace, guile and ideas were a pack of lies as they struggled to conjure up a score of substance. The likes of Imad Wasim and Hasan Ali bowled their hearts out and a telling moment of this newfound confidence came when Ali took a fantastic catch in the deep and then turned to the crowd to say, ‘Yes, we can do this’.
If the South Africans imagined that their score of 219/8 provided some room for their much-vaunted bowling attack, which boasted the world’s number one and two ranked ODI bowlers in the form of Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir, then they were in for a big surprise. As probably were many Pakistan fans as well as critics of this team.
Fakhar Zaman brought in for an off-colour Ahmed Shehzad provided the perfect start with a quickfire innings of 32 runs thereby setting the tone of defiance for the evening. His innings, although short in length, would carry the Pakistan side, which was the subject of ridicule just a few days ago, to a position which allowed them to dictate the game to the extent that when the rain came, they were strongly placed to register their first win of the tournament, albeit with the help of Duckworth-Lewis method.
To many who saw the same side cutting a sorry figure against India at Edgbaston, the return to winning ways was a pleasant surprise. For Sarfraz and his men, the road to redemption is a long one but they made a significant start against South Africa with their surprising win.
The 'unpredictable' tag is a funny one, with both negative and positive connotations associated with it. But if this means that Pakistan can progress forward to challenge the top sides of the world in the manner they did on Wednesday, then their fans will have no qualms in backing their heroes. To come back from a defeat takes guts, determination and resolve and for that the Pakistan players and management deserve credit.
Pakistan move on to Cardiff on Monday knowing that a win against Sri Lanka could see them reach the semifinals of a tournament that most expected them to struggle in. Such is the way of Pakistan cricket that the men in green provide pain to their fans one day and joy on other day.