Pakistan are cruising at almost six an over when they require a shade above three to be the first side in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy 2017. This is their fourth semi-final in the tournament’s history and never have they have been in among the final two. Moeen Ali flights the second ball of the 18th over to Fakhar Zaman. He pushes it through cover to rotate the strike and it brings up Pakistan’s first 100-run opening-stand in more than two years.
The crowd erupts in cheer. The fans back home stare on the scoreboard ticker on the bottom of their televisions, pinching themselves to make sure they aren’t dreaming. A score of 100/0 is something they have become oblivious to. The last time their openers posted the landmark was against Zimbabwe in Lahore in May, 2015. They didn’t bother much about the landmark at that time as they were caught up in savouring the return of international cricket to their country.
Zaman stares at the wicket from the non-striker’s end after completing the single. The determined eyes, visible from the visor, speak volume about his intentions to go on. Soon he is stumped off Adil Rashid’s googly, but not before he had secured the match for his side, getting the job done for the third time in a week. He departs after racking up his second ODI fifty on the trot.
In a matter of a week (or since Zaman’s debut) Pakistan have turned into a formidable batting force from a farce with the introduction of this new face in their lineup. They have long longed to have an opening batsman like him who could play the game according to the demands of the modern-day cricket. But they couldn’t find any. To aggravate things, corruption charges put a halt on Sharjeel Khan’s career. But soon emerged Zaman: the batsman who promises to be the solution.
Drafted in the playing XI after Pakistan’s beyond abysmal show against India, Zaman grabbed the opportunity in the most emphatic manner. The left-handed batsman spanked Wayne Parnell and Kagiso Rabada for three fours apiece off the backfoot early in the innings. He scored 31 off 23 under a heavy cloud cover above the picturesque Edgbaston as Pakistan notched up a 40-run stand. His figures got better in the next two games: against Sri Lanka he scored 50 from 36 (his first ODI half-century), in the semi-final against England he struck 57 in 58 balls.
All of his performances provided the batsmen under him, in the lineup, profound platforms to unleash their A-game. Whether they made the most of it is another debate, but his opening partner benefitted the most.
The conservative batsman he is, Azhar Ali needs time to settle at the crease. He demands a partner who keeps the scoreboard ticking as he adjusts on the wicket. Pakistan have often lost their top-order after Azhar and his partners in the past ate up too many dot balls while establishing themselves and later succumbing to the self-created scoreboard pressure.
But this tournament, after the debut of Zaman, Azhar’s scores and, most importantly, his strike rates have surged. In Pakistan’s Champions Trophy opener against India, Azhar had scored 50 at a strike rate 76. He followed it up with a nine at 40.90 against South Africa, when Zaman made his ODI debut. But in the next two matches against Sri Lanka and England, the right-handed opening batsman scored 34 at 68 and 76 at 76.
With runs coming at Cardiff on Wednesday, Azhar went about the 212-run target according to his game plan. He started off by running three and then blocked and bunted until he was ready to free his arms. He was on eight, facing his 26th delivery when he spanked Jake Ball off the backfoot for a four through point. Zaman by then had been maintaining team’s run-rate at 4.33. Once the shackles were broken, Azhar would add 29 runs at a rate of 115 in the next 26 deliveries and go on to anchor Pakistan’s chase with his 76 from 100 balls.
But where he had been all these years when Pakistan struggled to find a modern-day opener? After all, he is 27, which is well past the average debut age.
He had been in Pakistan’s domestic structure for more than five years, proving his mettle. It wasn’t until December 2016 that his fiery century for Habib Bank Limited against Water and Power Development Authority in the second innings of the final of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan’s premier First-Class tournament, erected him as a serious contender for the national side. That season he had been the second highest run-getter in the Pakistan Cup, the country's premier List-A tournament, with an average of 51 and led Pakistan A to a phenomenal comeback from 2-0 to secure a series win in the five-match unofficial ODI series against England Lions in the United Arab Emirates. Zaman piled up 200 runs at an average of 40, with his series best of 62 coming in the final. As a slow left-arm orthodox, he had secured his best List-A figures of 5 for 27 earlier in the match.
A year later after his heroics with Pakistan A, Zaman was back in the UAE, donning Lahore Qalandars’ colours. By then he had been on the fringes of the national side. But things changed in Qalandars’ fourth match of the season, when Zaman creamed arch-rivals Karachi Kings for five fours and three sixes in his 36-ball 56. A new hard-hitter had emerged on the scene. His performances in the league would see him in the national side for the tour of West Indies and eventually in the Champions Trophy squad. He would lead Balochistan’s unbeaten group-stage campaign in this year’s Pakistan Cup in between, before a star-studded Federal Areas beat them in the final.
His overall career has quite like been how he batted in his best international innings to date. It began with him struggling against the bouncers life threw at him. He mis-timed a few pulls, the others that he didn’t connect rammed in his helmet. But he didn’t give in. After all, he possesses a year-long navy training under his belt. He continued to pull, until he connected properly. When he got going, he wasn’t afraid of charging against a leggie known for his foxy wrong’uns.
In a matter of a week, Pakistan’s whole batting plan has started to revolve around him. With his talent and skillset, Zaman is a ray of hope for Pakistan’s batting caught in abyss. But it will be interesting to see how he fares against India on Sunday in what will be the match of the decade.
Zaman isn’t a player who relies a lot on the trigger movements or get behind the line of the ball. He rather stands with his head straight and delivers. He had been merciless to the bowlers that have provided him width. He opened his ODI account on his second-ever ball in the format with a crashing backfoot punch that rushed to the deep-point boundary when Parnell provided him just a little room outside his off-stump. But, the left-handed struggled to find his feet against Mark Wood in the semi-final, as the English paceman’s deliveries climbed on him. He top-edged one for a six and botched his pull in another one, though it landed safely. This is an area that will interest India and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Coming on the back of a fruitful IPL, Kumar bowled at impeccable lines against South Africa and Bangladesh. Of his 30 deliveries to the left-handed batsmen against South Africa, the right-arm medium-fast bowled 24 either within the stumps or just outside off, cramping them for room. Against Bangladesh, in the semi-final, 19 balls were in the business area to the left-handed batsmen out of 26.
The all-important final of the ICC Champions Trophy against the defending champions India will test Zaman’s skills to the fullest. It will be interesting to see how he spearheads Pakistan’s batting department in what might go down as the match of the decade.