The high seas have loomed large in cricket's history. The first, albeit disputed, recorded instance of the game in the subcontinent was when British colonial sailors introduced it to local Indians they encountered upon landing in Cambay in 1721. Many subsequent early tours, before the age of aviation, were also of course undertaken by boat, once leading to the 1939 Durban Test, supposed to be ‘timeless’, being curtailed after a mere 10 days when the departure of England’s ship home interrupted proceedings.
Supporting Pakistan must at times feel like being aboard The Bounty, the team’s mutiny against accepted wisdom, for better or worse, rocking its fans up and down relentlessly. But in a twist of fate it has actually been an ex-sailor who has brought a sense of stability, admittedly a pulsating one, to the top of the batting order.
Fakhar Zaman has gone from being a member of the Pakistan Navy at the age of 16 to helping his country cruise to victory in an ICC tournament semi-final at 27. The journey has not been swift or easy, but in the past two years, he has made his selection almost unavoidable.
In the 2017 Pakistan Super League (PSL), in which he played for Lahore Qalanders, he finished near the top of the run-scoring chart and regularly got Danny Morrison excited. It is quite possible brushing his teeth gets Morrison excited, but amid the white noise, the Kiwi commentator is a shrewd judge of a player and he clearly rated Zaman’s performances.
Following his efforts in the UAE, Zaman returned home and lit up the one-day Pakistan Cup with Balochistan, ending as the fourth highest scorer. The year before, he had performed even better, finishing second in the charts, ironically behind Ahmed Shehzad, whose place as opener he took after Pakistan’s lacklustre defeat to India in the group stages of the ongoing tournament.
Yet it is one thing to be granted a debut in the middle of an international tournament. It is quite another to replicate your domestic form on a higher stage. But Zaman has not only continued to score runs, he has done so by playing with the same fearless finesse which originally brought him into the side.
When there is any width on offer from the seamers, his feet remain planted as he unleashes a 'Sehwagian' slash with the ball fizzing through point. Pitched up, and he will take a modest stride and hit though cover, often on the move, a shot he can play equally well on the up if the ball is actually back of a length. When the spinners arrive he loves the arc from cow corner to mid on to loft anything in the slot and, for even decent length deliveries on or outside off, can often crouch deep in his crease to late-nudge the ball wide of third man.
Especially in the power play, when he's not hitting stadium roofs, he’s hitting areas where teams are unlikely to have their men outside the circle stationed and it will be interesting how funky Virat Kohli is prepared to get in Sunday’s final to counteract him. Yet as he proved against England initially, if Zaman has to be a little more circumspect, he is perfectly capable.
Against Eoin Morgan’s side, Zaman hit a six off his second ball, but only one more boundary in the first eight overs. His technique - despite an occasional perceived lack of judgment in shot selection against the short ball - is sound and he has a first class average of 42 to prove it.
Zaman had to risk a great deal to get where he is now. He entered the navy as a teen to provide for his impoverished dependents only to leave it so that he could re-enroll, but this time as a professional sportsman rather than a sailor. His family were a little sceptical, and his progress through the ranks of Pakistan cricket itself were not without setbacks and disputes with those who nurtured his career as he was forced to make difficult choices about teams and finances.
He certainly plays like a man who has known what it is like to struggle and it was notable how carefree he eventually looked, even on a Cardiff wicket where England’s normally zooming batsmen stuttered. It was also significant that his most analogous counterpart in the opposition ranks, Jason Roy, wasn’t on the field, England having tinkered him out after a run of poor form. The player who took his berth, Jonny Bairstow, knows, like Zaman, what it is like to have to become a man while still a boy, but their innings on Wednesday were contrasting, the Yorkshireman’s chancy knock preceding the Pakistani opener’s more assured one.
Zaman and Azhar Ali are perhaps the most contrasting, yet surprisingly effective pairing since someone put jam and cheese in the same sandwich. Happily for those diehards who still believe there’s a place for Jonathan Trott or even Alastair Cook-like figures within the ODI game, Ali very much plays the anchor role, despite his uncharacteristic six in the semi-final, a shot which was almost unsporting in its trampling on England’s already deflated souls.
And while Zaman’s road to the national side may have been circuitous, Pakistan’s route to this unlikely combination has been a voyage of trial and error, and one whose relentless chopping and changing is hard not to see as damaging. Since the 2015 World Cup, they have experimented with 12 different opening pairs in ODIs. In the same period India have had seven, England six, and Bangladesh just three.
On Sunday, cricket will witness one of the greatest spectacles possible in any sport, namely India versus Pakistan in a final. As the two boards - still sadly, but inevitably tethered to geopolitics - continue to be unable to arrange fixtures between the two sides outside ICC events, the match has an even greater significance, not only for the fans of the two nations, but also for supporters of the game everywhere. Despite Sri Lanka’s serene chase, India’s bowling attack remains probably the most varied and skilful in the tournament. The entire match will be a series of battles within battles, but the one between Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar and the ex-navy recruit, the man known as ‘Fauji’ by his teammates, could well be the most intriguing and entertaining.