When left-arm seamer Rumman Raees bowled the first ball of the second over in the semifinal against England, it was the first time he had bowled in a one-day game. Heck, it was the first time he had bowled in any international game of any duration.
“You never know which Pakistan will show up,” is one of cricket commentary’s hoariest cliches. In this edition of the Champions Trophy, it is equally apt to say that you never know who will show up.
For its second Group B match against South Africa, Pakistan made two changes from the team that was decimated by India in the opening encounter. The wayward Wahab Riaz was dropped (injury in the opening game against India providing the fortuitous excuse where form should have been the real reason) as was Ahmad Shehzad; in their place came debutant Fakhar Zaman and the once-prodigious Junaid Khan, now a county circuit journeyman. Pakistan then took on Sri Lanka – for which they benched teenaged leg-spinner Shadab Khan and brought in the medium paced Faheem Ashraf, another debutant. And against England in the semis, they brought in Raees for Mohammed Amir (dodgy back) but also switched out Faheem Ashraf and brought Shadab back.
International teams going into global tournaments look to pick their most settled sides. Pakistan, marching as always to the beat of a distinctly different drummer, has not only fielded a different team in every single match, but also blooded three debutants in four games – all this in a world-level tournament where the format is particularly unforgiving and there are no easy games to blood youngsters in. It is as if the captain walks into the dressing room on match day, checks to see which of his mates has freshly laundered uniforms and goes righto, bloke, fancy a game, then?
Leading this patchwork quilt of a team is, fittingly enough, a neophyte captain who took over the armband from Azhar Ali this January, and led in only three internationals (2-1 versus the West Indies) before boarding the flight to England. Sarfraz Ahmed was mocked for his shambolic captaincy in the lung-opener against India, particularly after talking of “out of the box plans” in the lead up to the game, but has since settled down and, as the tournament progressed, shown an ability to marry tactical savvy with the sort of calm control a team of excitable young colts so badly needs.
Sarfraz has “also played ODIs intermittently for Pakistan,” says Cricinfo’s player bio -- a comment that seems peculiarly apt for most of his mates as well. And yet look where they are. Actually, look who they are -- the first team from Pakistan to enter the Champions’ Trophy final in eight tries spread over the 19-year span of the tournament. It’s taken some lashings of luck for them to get this far – but it has also taken considerable skill, allied to courage and tactical nous.
Fittingly, since this is Pakistan under discussion, it is the bowling that has propelled them to these rarefied heights. Cricinfo’s S Rajesh has a detailed break-down of the bowling performances, but the stat that should stand out is this: Since that disastrous opening against India when the Pakistan bowlers leaked 319 runs for just three wickets, they have bowled out three sides out of three played, and despite its revolving-door comings and goings, has taken 28 wickets in three matches at a cost of 23.78 per and an eye-popping economy rate of 4.46 per over. All of which is doubly impressive when you consider that despite noticeable improvement since the opening game, particularly following the introduction of Shadab Khan into the ring on the off side, the fielding still leaks runs and drops catches, often at pivotal moments.
Mohammed Amir no longer has the prodigious swing/reverse that made him an instant pinup when he debuted for Pakistan in its successful 2009 T20 World Cup campaign and soon thereafter saw him become the youngest ever, at around 18 years, to get to 50 Test wickets. But what he has marginally lost in pace and swing he has more than made up for in craft and guile and mental strength.
With Junaid Khan, the one-time prodigy turned county journeyman, Amir has forged an opening partnership that has exercised iron control in the power-plays before showing up again to boss the death overs. Both left-armers are similar in pace and the ability to hold full lengths that give the ball air-time to swing in; they are different in that one that surprises with lift off the deck from length while the other can skid the ball through, creating the illusion that the ball has gained pace off the deck.
Imad Wasim, Ahmad Shahzad and Mohammed Hafeez have delivered controlled spin in the middle overs, but the engine room of this Pakistan bowling attack has been the hugely impressive Hassan Ali. It’s not just that he bosses the overs between 11-40, where he has taken six wickets at an average of 12 and a scarcely-credible economy rate of three – what has made Ali the standout bowler of this tournament is his ability to produce the sort of magic ball that not conjures up crucial breakthroughs and lifts the side to new heights. Witness that dream ball he produced to take out the Proteas’ Wayne Parnell, the one that angled in on perfect length, then moved away just enough off the seam to beat the defense and hit top of off. And to prove that was no fluke, he replicated it against Sri Lanka’s Kusal Mendis in the next game. When you play Hassan Ali, wrote Jarrod Kimber recently, “you live in his world of pressure”.
The bowling unit – statistically the best in this tournament -- has performed prodigies to get Pakistan this far; it will need to outperform its own high standards if the team is to upset in-form favorites India in the final. The Oval has been a high-scoring venue this year – the tournament’s lung-opener featuring England against Bangladesh saw a total of 613 runs being scored for the loss of only 8 wickets in 97.2 overs; in the next game South Africa batting first scored 299/6; the India-Sri Lanka slugfest similarly saw 638 runs for the loss of just 9 wickets in 98.4 overs. The sole aberration came when India bundled South Africa out for just 191 in 44.4 overs – but that was more down to the Proteas’ mental collapse than any demon in the wicket, as India showed when in its turn it coasted to a winning 193/2 in just 38 overs.
The Oval pitches have played true, with reliable bounce and an almost total absence of movement off the deck that allows batsmen to hit on the up even to length. Unless the new pitch that will be used for the final is of a different parentage from its earlier siblings, the Oval should produce a high-scoring game, and Pakistan just does not have the batting strength to power its way to a 300-plus score against an Indian attack only fractionally weaker than its own.
Fakhar Zaman has provided Pakistan with the buccaneering spirit it has lacked at the top. The second ball he faced in his ODI career, off Wayne Parnell, produced a slash over point. He then got badged by Kagiso Rabada, and retaliated with a dreamy punch through the line to the long off boundary. And in Parnell’s next over, the first ball was slapped through point, the second went the same way with even more emphasis and brutality. Since his debut, his go big or go home style has resulted in 138 runs off 117 balls, with 21 fours and two sixes. But he is young yet; with age will hopefully come the smarts that will allow him to pull his horns back after that initial assault, and look to bat deep.
The rest of the Pakistan batting lineup, though, tends to a stultifying orthodoxy and is only too willing to allow itself to be dictated to, to be cramped by canny bowlers and to bat throughout at a gentle jog punctuated by pressure-intensifying periods of strokelessness – a potentially fatal flaw against India, a side with a finely-honed ability to seize on the slightest weakness.
On balance, then, Pakistan’s best chance of pulling off an upset for the ages rests with its bowling. And that in turn sets up a dream match-up: the best bowling unit in this tournament versus its most impressive batting side, the contest playing out on a true wicket.