A famous song lyrics goes like this: the road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where. These words can also best describe Pakistan's road to the Champions Trophy final.
As the Pakistan players dragged themselves off the field at the end of the match against India on 4 June, tournament obituaries were already being drafted around the globe for this team. Grim faces, drooped shoulders and hands in pockets were some of the signs exhibited by the team on that day, as if the world had turned against them. For all intents and purposes, the team appeared broken in spirit and belief.
A visibly irate and shell-shocked Mickey Arthur came out to take the brunt of the criticism from the media, and declared that his team would regroup and bounce back. At that point, given what had transpired in the field a few hours ago, the very thought of Pakistan making it past the group stage would have been subject to ridicule, so the Pakistan head coach's declaration of intent looked incredible to say the least.
The scale of the disaster facing the Pakistan head coach and Captain Sarfraz Ahmed at the end of the tournament opener was massive. To start with, Pakistan's bowling resources seemed to have lost its bearings and conceded 300+ runs with ease. Wahab Riaz, the main culprit had himself given away 87 runs, which was the highest for any bowler in the history of the Champions Trophy.
Pakistan's fielding, which had shown some signs of improvement ahead of the tournament, seemed to regress to the schoolboy level with two crucial but simple catches of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh being missed by what appeared to be dependable fielders. Various misfields did not make the situation any better with players looking devoid of energy on the field.
The Pakistan batting did not fare any better in the run-chase. Both Azhar Ali and Ahmed Shehzad looked out of their depth while chasing the target and the rest of the batting order collapsed giving India a 124 run (DLS method) victory.
To imagine that Pakistan would challenge South Africa in their next group game looked like an exercise in futility. Ranked number one in ODIs, the supreme batting, bowling and fielding abilities of the Proteas looked miles away from what Pakistan could ever hope to match. But then this was Pakistan and it is said that when they play, expect the unexpected.
The Pakistan team that showed up for their encounter against South Africa on 7 June bore no resemblance to the one that was whipped in no uncertain terms by India. It was almost as if a whole new bunch of players had arrived from Pakistan after the India match.
This was now a team where fielders threw themselves at the ball as if their lives depended on it. Catches were taken and the bowlers bowled with gusto and accuracy not seen from them before in the tournament. Junaid Khan’s return to the fold on the back of an injury to Riaz seemed to change the balance of the bowling attack in Pakistan’s favour. Mohammad Amir found his mojo once again and started to resemble the bowler he was in 2010. But it was Hasan Ali, who had promised a lot but had a miserable game against India, who came to his own and picked three wickets.
When it came to batting, it was the turn of the debutante Fakhar Zaman, who had replaced Shehzad. He took on the likes of Kagiso Rabada with aggression and helped Pakistan to an excellent opening partnership. The match ended with Pakistan winning by 19 runs(DLS method) but the seeds for a revival had been sown, as Sri Lanka were to find out next.
Confident after their shock victory against India, Sri Lanka looked to book a place in the semi-finals with a win against Pakistan. The side that they met on 12 June at Cardiff was one which was experiencing a rebirth in terms of self-belief and Sri Lanka felt the full brunt of that new-found confidence.
After limiting a very confident Sri Lanka batting line-up to just 236 with the help of another superlative bowling performance, with Hasan leading the way and taking three wickets, Pakistan seemed to be heading for an easy win with an opening stand of 74 before Pakistan inevitably lost a flurry of wickets. It was then down to the captain Sarfraz to lead the team to a three-wicket victory with some able support from Mohammad Amir, and some unexpected largesse from the Sri Lanka fielders.
From a team of no-hopers to semi-finalists in a matter of three games, it now appeared that this Pakistan team was developing an air of invincibility and confidence. Regardless, it was England who were considered favourites to win the tournament and appeared to have the upper-hand going into the semi-final at Cardiff on 14 June. To many experts, this was surely the end of the road for Pakistan but they were proven wrong once again.
As if fired-up by a belief that it was in their destiny to reach the final, a Pakistan team all but decimated a confident England side in front of a delighted crowd in Cardiff. Limiting a side which regularly posted 300+ scores to just 211 was also an achievement which left many experts shaking their heads. Once again, the precocious talent of Hasan that earned him the man of the match award for the second time in the tournament and also made him the highest wicket taker so far, came to the fore and exemplified the transformation of Pakistan to world-beaters. What followed next, when Pakistan batted, was even more revealing of the confidence they had in their abilities. Zaman slammed the ball to all parts of the ground and with Ali, experiencing a revival of sorts, Pakistan cruised to a magnificent eight-wicket victory, taking them to the final of the Champions Trophy.
The almost frenetic rate at which Pakistan have improved throughout this tournament has impressed most observers. But the opponent they will meet in the final has a track record which puts them ahead as favourites to win the tournament. On Sunday, the battle will be between a team with self-belief and a team that has proven match-winners. No one can ask for a better match-up in the final of a tournament.
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