No one could have imagined that Pakistan would qualify for the semis of the 2017 Champion Trophy after their disastrous loss against India. But here they are, in the semi-finals, ready to take on the tournament favourites England! If anything encapsulated the ups and downs of Pakistan's nerve-racking match against Sri Lanka, it is coach Mickey Arthur's expressions — from having his face buried in his hands to celebrating in joy after Sarfraz Ahmed hit the winning runs.
Pakistan's turnaround since the tournament opener against India has been remarkable. Though most of the batsmen have been found wanting, the bowlers have shouldered the responsibility ably. Meanwhile, the team have doubled their intensity on the field to ensure that the tournament doesn't end up as a damp squib.
Despite this, experts have prophesied a one-sided match when England lock horns with Pakistan at Cardiff. But if there is one thing that this year's Champions Trophy has taught us — barring the unpredictability of English weather and Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method — it is that no clash is predictable.
Ahead of the first semi-final, here's a look at the key players who could make the difference in the all-important clash:
Fakhar Zaman, Pakistan
Pakistan are a side that lack power hitters. They don't even have the likes of Ben Stokes or Kedar Jadhav or Hardik Pandya to provide the much-needed 20-30 extra runs late in the innings. Owing to this, the first Powerplay becomes crucial for Pakistan. If Fakhar had not scored a brisk fifty against Angelo Mathews' men, the situation could've been far more difficult for Sarfraz and Mohammad Amir. In spite of being a rookie, the southpaw has displayed maturity and seems to have a sense of calm under pressure, a trait which is rarely found in Pakistani batsmen. With Azhar Ali asked to play the anchor role, the onus to provide a fast and steady start will fall on Fakhar.
Joe Root, England
England's first drop Root is probably one of the biggest reasons for England's revival in ODI cricket. With Root at the centre, other batsmen feel free to play their natural game as he anchors the innings exceptionally well. It wouldn't be wrong to say that England's batting revolves around Root. Come Wednesday, he will have to adopt a similar role to allow his teammates to continue what they do: fire on all cylinders. He had an off day against Australia as he scored only 15 but he will be raring to bounce back in the semi-final.
Sarfraz Ahmed, Pakistan
It is still a mystery as to why Sarfraz, arguably Pakistan's best batsman, bats at No 6. Logically speaking, there could be two reasons, either the team is aware of the fickle nature of their batting and want someone reliable down the order or he, as the captain, yearns to take the responsibility, absorb the pressure and finish games off. His knock against Sri Lanka may not have been the best, but it was important. He didn't panic and batted according to the situation to steer his side home with an unbeaten 61. In this high-octane game, Pakistan will need his tranquility both as a skipper and batsman.
Ben Stokes, England
Stokes is considered to be the world's best all-rounder for a reason. The unbeaten 102 against Australia probably encapsulated his importance to the side. When he came in to bat, the score read 35/3. Any other batsman would have gone into the shell while coming to terms with the chase. But not Stokes. He took the attack to the opposition and befuddled Steven Smith and his bowlers. His bowling has not been as clinical as his batting, an area he would like to improve on but his athleticism and outrageous fielding make up for it. As England finally look to finish their long wait to win an ODI title, Stokes would like to put in impactful performances in the business end of this event and bury the ghosts of those four towering sixes West Indies' Carlos Brathwaite hit off his bowling in the World T20.
Hasan Ali, Pakistan
Hasan has been Pakistan's most consistent bowler (in terms of wickets) since the 2015 World Cup. His ability to bowl cutters with superb control has helped him scalp the likes of Faf du Plessis and Kusal Mendis. England are a side that don't take the foot off the pedal even in the middle overs. This is where the pacer will have to step up and curb the opposition's flow of runs. He surely has the ability to do that but pressure got the better of him in front of India. If he is able to surpass that, we shall witness a lot of downward fist pumps.
Adil Rashid, England
Rashid has gone strength to strength after being snubbed for the first game of the Champions Trophy. He is now England's second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament and bowled at an economy of 4.44. Eoin Morgan and Co have one of the best bowling attacks in the Champions Trophy, but against Bangladesh it looked toothless. After the leggie returned, the tourney favourites have managed to assert control in the middle overs too. Pakistan are a side that historically play spin well but Rashid has it in him to bewilder them through his dangerous googlies and subtle variations.
Updated Date: Jun 14, 2017 14:40 PM