Pakistan's progress in the Champions Trophy so far looks ominously similar to their journey in the 1992 World Cup.
Back then, Pakistan had stumbled into the final after being rescued by a washed-out game against England, disastrous gambits of rival captains--New Zealand's Martin Crowe rested himself in the semi-final-- and some other results that went their way, like the unexpected exit of Australia in the league stages.
But, when it came to the crunch games, Pakistan morphed from scared kittens to roaring tigers, ending in their famous victory in the finals against England.
Pakistan are riding a similar cycle this Champions Trophy. Starting as the underdogs--they are ranked at the bottom of the heap-- with a team that has faces that many won't recognise outside Islamabad, they have suddenly turned into a formidable bowling unit.
Their spinners are enticing rival batsmen into their web of leg and off-cutters and the pacers are generating a lot of reverse swing in the middle overs, choking the run flow and thus putting pressure on the rival batsmen. No wonder, except for India, every team has struggled to score against Pakistan.
There are two distinct similarities between Pakistan of 2017 and Pakistan of 1992. One, it is relying on rookies, who, like Inzamam ul Haq back then, are gathering the day for them. Two, their bowlers are going flat out to get the opponents bowled out, reminding fans of Imran Khan's famous advice to his bowlers to not worry about no-balls and go for the jugular.
Like in 1992, when Inzamam's induction revived the comatose batting lineup, Fakhar Zaman has suddenly made the top order look dangerous.
Any other team would have been wary of throwing a 27-year-old debutant at the deep end of the pool in a tournament like the Champions Trophy. But, faced with a sink-or-swim scenario, Zaman was given his first game at the international level against South Africa. Since then, Zaman has played as if he is in a hurry to make up for the delayed debut, scoring almost as an opener against some of the top bowlers of the world.
Unexpectedly, Pakistan's bowling that looked club-class against India, has suddenly matured into a sharp, stingy group of spinners and reverse-swingers. On Wednesday, when they beat England, Pakistan were without Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz, whose fiery spell against Shane Watson in the 2015 World Cup looks like a distant memory. But, Rumman Raees--another rookie--and Hasan Ali stepped up to stifle England.
Cricket is a strange game. It takes just an inspirational innings or a dramatic performance to turn around the fortunes of a team. Sarfaraz Ahmed's gritty knock against Sri Lanka has apparently done that to Pakistan, making them believe in their ability and luck. They now have the momentum and the opportunity to win the tournament.
Pakistan has always relied on individual brilliance for victories. It has always benefitted from the sudden and unexpected arrival of a hero, created specifically for a particular game or a tournament. That is why they are the most unpredictable team in world cricket.
There is however one final frontier to cross for Pakistan. And it is called India.
India toyed with Pakistan in their first game, making their bowlers first spray the ball around and then hobble back to the dressing room with injured bodies and battered egos. And though India lost to Sri Lanka, its batting lineup has always looked formidable. The Indian batsmen have made 300-plus scores look child's play so far.
India have never lost to Pakistan in the final--or a knock-out game-- of a major tournament. The Men in Blue have always been the final slayers of Pakistan's ambitions in World Cups and other ICC tournament.
If the Champions Trophy resembles the 1992 World Cup for Pakistan, India could be reminded of the 1985 Benson & Hedges Cup in Australia, where they first knocked out Pakistan in the group stages and then dismantled them again in the finals.
But, before that, it is over to India vs Bangladesh.
Updated Date: Jun 15, 2017 15:42 PM