India vs Pakistan Final 2017: Virat Kohli and Co stand in way of arch-rival's quest to end ICC trophy drought
No one had given Sarfraz Ahmed's team a chance but Pakistan, being Pakistan, are now the closest they’ve been to getting their hands on an ICC trophy in the past eight years.
The last time Pakistan won an ICC tournament, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were still active international players, Jasprit Bumrah was probably writing his 10th standard board exams, Virat Kohli had zero international centuries (he has 43 now) and Shikhar Dhawan was yet to make his international debut. Outside the world of cricket, Donald Trump was just a TV star with dreams of firing Barack Obama and Lance Armstrong was still a legend.
Pakistan's wait for an ICC trophy has been longer than an average Mushfiqur Rahim appeal. It was way back in 2009 when Shahid Afridi stood in the middle of Lord's doing his iconic 'Starman' celebratory pose after guiding Pakistan to victory in the World T20 final against Sri Lanka with a - 'can you believe it' - sensible half-century. Since then, Pakistan hadn't even made it to the final of an ICC event before cruising into the Champions Trophy final this year.
Before the tournament no one gave them a chance, but Pakistan, being Pakistan, are now the closest they’ve been to getting their hands on an ICC trophy in the last eight years.
It's a herculean task at the final step. They are up against the might of an experienced Indian side. Apart from the shock blip against Sri Lanka, India have been rampant in this tournament with comprehensive wins in the rest of the matches. It's as if someone has pressed the rewind button for the Indians with the openers bossing, the bowlers impressing and the fielders making a difference.
They have been there and done it before, in 2013. Nine players from the current squad were a part of the Indian team that beat England in the final of the Champions Trophy four years ago. In the past six years, India have played in three of the six finals of ICC events and won two - the 2011 World Cup and 2013 Champions Trophy. If you compare the average of the number of games played by members of the two squads in question, then the Indian figure exceeds that of Pakistan by 51. The figure is hardly surprising if you note that three players of Pakistan are making their debuts in this tournament.
"I think the difference is exposure," Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur said in the pre-match press conference when asked about the difference between the two sides at major events. "I think exposure to massive pressure situations - and let's be under no illusion, India are a fantastic cricket team at the moment. They're going in the right direction. They're playing some brilliant cricket. But exposure to high-pressure situations is what India have had above Pakistan."
So can a young and vibrant Pakistan handle the pressure of the big occasion? Arthur feels that the emergence of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) has helped the young players in getting exposure to such pressure situations.
However, international cricket is international cricket and when you are playing against your arch-rivals, it’s a different ball game altogether.
While Pakistan are still trying to embrace the modern methods of batting, their chances mainly hinge on the bowlers. Against India at Edgbaston, Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed implemented a conservative approach - that of containing runs - and it terribly backfired. They were quick to learn from their mistakes and went all aggressive. The result: South Africa 219/8, Sri Lanka 236 all out and England 211 all out.
It was as if a completely Pakistan had turned up. The problem with Pakistan is that there are two extremes on which they operate. There is no middle ground.
"When we’re good we’re very good but when we’re bad we’re very poor," Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood summed up Pakistan's unpredictable nature. "We want to change that – me and Mickey and all the coaching staff, we want to bring those things together. Hopefully we can do that,” Mahmood added.
A fresh track would be used for the final at The Oval. Traditionally, the Oval wicket is known to be batsman-friendly which assists bounce. And the key for the Pakistan bowlers will be to go for wickets. India have lost the least number of wickets so far (12) and have lost only one wicket in the first 10 overs, which is the joint fewest along with South Africa. They have applied the traditional ODI approach which has worked well. The key to Pakistan would be to send back the top order early and then cash in on their middle overs success: their bowlers have taken the most wickets in the middle overs (11-40) in this tournament (17) with the best economy rate and average of 4.34 and 30.71 respectively - success they will hope to repeat given India's lack of middle and lower order exposure.
Mohammad Amir is set to return after passing a fitness test. He might replace Rumman Raees who impressed on his debut against England. Hasan Ali has been their go-to man, especially with his skiddy pace and reverse swing in the middle overs and Pakistan would be looking forward to seeing more of those Shoaib Akhtar-Brett Lee mixed arms-spread-fist-pump celebrations from him.
The toss will be the key as Pakistan haven't batted first in the entire tournament. Their game is more suited to chasing. The authoritative batting performance against England might have injected the much-needed confidence in the batting line-up but the senior pros - Shoaib Malik (average of 21), Mohammad Hafeez (Average of 30.33) and, to some extent, Azhar Ali (42.25) need to up the ante big time.
The exciting Fakhar Zaman's aggression up the order will be crucial given that India have choked the opposition with frugal spells in the power play.
India haven't done much wrong in the tournament after the Sri Lanka wake-up call. In Mohammad Azharuddin's words, the boys have batted, bowled and fielded well. India's top order (Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli) has scored a staggering 81 percent (874/1,074) of the total runs in this edition.
There has been a method to everything India have done on the field: cautious start, sustained acceleration and blitz in the final overs while batting. Choking the opposition in the power play with frugal spells - the Indian bowlers’ economy rate of 4.19 in the first 10 overs in Champions Trophy 2017 is the lowest among all the teams - and then delivering the knock out blow in the middle overs while bowling.
The only concern they have is the lack of batting time for the middle and lower order. This is where the experience of Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni might help.
India wouldn't be looking to tinker much with their starting line-up but with Ravichandran Ashwin suffering an injury scare during a fielding drill on Saturday, India might bring back Umesh Yadav who has five wickets from three games against Pakistan in ODIs.
In ODI tournament finals between these two sides, Pakistan have had the upper hand over India with seven wins from 10. But the past matters very little for Pakistan especially with a very inexperienced side. There will be dry throats, dampened palms and blood pressure touching thermo-nuclear levels when Pakistan take the field against India at The Oval. Suddenly out of nowhere there is hope. India have been the menacing fire-breathing dragon that has blown away oppositions at will and to beat them, Sarfraz’s team have to be good because when they are, they are 'very good' and that's when even divine intervention can't stop the irresistible force that is Pakistan.
Dhawan has scored 102 runs in the first 10 overs in Champions Trophy 2017 which is the joint most by any batsman along with Zaman.
Kohli's strike rate of 192.32 in Champions Trophy 2017 is the highest for any batsman in the 'death' overs (41-50), who has faced at least 25 balls in the tournament.
No other Pakistani bowler from their current squad has dismissed Kohli even once in ODIs other than Junaid Khan. Junaid has dismissed Kohli three times in ODIs while conceding two runs from 22 balls against him.
India have defeated Pakistan 12 times in ICC events which is the joint most times a team has beaten an opposition in such events.
Hasan Ali's dot ball percentage of 59.33 in the middle-overs in Champions Trophy 2017 is the best among all the bowlers who have at least bowled 60 balls in the middle overs in this tournament.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari
Highlights, West Indies vs Pakistan, 2nd T20I in Guyana, Full Cricket Score: Visitors win by seven wickets
Follow the full scorecard and live ball-by-ball commentary on the second Twenty20 International between West Indies and Pakistan on our live blog here
India vs England: Virat Kohli stresses on 'relentless madness' and 'pursuit of excellence' to win Test series
The Indian captain said that personally, winning in England is nothing more than winning anywhere else and it is all about the team culture of going for a win. The first Test begins on 4 August.
Here are five points that could influence the outcome of what promises to be a fascinating Test series between England and India.