Champions Trophy: Unpredictable Pakistan find consistency to upstage and outplay rivals India at the Oval

Reporting from the Champions Trophy final at the Oval, Sport360's Chetan Narula hails Pakistan's team dynamic and performance which left India reeling in London.

Chetan Narula
by Chetan Narula
18th June 2017

article:18th June 2017

Downbeat: Skipper Virat Kohli at the Oval.
Downbeat: Skipper Virat Kohli at the Oval.

The unpredictability of Pakistan upstages India!

Batting, bowling, fielding – after the defeat against India in Birmingham on June 4, faults could be found in each aspect of Pakistan’s game. This is their weakest team ever to participate in an ICC tournament, they said. They cannot beat any other stronger opponents, they added.

And here you are, when the golden dust settled after the white jackets were presented, Pakistan left as the 2017 Champions Trophy winners. They beat South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and India to lift the second biggest prize in ODI cricket. None of the naysayers can argue that they didn’t deserve it. They can wonder though, aloud even, just how did this happen?

Part of the credit goes to Mickey Arthur, alone. The coach’s brief is to make sure his team believes in their ability, first and foremost, and if they budge from that line of thinking, he has to pull them back. Despite the loss against India, Arthur was defiant in his belief that this Pakistan team could do something special. It was just a matter of the sum of different parts coming together, clicking at one point in time even.

Is it easy though, when the team you are coaching is as unpredictable as this one? That word is so clichéd now, but never more has it held true for any Pakistan side. There is reasoning behind it of course, for this is a new bunch of players coming together for them at a vital time. Sample this – in an ICC competition, wherein most teams baulk at blooding youngsters, Pakistan played three debutants in this tournament. There is so much inexperience among them that it can ruin best laid plans.

The other way to look at it is that the same inexperience cannot dent their confidence. The loss against India comes to the fore here again, in particular one moment. It was when Hasan Ali dropped Yuvraj Singh, and the left-hander cut loose. It hurt Ali to miss a sitter like that one, but was he mentally scarred by it? No, he wasn’t, because a couple days later, in the game against South Africa, he took a similar catch, completing it this time and pumped up the crowd to chant his name.

Ali finished as the top wicket-taker in the tournament, and there can be no doubt he has a long future ahead of him, if selection politics do not come in his way. The bottom line though is about mental ability to bounce back, something that so many Pakistan cricketers suffer from. None among Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf or Rumman Raees had played international cricket until the game against India. Coming into the tournament, both Ashraf and Raees did stellar jobs against Sri Lanka and England respectively.

Meanwhile, Zaman changed their fortunes with the bat from the moment he was included in their playing eleven. He finished with 252 runs from four matches, inclusive of two half-centuries and that scintillating hundred in the final. It can only be imagined how his integration in the side might have possibly worked. After the defeat to India, Pakistan were looking for more attacking options at the top, and Zaman provided quick starts in the other matches. And, in the final on Sunday, he played against his natural game, stunning the Men in Blue who really who had no answer to his patient knock.

The other part of this meritorious credit goes to skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed, of course. The coach might be employed to improve the team. And he will always have eyes on the past as well as the future, for they are his reference points at all times. The captain though must think about where his team is valued in the current scheme of things, and act accordingly, whether on or off the field. In this aspect, Ahmed has been faultless.

While the coach was busy keeping his team aligned in one direction, the captain put in effort to allow liberty to Pakistan players to express themselves. Play like an underdog, and you can win, perhaps was the mantra from Ahmed. It was a known mental space for him, for he has been an underdog throughout his international career – fighting for his spot, his chance at the big stage, trying to prove his detractors wrong.

And there is nothing more dangerous than an unappreciated but dogged Pakistan side. It gives wings to their unpredictability as South Africa and England found out, and India on Sunday. Against the defending champions, none could have estimated anything else but a successful title defence. Maybe a close fight, but again with Virat Kohli’s men prevailing in the end, to retain their 2013 crown. Let it be said here that they were outplayed.

Was it plausible that Pakistan’s openers would bat with concentration and protect their wickets (that Jasprit Bumrah no-ball helped of course!)? Was it foreseeable that their batting line-up, with a highest score of 237/7 previously in this tournament, would not only cross 300 comfortably, instead put on an imposing 339-run target on the board?

Was it remotely conceivable that India’s in-form batting line-up would crumble to 158 all out? Did anyone – even their staunchest fans – think Pakistan would beat their arch rivals in this wholesome, dominant manner, upstaging India with bat, ball and in the field even?

Arthur set his wards a target of reaching London, and when they got here, he urged them to go one step further. Ahmed broke his young team’s shackles and told them to go enjoy their moment in the sun. Pakistan rode 270 miles from Birmingham to Cardiff, and then to this final at the Oval, on their way to lifting the trophy. It was a stellar journey where they found consistency in their unique unpredictability.