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

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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.

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India v Pakistan: Virat Kohli vs Sarfraz Ahmed and the other key battles in the Champions Trophy final

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Not many would have expected an India-Pakistan final in the Champions Trophy, especially after India’s dominating win over their arch-rivals in their Group B encounter.

But Pakistan have recovered superbly to earn a rematch and this one won’t be as one-sided.

Here, we take a look at four key battles that will determine the outcome of the Champions Trophy final:

BATTING POWERS

Shikhar Dhawan v Azhar Ali

The Indian opener is the man when it comes to the Champions Trophy. He is the highest-scoring batsman in the tournament (317 runs from four knocks) and is the only player to have scored over 300 runs in two editions of the event (including 2013). Dhawan is in the form of his life while Azhar Ali has gone about his business with little fuss.

The Lahore-born star is a crucial cog in the Pakistan batting wheel and will be looking to add to his two fifties so far – with one of those coming in the opening match against India. Both possess finesse and power, and on the day, there shouldn’t be too much to separate them.

FAST AND FURIOUS

Jasprit Bumrah v Hasan Ali

The Pakistani pace ace has quickly become a Cult Hero for the Green Army and hasn’t shied away from the responsibility of leading the attack at the age of 23. He has bowled with searing accuracy, pace and flair to claim ten wickets in the tournament and he’ll need to move the ball around at the Oval if he is to trouble India’s stellar opening three.

In contrast, Bumrah, who is the same age, started slow but is finding form at the right time. He delivered when it mattered against South Africa and Bangladesh and has something about him for the big occasion. This should be a fascinating battle.

TURNING UP THE HEAT

Ravindra Jadeja v Mohammad Hafeez

Jadeja’s experience is vital for India and most importantly he is a man Virat Kohli can always rely on and throw the ball to. Indeed, the spinner is India’s leading all-time wicket-taker in the Champions Trophy (16 scalps) and his variation should trouble Pakistan on what is likely to be a flat and slow wicket.

Hafeez will be one of the Pakistani batsmen charged with keeping him out at the crease, as well as pitching in with his handy off-spin too. However, the 36-year-old veteran has struggled to impose himself on this tournament and you have to feel India have the edge in this department.

LEADING THE WAY

Virat Kohli v Sarfraz Ahmed

Given his unbelievable ODI record, it’s almost unfair to put anyone head-to-head with Virat – but Sarfraz has to stand up to the task today. Kohli is likely to do damage with the bat in south west London, but can he outfox his opposite number in the captaincy department?

For Sarfraz, in his first major tournament as skipper, he has performed well out in the middle and made his mark – rotating quicks and spins to good effect. He has to see this as a chance to write his name in Pakistani folklore. Statistically, and with his past record, Kohli well and truly leads in the stakes but anything can happen in a final.

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Champions Trophy 2017 Final: India captain Virat Kohli wary of fans expectations and Pakistan's strengths

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Virat Kohli addressing the media ahead of the final against Pakistan.

Virat Kohli’s knack of dealing with the expectations of 600 million cricket-crazy India supporters will be put to the test as never before in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan.

A global broadcast audience of more than half-a-billion is being projected for Sunday’s showdown between two of the sport’s fiercest rivals.

Kohli will be cast centre stage as India captain in front of a mere 24,500 sell-out crowd at The Oval, and his primary task will be to keep his composure at the crease and in the field as the overwhelming favourites bid to retain their title.

At the age of 28, his stellar career to date has made him an expert at setting aside the scrutiny and pressure – to the tune of 27 one-day international hundreds and counting, for example.

It is quite a feat, and one which has had to be learned and honed. “You can’t think of those things when you step on to the field,” said Kohli.

“I know there are expectations, I know there are people that expect the team and me to do well every time we play. But I understand as a player and as a person that it’s not possible.”

Instead, his personal method is to visualise success and have faith in his and his team’s ability, but not to believe in miracles.

“You have to be close to reality,” said Kohli. “This is a part of being an Indian cricketer, you have to find a way to deal with it.

“You can’t ignore it. You have to maintain a balance and then focus on what you need to do on the field. “I think I’ve been able to strike a good balance until now and I’m sure I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

Off the pitch, he cites a selective approach to Twitter et al as a handy tactic too. “The biggest thing is to stay off social media,” said the India captain.

“It sounds funny, but honestly it’s so important to stay away from those things – to connect to things that matter, the things that a sportsman needs to take care of.

“If you’re too distracted listening to too many suggestions or players or criticism, then you can’t focus on what you need to think as a sportsman first to be able to lead the team and then help the others in the team as well.

“The more relaxed you stay in these situations it’s a good thing, because it helps you take better decisions when you are composed and calm mentally.”

Kohli is famed for his ability to underpin successful run chases, having hit 15 of his centuries in those circumstances, and is convinced that positive thinking gives him an edge.

“If you are thinking ‘we are three down and I might get out’, then you will get out,” he said. “If you’re thinking ‘we’re three down, I’m going to counter-attack and get the team back on track’, it ends up happening, because you’re convinced about it.

“That’s something I work on. I visualise a lot, and I see myself in difficult situations and actually convincing myself that I can pull the team out in those situations.

“It won’t happen every time, but eight out of 10 times it will end up happening because you’re so convinced about it.”

He nonetheless has great respect for opponents who fell well short in their 124-run Group B defeat against India two weeks ago, but will arrive with a point to prove on the biggest stage.

“On their day they can beat any side in the world,” said Kohli. “That’s the kind of players they have, we’re quite aware of that. “But, at the same time, neither are we too intimidated nor are we too arrogant about what we are doing.”

Off-spinner Ravi Ashwin is expected to be fit despite taking a blow to his right knee from a stray throw in fielding practice at The Oval on Saturday morning.

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