Champions Trophy 2017: Pakistan's way of going about their business does not make sense but it works

Hassan Cheema 16:29 15/06/2017
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It was a commanding performance by Pakistan in Cardiff.

England had batted first 24 times since the 2015 World Cup. They’d scored over 270 in 19 of those. Even when they didn’t get there they did so because they went too hard too quickly. In two of the five exceptions they were bowled out within 35 overs, in two others they were bowled out while going at a rate of 5.2 runs per over.

And then there was the 24th instance, the fly in the ointment, the one match which truly was the exception. Against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi in November 2015, England found themselves with their typical solid platform – 145-3 after 30 overs with two set batsmen at the crease. Unable to play Pakistani spin and Mohammad Irfan at the death, they succumbed to 216 all out. It was the only match Pakistan won in that series.

That wasn’t going to be the case here, surely? The other 23 matches provided a better window into new England than one random game at a massive ground on a dry wicket, especially since they were taking on a team that had only had one successful chase over 270 since the World Cup two years ago. That’s a score England can achieve when playing far below their best. On Wednesday, so as long as they avoided doing an Abu Dhabi, they would be fine.

Well, that’s easier said than done. After 30 overs in Cardiff, England were 136-3 – a total far below their expectations, but still with a solid enough platform. The trio of Pakistani spinners by then had bowled 18 of the overs and had gone at just 4.00 an over. On a dry wicket England look frazzled. But they’d done the hard part. With seven wickets in hand, a doubling of the score (which would require going at just under seven an over) would take them to 270 – a score that would have been too much for Pakistan.

Pakistan don’t play modern cricket. In Test matches, they have been extremely successful over the last seven years, partly because they are able to play against the mindset of other teams. Modern players lack patience, so that becomes Pakistan’s biggest strength. They lack discipline so that’s where Pakistan target them. But this isn’t something Pakistan can do in ODI cricket. The game here is tilted far too much towards the batting, the format itself rewards the modern mentality, and the rules make it ever harder to translate what succeeds in Test cricket. Thus Pakistan have found themselves on a constant decline for a decade and a half.

But what happens if you mess with the opposition’s plans here. What happens if you treat the span immediately after the 30th over to try and take wickets, to throw the other team off their game. If it comes off you have the momentum. And there is no team, perhaps in any sport, that rides that beast quite like Pakistan. For them it isn’t merely an attribute, it is pretty much a belief system – the idea that whoever has the momentum is the one who wins, regardless of quality. There is no way to quantify it, nor a path to summon it whenever needs be.Ā 

And that’s what Pakistan have stumbled upon, or planned without ever telling anyone. They’ve realized that if they control the overs from the 30th to the 40th, they can cover so much. Against India they conceded 51 runs in the ten over spell, at a lower run rate than the 30 overs prior to it. Against South Africa they had already taken six wickets in the first 30 overs, but still they conceded only 35 runs in the next ten, so that even a possible late assault couldn’t really hurt them. Against Sri Lanka that phase of play brought four wickets for just 25 runs as Hasan Ali and Junaid Khan bowled like they were imbibed by the spirit of the two Ws. Thus it’s fair to say England had been warned. 136-3 was not as safe as they assumed.

On the surface, it makes no sense. With different balls from either end you can’t really expect much reverse. How much can a fifteen overs old ball really swing, no matter how much it been worked on? It’s not as if Pakistan’s reliance in those overs is on their spinners either. By all logic and cricket understanding it’s a strategy that shouldn’t make sense, but it works. That pretty much explains Pakistan cricket – it shouldn’t make sense, but somehow it works.

And it worked against England too. 136-3 became 169-6 over the next ten overs. Each of the three wickets fell to the pacers, and suddenly it needed an otherworldly innings for England to get to 270. Pakistan have broken down how every team likes to bat and decided to throw a spanner right in when teams begin to accelerate. Again, it’s a strategy that shouldn’t work, but Junaid and Hasan have made it work.

And that’s really the story of this team. A former wonderkid who might have had more injuries than wickets in the last couple of years has started bowling like his old self. And a kid who was supposed to be nothing more than a decent new ball bowler has become the standout old ball bowler in an ICC tournament. Those are not players you can replicate and build a template around. But if you plan well, if you field like you’ve never done before, if you break the game down and start playing as a small team, then those guys become match winners.

It really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. But it works.

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