As Fakhar Zaman turned towards the dressing room it seemed like we were following a familiar script. Pakistan would come up against India, regardless of form or momentum, and they would be left to be a deer in the headlights. But the formality of checking the front foot was still to be completed. Jasprit Bumrah had overstepped. So Fakhar returned, and never looked back. Neither did Pakistan.
Fakhar wasn’t supposed to be here. He started 2017 outside of the international reckoning. Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali and Kamran Akmal were all ahead of him in the pecking order. Meanwhile Hafeez and captain Sarfraz Ahmed were always there too, ready to open if need be – one more keen on that idea than the other. But fortune had its tricks to play. And it was Fakhar on whom Pakistan’s hopes lay in their biggest ODI match for six/eighteen years (delete as per your beliefs). He didn’t appear to be the obvious candidate for that role – he struggled against the rising ball, he was nothing more than a mere slogger, he was not what wins you tournaments. That’s what the belief was. There were question marks over how he would react if he was tied down. If he was, say, 16 off 29 at the end of the first powerplay. He got all that, the short bowling, the slow start, the immense pressure. And yet he returned to the dressing room having played one of the greatest innings in Pakistan history. He wasn’t supposed to be there, but when he did get there, he owned it like few have before him. The same could be said of Pakistan.
Or of his partner. Azhar Ali was dropped for Pakistan’s previous ODI series. Removed as captain, his ODI career was in jeopardy. He was too slow for the modern game. And yet in the final, as Fakhar struggled, it was him who carried the attack to the Indians. It was him who was there setting the tone. By the end of the powerplay he had 29 off 32 and had guided Fakhar through the hardest part of his innings. He too wasn’t supposed to be here.
Neither was Mohammad Hafeez. For the best part of a decade Pakistanis that follow the domestic game had called for him to develop into the team’s true number six: an ideal fifth bowler and someone who could take apart a bowling line up when it was his day. Yet he continued to believe that he needed to bat in the top three. Now 36, that was a scenario unlikely to ever happen. Thus despite having a higher percentage of man-of-the-match awards than anyone in Pakistan’s history, the casual fan still couldn’t point to the one great contextual innings Hafeez had ever played in coloured clothing. They couldn’t until Sunday.
Sarfraz Ahmed has never had great luck with finals. Prior to becoming captain he had been part of six finals defeat – to go with no wins – for Karachi in domestic T20 finals; add that to leading Quetta to runners up in both editions of the Pakistan Super League and a trend begins to make shape. More than once these matches had left him in tears, with nothing left to console him. The last time he had won a major final had been in an ICC tournament against India – way back in 2006 when he was the Pakistan under-19 captain. He had spent his whole 20s without a victory in the final. A month after his 30th birthday he made sure that trend would no longer continue.
Shadab Khan isn’t even in his 20s, yet he has already seen the full gamut of the journey of the Pakistani cricketer. In April of 2016, coming off an exceptional under-19 World Cup, he was dropped for Arsal Sheikh. His captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, had played him in each of the three Pakistan Cup matches before he left for his Umrah. With Misbah no longer there, the son of the head of the Islamabad Region Cricket Association was preferred. Just fourteen months later, Shadab was convincing Sarfraz that he had outfoxed Yuvraj Singh.
Outfoxing is all that Hasan Ali ought to be capable of. He rose to prominence at the end of the 2015/16 season, taking 17 wickets in seven matches in the National One Day Cup. But it was obvious what his limitations were. He didn’t have the pace, nor the natural bounce or height to be able to bowl with the older ball. He was destined to become a new ball specialist, and little else. Of course his new ball skills were outstanding, but how much could he possibly achieve with that in the modern game? Eighteen months later he is a middle overs specialist, and at least for one fortnight, he was better than anyone else in the world at that.
Best in the world is what Mohammad Amir was supposed to be. For five years Pakistanis had waited. Every passing day made his past achievements and potential appear greater. Then he came back, but he wasn’t the prince that was promised. What had salivated a whole nation had been him bringing the ball back into the right-hander, a collective nostalgasm for a generation that grew up on Wasim. The Amir after the return wasn’t what we had once glimpsed at. Sure he was lethal against left-handers, and he was rarely taken apart, but he wasn’t bringing the ball back into the right-hander. How long would we have to wait for that? Was it gone forever? Were his lengths too short for him to be able to do that again? Was his wrist and his action rusty or permanently damaged? Would we ever get to see the 2010 Amir again? Again, how long would we have to wait?
Three balls. That’s all. Three balls into the biggest match since his comeback he was his old self again. And so was Pakistan.
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