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Why do pundits never learn? Write off Pakistan at your peril

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(Photo: Getty Images)

Saj Sadiq goes behind the scenes to identify how the long-odds underdogs turned over the Trophy favourites…

To arrive at a major international tournament as the lowest ranked team and to leave as victorious finalists would be a story usually assigned to the fairytale section of any bookshop.

Yet this is exactly what Pakistan’s ODI squad were able to achieve during the 2017 Champions Trophy, as a team known more for its mercurial unpredictability came together in the space of four games to confound its critics.

The journey began, as it normally does whenever Pakistan pick their teams, with the customary furore over squad selection. The fact that Pakistan’s selectors had picked a 15-man squad with some tried and tested names such as Ahmed Shehzad and Wahab Riaz caused consternation among fans and experts alike.

In addition, the inclusion of Umar Akmal with a miraculous return to fitness after missing the previous series against the West Indies for the same reason was also raising eyebrows.

Pakistan cricket watchers could thus only smile with one of those “we told you” type expressions when news came through that Akmal would be returning home without setting foot on a cricket pitch after Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur declared him as unfit for duties.

After some last-minute shopping, he was duly sent back to Pakistan and Haris Sohail flown in quick time to replace the errant batsman.

The Pakistan Champions Trophy campaign was now gaining momentum in a most Pakistani way. The term unpredictable was in danger of being replaced with the word ridiculous but more was to come.

Hyperbole overload is what you get when you pit India and Pakistan on a cricket field. The greatest rivalry this side of the Milky Way is one way to describe it. A match of un-equals would be the more realistic expression of what transpired in Birmingham on June 4 when the sides met in their group game.

Pakistan, true to their No.8 ODI billing, met an Indian ODI team bristling with IPL-inspired confidence and one which also happened to hold the No.3 ranking in ODIs.

The result, despite some over-exaggerated expectations of past encounters, was a predictable one. A shell-shocked Pakistan team, overawed by the occasion and clearly out of its depth, crashed to a 124-run (DLS method) defeat.

It is said that huge defeats can make or break a team and conventional wisdom would have dictated that Pakistan would be now going through the motions in the upcoming games for a quick exit after the group stage.

In fact, anyone observing coach Arthur’s own body language would have been lead to believe that Pakistani spirits were broken beyond repair. But the more observant onlookers would have also noticed Arthur’s intent to fix things in the future except that in the media feeding frenzy that followed, this was not the story that the naysayers wanted to hear.

Behind the scenes, as Arthur would later describe, some frank and important conversations were held between players and management.

Feedback was taken and given in a “no holds barred” session and Pakistan decided at that time that the only way ahead was to play each game as if it was the final of the tournament.

What Pakistan needed now was an opportunity to regroup and some breathing space. But if they were looking for a break, the next game against the No.1 ranked ODI side, South Africa, was not the ideal platform to relaunch their bid for the trophy.

Of course, labelled as ‘underdogs’ must have been a little demoralising for the team as well but the captain and the coach would disagree with that assessment.

The Pakistan team, it appeared, were not ready to throw in the towel.

One of the redeeming features of this Pakistan campaign was the ability to take problems head on and come up with viable solutions. Gone were the days when the team management would persist with failures so as not to disturb the status quo or ruffle feathers back home.

With Arthur and Sarfraz Ahmed in control, there was a breath of fresh air in the way things were done. The game against South Africa was a prime example of this brave new approach. Pakistan were to duly jettison Shehzad as his form was not compatible with the brand of aggressive cricket that Arthur wanted to encourage within his team.

Late call-up: Fakhar Zaman turned into one of Pakistan’s heroes in their truimph (Photo: Getty Images)

In his place, Fakhar Zaman, yet another new entity, would take his place as the Pakistan unit rolled towards its destiny. The poorly performing Wahab was an enforced change due to injury, but many who know the new wave of thinking in the Pakistan camp would have not been surprised if he had been dropped for Junaid Khan in any case.

South Africa became the first side in Group B to experience the brunt of a rejuvenated Pakistan side.

They bowled with consistency and attacked the batsmen with a ferocity that would have pleased Imran Khan no end. It is during this game that the world of cricket started to take notice of the precocious talent of the eccentric 23-year-old Hasan Ali, who announced his arrival at the Champions Trophy with a player of the match performance of 3-24.

Fakhar also debuted in this game against the fiery pace of South Africa with aggression that was a sight for sore eyes; especially Pakistan ones.

What pleased many onlookers and analysts was the unity that was building up in the side and the hunger for success which was on display in this young side.

There was a never-say-die-attitude on display and it looked as if they were developing a sense of invincibility. No amount of adversity would damage their desire to win and when, in their next game against Sri Lanka, Pakistan lost a flurry of wickets which seemed to threaten their progress, up stepped  captain Sarfraz to take his side to a victory and a semi-final clash with the tournament favourites, England.

To many, this was the proverbial end of the road for Pakistan as chances of passing England on the way to the final were remote, to put it mildly.

An England side which had made its business to amass 300-plus scores with brutal batting power was, against all expectations, held down to just 211.

The beauty of Pakistan’s progress was even more glorified by the fact that the seniors in the team, considered dead-wood by many, were being energised to perform better. Alarm bells were already ringing for Pakistan’s next opponents.

And so it came to pass that on June 18 in front of thousands at The Oval and millions glued to their TV sets around the world, a jubilant Sarfraz lifted the Champions Trophy after his side thrashed their old rivals India by 180 runs.

The effort by a low-rated team to win four games in a row was gargantuan, to say the least, but the manner and magnitude of victory was simply awe-inspiring not only for the team but for the whole Pakistan nation. Everyone who watched this team in action at the Champions Trophy now feels that this could be the start of something special and who can doubt that sentiment?

Whilst the cricket world joined in unison to admire what Pakistan had achieved in this tournament, this was also a sobering moment for the long list of pundits who felt no hesitancy in consigning Pakistan to the scrapheap at the start of the tournament.

Even with the quality of victories against South Africa and England, many still found it difficult to give Pakistan a chance. One hopes that they and many others have now learnt a lesson which many of Pakistan’s opponents have known for a while.

Underestimate Pakistan at your own peril and, if you do, be well prepared to eat some humble pie at the end.

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