Pakistan’s Hasan Ali roars in triumph, celebrating the wicket of England’s Eoin Morgan. (AP: Joe Giddens)
A couple of months ago, Australia and South Africa were involved in pantomime fisticuffs as to who could hold onto the title of world number one in 50-over cricket.
Fast forward, and neither of the supposed best teams in the world could even make a Champions Trophy semi-final. Bangladesh and Pakistan came through in their stead, two erratic teams who were not expected to offer much in England’s chilly prelude to summer.
It has been a tournament of upsets. Sri Lanka nearly made the finals after chasing 300 in an epic against India. Bangladesh produced one of that nation’s best sporting performances, holding nerve in admirable fashion from a tough spot against New Zealand.
But the vote for most unexpected turnaround went to Pakistan, who roared into the final by taking out the tournament favourites and host England in the Welsh capital of Cardiff.
The locations of this tournament have a post-traumatic tinge for Australians, who have been on ill-fated Ashes tours of the dozen years past; matches in Cardiff where Monty Panesar batted out a draw that profoundly cost Ricky Ponting’s side, and where Shane Watson departed Test cricket with two LBWs and two failed reviews.
Or Edgbaston, where the heaving Hollies Stand gloated and caroused as Australia’s batsmen fell apart in 2015, and roared in disbelief when Michael Kasprowicz was out two runs short in 2005.
Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens is an unlovely ground on the inside — its playing surface hints more at a quadrilateral than an oval’s graceful sweep, and its pitches tend to the treacly and brown that hold up batsmen without overly compensating bowlers.
England’s Ben Stokes looks on as Pakistan’s successful run chase continues in Cardiff. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
But the contests so produced can be grimly compelling, forcing both disciplines to apply patience; and outside the ground things are lovely indeed. Sophia Gardens lives up to the second part of its name in a way many other famous employers of the word do not.
The ground sits in the middle of a long tract of parkland. Broad trees shade hillocks and grass. The park is bordered on its residential side by a high stone wall, while an English laneway that would not be out of place in a country town soapie exists in the middle of a capital city.
The far end from the broadcast box backs onto the River Taff, wherein Azhar Ali deposited a particularly muscular off-drive against Sri Lanka in Pakistan’s three-wicket win earlier this week. A man stranded on a desert island will try to interpret this totem when the ball washes up on his beach in 30 years’ time.
The waterway broadens suddenly from a near-creek beside the stadium to the river that sweeps the plain, half a mile down.
For a day at the cricket, you can walk along that river’s length, the footpath ducking under bridges and swerving around trunks, then those trees creating a tunnel as you near the stadium, a guard of honour seeing you to the middle.
All of this glows green, as did Pakistan. Bangladesh shares that colour; so too South Africa, and even Australia when the designers try to add some funk every few years. But on this day the colour was all Zindabad.
From outside in the parkland, the roar following Eoin Morgan’s dismissal detonated, rolling out across the fields in slow-motion baritone.
Arthur’s promise delivered by Pakistan
Green speaks of freshness and renewal. Of growth. This is what coach Mickey Arthur promised, after Pakistan was humiliated by India to start its tournament. The magnitude of the occasion was too much, the tenor of the rivalry too intense. The players wilted.
Their coach was angry, perhaps more visibly than he had ever been in a media conference, but not with his players. Rather, with the criticism he knew was coming.
He said they were better than they had showed, that they were working as hard as they can. He said they would turn it around and beat South Africa, that aforementioned supposed best side in the world.
It was the kind of thing coaches of outgunned teams say. Stay positive. Be upbeat. Except he was right. His players did not just beat the South Africans. They swarmed them.
They smothered them. They cut off supply. They bowled good lengths, consistently, for long periods. Drew edges. Built pressure. Spin as accurate as pace. And they fielded well, for once. Backed up those bowlers.
They then did the same against Sri Lanka. Then the same against England. Pressure, consistency, the occasional moment of brilliance — such as Fakhar Zaman’s catch to dismiss Moeen Ali — and a low score to chase.
For a long while, it seemed like England was going to get lucky. The recalled Jonny Bairstow was all but LBW second ball, but saved by a DRS millimetre.
Morgan was given caught off a sweep, but saved on review. The same replay then almost had him out forearm before wicket, only to be ruled high. A slashing shot bounced off first slip and almost carried to gully. Azhar Ali went up a stepladder at cover but came down empty.
You just knew that at some point, with the batting at England’s disposal, one of them would get away. Except they kept not doing it. Morgan. Stokes. Buttler. Moeen. Rashid. Plunkett. All contained, all kept from swinging three or four into the stands to change the day.
Most remarkable was that Pakistan did all this without Mohammad Amir, the slender left-armer and the team’s only unquestionably world-class player in this form of the game. Back spasms, withdrawn, and surely Pakistan was done.
Not so. There was Hasan Ali again. Morgan and Ben Stokes had ripped the game away from Australia the previous Saturday. Hasan got them both, plus Bairstow. His 10 overs went for 35.
There was Rumman Raees, on debut, with every right to be a mess of nerves, instead ticking through two wickets and nine overs at a cost of 44. Junaid Khan was superb after an expensive first over. Shadab Khan’s leg-spin was spot on.
Mohammad Hafeez bowled eight peerless sets of part-time spin so nude and nagging that the specialist Imad Wasim was only used for five, despite going at three runs an over. No bowler’s economy rate even hit five. England subsided. Pakistan had done what Pakistan can do. But then there was the other half to deal with, even if the chase was only 212.
Pakistan shows form with the bat when it counts
England was left shell-shocked as the Champions Trophy favourites bowed out in the semis. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Cricinfo’s Jarrod Kimber had succinctly noted Pakistan had made the semis without yet having played a good match. It was true. Poor chasers, the batsmen nearly mucked up 237 against Sri Lanka.
Pakistan was cut a break by Duckworth-Lewis against South Africa, when 3-119 in pursuit of 220 could still have gone downhill.
England could have made inroads, played on nerves. It did not happen. Fakhar Zaman in his third game was bold, Azhar Ali the quiet balancer. A century opening partnership was the result. Even when their wickets fell, no more followed. The target was knocked off clinically, two down.
Of course, if a team really gets away with the bat, Pakistan probably lacks the engine capacity to run them down. India at The Oval will be a good chance of doing just that, presuming Virat Kohli’s side avoid a semi-final upset against Bangladesh.
But then, Pakistan’s skill is not letting that happen. Should its players bring that skill to bear, new energy would be pumped into the rivalry after the anti-climax it has become on the field.
Of course you cannot load too much meaning onto a good couple of games. Of course the world is not made anew. Of course we can all be guilty of seeing things that are not there. But even from four matches ago, the feeling of change is palpable. It is abrupt as a creek that has widened to a river.