Pakistan players parade the prize after their Champions Trophy boilover against India. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Let’s say it from the get-go. No team in any sport has had such an unlikely victory in a global tournament. Pakistan’s 2017 Champions Trophy triumph sets the bar.
Denmark snatched the 1992 Euros after failing to qualify. Greece came from the clouds in 2004. Perhaps Pakistan can match Pakistan, via the 1992 World Cup. There may be results in handball or bocce that lie beyond my world view. But nothing springs to mind.
Admittedly cricket tournaments have relatively few teams compared to football’s monolithic endeavours. Even so: Pakistan was the lowest-ranked side contesting a world title, scraping in to qualify eighth out of eight. Then, first game, they were utterly demolished.
It wasn’t just about conceding 319 to India at Edgbaston, or being bowled out in 33 overs. It was the way every facet of the team’s performance fell apart that day. The flailing, the apparent incompetence. The chaotic approach to what remains at heart a relatively simple game.
Their coach, even while passionately defending them, admitted that his players had gone to pieces. “The only thing I can think of is the magnitude of the occasion got to them,” said Mickey Arthur at the time.
It’s easy to see how it would happen. There is so much historical rivalry between the nations, so much ongoing tension. Years of bad blood and spilled blood. Cordite and Kashmir, tinpot nationalism and military pageantry.
When the time comes for the teams to play, the scrutiny would be unbearable. In recent years, Pakistan has notoriously underperformed in these games.
Not that it was ever thus: a couple of decades ago, Pakistan had years of dominance on the field. But that was before India’s economic boom, one that both fills and encircles cricket.
The result is that India’s players have become used to the big time, and don’t rely on international matches to get it. Instead players prove their worth for national spots by their work in the IPL.
They play with the biggest names in the game, in front of crowds of screaming thousands, multiple times a week, for months at a time. Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya all came through this cauldron, while Pakistan’s players plied their trade in front of empty stands at Sheik Zyed Stadium.
It was evident in the way Pandya swaggered to the middle at Edgbaston and smashed three consecutive shots into the crowd, as much as in the way Pakistan’s batsmen flinched snail-like into shells that offered no protection.
Surely, after that display, they were gone? Done mentally before the physical even began? But Pakistan crawled some way back, with a win over South Africa helped by rain. And further, with a win helped by Sri Lanka’s fielding. And further, with England helping in a suite of ways.
Suddenly a final was afoot. But that final was against India. The same blue-clad foe that had unravelled every strand of the Pakistan team just a fortnight earlier.
There was always the hope that the first game had got things out of the way. The second time around, these players had an idea what to expect. They could see it as a second chance. Trial by fire might have left a resistant callus.
There will be plenty of recriminations for India captain Virat Kohli (R) to address. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
But on pure cricketing terms, the challenge remained. Across a collective dozen innings in four matches, India’s top three batsmen had reaped 874 runs at an average of 109.25. Whatever Pakistan might make, India could run it down.
If Pakistan was to win, there was one chance. Mimic the last three games. Get first use of the pitch. Apply pressure. Early wickets, then squeeze, restricting their powerful opponents to under 250. Assemble a modest chase. That was it. The only way it could happen.
Except something else happened completely. Virat Kohli won the toss. Asked Pakistan to bat. Cue groans from the assembled media and the green-clad half of the audience. The match was over before it had begun.
Kohli and his coach Anil Kumble must have discussed it. Knowing Pakistan’s strength lay in restriction, and India’s in chasing, it was a simple choice. Do what your opponents would least prefer. Deny them the small comfort zone they had carved out for themselves.
The mind game was quality. On another day it would have worked. On this day it should have with the score on 7, when in classic left-handed style, Fakhar Zaman poked at a delivery seaming across him. Edged, but Bumrah had stepped long. No-ball.
The moment grew in significance every over. Later in the day, the ground DJ made the unusual track selection of Fast Car by Tracy Chapman, usually a song to listen to when you want to cry alone in a cafe. But tweak the lyrics, and they worked for Pakistan.
“You’ve got a Fakhar, fast enough that he can fly away. He’s gonna open the innings, make a ton and we could win that way.”
That’s what happened, in what was without doubt one of the strangest and most compelling innings I’ve seen. I don’t know where to start with Fakhar. Imagine if Shane Warne pinch-hitting at first drop had paid off. Imagine if a player rotated the world 90 degrees sideways, but stayed where he was. Imagine straight hits with a horizontal bat aimed at midwicket.
Are you confused yet? So am I. If Fakhar can’t drive, it’s usually no good. But he wasn’t driving. Aside from a couple of aerials over cover, he used wrist-flicks to take balls from outside off stump and deposit them to leg.
Unorthodox but effective, Pakistan batsman Fakhar Zaman stole the show with a stunning century. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
He charged the bowling at will, either meeting the spinners three yards down the pitch, or going back onto his stumps. He got to face whatever length he preferred. He hooked compulsively, and walked at the pacemen to do it.
Remember that Fakhar was an unknown quantity who debuted this tournament, a swing-from-the-hipper who didn’t even play the first game against India, but was brought in as a gamble in the second.
Initially he was relatively calm in a stand of 128. Then, having run out Azhar Ali, Fakhar started scoring runs for both of them. Two overs after the run-out, he was 61 from 78. The next two went for 33, with Babar Azam chipping in three singles. Fakhar’s hundred came up from the most outrageous sweep, reaching way wide of off and crashing it through square leg.
By the time he holed out, aiming yet again over midwicket to a ball that would have been well greeted by a straight drive, he had been part of a 72-run partnership of which Babar had offered 11.
It was not in any way an innings of control. It was not necessarily an innings that will be repeatable.
“I think 80 per cent of his shots were high risk, but they came off,” said Kohli after the game. “The controllables become very little.”
But in the moment, repeatability didn’t matter. What mattered was the match position. “Pakistan 200/1,” the sports writer Charlie Reynolds tweeted moments before Zaman’s wicket. “About the same odds you would have got of them reaching that score.”
Babar pushed on to 46. Sarfraz Ahmed would have been ideal to come in during the 43rd over, but seemed to be having physio work in the rooms. Instead — it was a day for dice rolls landing — Mohammed Hafeez played a key hand.
Hafeez is the old coat of Pakistan cricket: patchy, often insufficient, regarded with a measure of distaste, making you ask why it’s still around, but so familiar that the place would seem strange without it. There is a comfort in its drably eternal presence.
For so long a makeshift opener, Hafeez’s descent into the middle order meant that on this day he arrived at a point of ascendancy, with no option but to press the foot to the floor. Fast enough, he flew away, a half century from 34 balls. The board ended at 338.
It didn’t remotely look beyond India. A good batting wicket, a warm and clear day, a supportive crowd. Two games at The Oval this tournament had seen 300 chased comfortably. Then there was the aforementioned top order.
Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan. The trio that had plundered those nearly 900 runs, striking at 96 per 100 balls, racking up century partnerships at will.
Mohammad Amir got them all. One, two, three. When Kohli was dropped at slip, Amir came back and got him at gully next ball. The best ODI batsman in the world, twice in a row.
“What I do know about Mohammad Amir is that he’s a big-match player,” said Arthur. “I know that when the game is on the line and the bigger the game, the more he performs.”
Rohit was done with pace and swing, a ball shaping in from the left-armer that hit him in front. Kohli got one seaming away to draw the first edge, then pace made him go too early at a ball on his pads for the second.
The celebration was intense, the Pakistanis clustering in a green mass at square leg. They knew that was the game. Not something you can often say of the second wicket, but Kohli is the maestro of chases, the man who averages 95.2 when India wins batting second. Without him, it couldn’t happen. Dhawan knew too; something of a downhill skier in this side, it was no surprise when he fished tamely outside off stump.
Pakistan’s captain Sarfraz Ahmed celebrates taking the winning catch against India. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
That meant 26 runs for India’s top three. Between the lot. After nine overs the score was 3 for 33. Amir would only bowl six, not required. His pace partner Hasan Ali, fabulous he, cleaned up another three, topping the tournament tally with 13 and being named player of the series.
“A year ago I wasn’t in the side,” he said in Urdu as translated on Cricinfo, “but I worked hard and believed in myself.”
Or to go back to Tracy Chapman, he had a feeling that he belonged. He had a feeling he could be someone. Be someone. Be someone.
On this day, he was. So was Amir, who as The Guardian’s Barney Ronay pointed out, was once sentenced to prison in a court a few hundred metres from this ground. Fakhar was someone, and Hafeez, and the leg-spinner Shadab Khan.
They were players with all eyes on them, unable to be denied a respect that has often been withheld.
Sarfraz said as much: “When we arrived here we are number eight, and now we are the champions. Hopefully this win will boost up Pakistan cricket and hopefully all playing nations are coming to Pakistan.”
The words have a certain ring to it. And you’re not likely to hear them again any time soon.