Benedict Gardner examines Pakistan’s remarkable journey to the ICC Champions Trophy final through the contrasting stories of three of their players.
Shikhar Dhawan glances one into the off side. It’s the seventh ball of the Indian innings, and, after an excellent opening Mohammad Amir over, the first that finds a significant amount of bat. It skids fairly gently towards point, where Ahmed Shehzad falls over in slow-motion in an attempt to stop the ball, lets it go through, and India are off the mark, pressure relieved. Later, Shehzad will open while chasing 289 from 41 overs. He makes an impetus-destroying 12 off 22.
By the next game he’s been dropped, and one presumes sent to the naughty corner. But against England his moment comes. Hasan Ali nails Rashid’s pads with an inswinger. He appeals, the rest of his team appeals, the stadium appeals. All except Shehzad, who swoops in, picks up the ball, and nails the stumps at the non-striker’s end, catching Rashid short. He’s gone from being completely uninterested to the most switched on player in the side.
Hasan Ali came into this tournament with pedigree, but no fanfare. He had the most wickets of any Pakistani bowler since the World Cup, but Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz were more interesting by far, both so capable, so talented, but so flawed. Hasan Ali doesn’t have their foibles, or their top speeds, and against India he too had a bad day. He dropped a simple chance when Yuvraj was on just 9. He would go on to take the game away from Pakistan, mostly off Ali, whom he carted for 25 runs off just 11 balls.
Against South Africa, he was a player transformed. His dismissal of Duminy, snaffling the edge with one that nipped away, might have been a contender for ball of the tournament had he not outdone it a ball later, pulling back his length, seaming it more, and taking out Wayne Parnell’s off stump. And to complete the comeback there was a super catch, made to look easy, as he calmly tracked a skewed shot and settled underneath it. He’s been the revelation of the tournament, taking nine wickets in three games, cracking sides open during the crucial middle overs period, and is the single greatest reason why Pakistan have reached the final.
For Azhar Ali’s story we have to go back a bit further, to the ODI series against Australia at the start of the year. For that series he was captain, but after he led his side to a 4-1 loss, he was dropped altogether. Then Kamran Akmal, his replacement, made scores of 47, 21, and 0 against the West Indies, and was dropped too, without having done loads wrong, in a series Pakistan won. Azhar was recalled in his place.
You can never fault Azhar Ali for lack of trying, and against India, chasing a stiff total, he tried so hard to up his strike rate. He came down the track, he slogged, but mostly he missed and mis-timed, and ended up with 50 off 65. No matter what he does, it feels like that is his contribution, striking at between 70 and 80, and sticking around.
With the addition of the swashbuckling Fakhar Zaman at the other end, Azhar Ali finally seems to be at peace with his role. The early-overs run-rate will never suffer much, and the early innings collapse shouldn’t come. Against England it worked perfectly – Azhar made 76 off 100, Zaman 57 off 58 – and it’s a good game plan. It’s also one that Pakistan have stumbled upon almost by accident.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Nothing about this tournament has felt planned. From the XI that took the field against India, Pakistan have dropped their opener and lost their two strike bowlers to injury, and their replacements have driven them forward. They almost didn’t qualify for this tournament in the first place; four days after the qualifying cut-off, a loss to Zimbabwe saw them fall to ninth, below the West Indies.
It feels futile trying to work out how this change has come about. Captain Sarfraz Ahmed, a livewire to the last, must surely take some of the credit, as must coach Mickey Arthur, but how much is down to them and how much is down to which way the wind happens to be blowing is anyone’s guess. Analysing the ups and downs, the whys and wherefores of Pakistan cricket could take a life’s work, a series of books.
And it feels premature to wonder if this group of players could make Pakistan competitive across the world for years to come. Sometimes with this team, all you can do is consider where they were before, and where they are now, and be enthralled.