Pakistan pulled off a memorable upset by winning the Champions Trophy final against India at The Oval.
Pakistan 338-4 (Fakhar Zaman 114, Azhar Ali 59, Hafeez 57) BEAT India 158 (Hardik Pandya 76; Amir 3-16, Hasan Ali 3-19)
2017. The year punditry finally died. No one knows anything any more. Conventional wisdom? There are no conventions left. Everywhere we look, polls are defied and formbooks defaced. Unorthodoxy is the new normal. It’s the spirit of the age, and only one cricket team could ever be faithful to it. Sometimes there’s a team, a team that slips right in there, a team for their time and place; sometimes, there’s a team.
In their first match Pakistan were beyond bad. That much we can say for sure. Seasoned pundits observed a shambles and called it as such. And then those seasoned pundits paused for a moment to consider the manic nature of Pakistan’s cricket – because that’s what seasoned pundits do, they recall all those past occasions when several skins get shed overnight, revealing a very different beast – before looking again: at the lack of firepower up top, the abject fielding, the absence of muscle, the spin department consisting of a teenage leggie and a chap from Swansea – and wrote them off anew.
Two Sundays later, for another billion sets of eyes, Pakistan played India again. Perhaps it was extraordinary that they were there at all. Perhaps it was inevitable. Who can say anymore? Nobody gave them a chance in the final. One thread of ‘expert analysis’ woozily held that if they won the toss and bowled, forcing Kohli to set the pace, they might be able to chase something down later in the day. But one thing we could all agree on: they must bowl first.
And so, naturally enough, Pakistan lost the toss. India bowled first. Conventional wisdom kicked in. Kohli’s 17 centuries in run-chases. Pakistan’s bowler-heavy line-up. A highest total of 237 in the tournament to date. A kid opening the batting who only picked up the job 11 days ago.
A kid who would come to define this tournament’s breakout drama more than any other.
The Oval has seen a few things in its time. Last-ditch, sun-blest cavalcades of batting freakery is the old lady’s stock in trade. Watching Fakhar Zaman slap-carve, flat-bat and upper-cut his way through the forties, sixties, eighties and up into dreamland was to be reminded of Kevin Pietersen here a dozen years ago. Fakhar’s innings – with its outrageous, KP-echoing slice of luck in the fourth over, when Jasprit Bumrah’s big front foot overstepped and he was reprieved – was every bit as wild and unhinged and implausible as Kev’s comic masterpiece and every bit as fun.
Just as Pietersen seemed transported that day, so it was with Fakhar. Though Bumrah’s bum note gave Pakistan’s vocally anxious band of flag-bearers a reason to get loud – and the wags a chance to tweet their ‘Jammy Fakhar” variants – it was hard to tell at the time whether the error would be anything more than a footnote. Next over, Fakhar hoicked Kumar through square leg for his second boundary, and it was all on again.
In this tournament of run-outs, the mix-up that brought about the first wicket, as Azhar Ali found himself at the same end as his kid brother, felt seismic. Pakistan were on 128 at the time, Fakhar having just brought up his third fifty of the tournament. Surely the kid would be shaken, and in a sense he was. He kicked off the 26th over by slapping Jadeja over long-on; then waited for the drag-down to punch a boundary off the back foot, before jumping in-to-out to deposit the final delivery over cover. Four balls later, against Ashwin, a scamper down the pitch, an off-balance tilt to the offside, and a second flat six of the innings, this one mining new levels of implausibility.
After 30 overs, Pakistan were 179-1. Fakhar was on 96. He glanced up at the scoreboard, removed his helmet, knelt on one knee and drank long and deep. Then he picked himself up, repositioned the helmet, re-marked his guard, and swept Ashwin hard and flat behind square. Pakistan’s turnaround was nearly complete. Mohammad Amir would ensure that it was.
“Surreal,” was coach Mickey Arthur’s word for it. “They just kept on believing.” Except that these days, surreal is the new normal. We should have seen it coming a mile off.