Guest Section – Revisiting Pakistan’s Champions Trophy campaign

  Before the commencement of the long-awaited ICC Champions Trophy, Pakistan was a team struggling for direction, representing a nation fighting for identity. The country has long been at the mercy of erratic politics and incessant terrorism that has left its sporting venues deserted and neglected for a major part of the last decade.

  Inner turbulence has been imitated in the way the national team has played its cricket. It is hard to build structures and promote stability when neither exists in the society. It is a challenge to make and execute plans when the nation has stooped to the lowest levels of confidence. At this point, everything is transitory and vague.

  Entering this exceptionally competitive tournament, Pakistan were the nethermost team; the rank-outsiders among the giants of modern cricket. Underdogs, to be precise. A flattering ranking, a newbie skipper, injury concerns to major stars returning to the squad and depleting resources suggested anything beyond a group-stage exit was highly improbable, if not out of question.

  The harrowing defeat first up against India in front of a jam-packed Edgbaston house took that out of proportion as well. The script was being followed to the T as far as Pakistan’s campaign was concerned. It was so traumatic that it triggered a couple of abrupt changes: Junaid Khan replacing a diminishing Wahab Riaz and Fakhar Zaman, a debutant, succeeding an out-of-touch Ahmed Shehzad.

  When things slide downhill briskly, writing Pakistan off is the easiest option. However, that comes up with its own perils as three cricketing titans, South Africa, England and India, found out later. The blunt, dicey changes proved a blessing in disguise, straightaway. The drubbing received in the initial game served as a motivating burst for this team, full of young and lively blood.

  The rejuvenated pace attack set about for newer adventures, showcasing composure and spitting fire as it came to terms with some of the best batting suits in world cricket. In a rain-affected match, Pakistan comprehensively clobbered South Africa – the No.1 ODI team at that fleck of history – and the western part of the subcontinent began finding its long-lost voice.

     Underrated Pakistan not just entered their first Champions Trophy final, but also subdued holders India to cap a memorable campaign (source – gettyimages/hindustantimes.com) 

  Gradually the notes improved, the tunes enhanced and the verses concluded. From these came determination, and from that, came expression. The world was too focused on the megastars, not realizing that the boys in green had begun scribbling a narrative of their own. Four days later, Pakistan brushed past Sri Lanka in what was to be an agonizingly close potential quarter-final.

  The warning bell had sounded. The predictably unpredictable greenshirts had emerged out of thin air. The bruised tiger was finally cornered and ready to assault. Extraordinarily and unbelievably, Pakistan marched into the semis, leaving the cricketing world bewildered.

  A fiery opener in Zaman was discovered, whose flamboyance and hit-everything approach peeled off the early shakiness and perfectly complemented Azhar Ali’s solidity. In Hasan Ali, they found a warrior who defied all odds and plucked out crucial wickets when they were needed the most.

  A fine leader, in the shape of Sarfraz Ahmed, materialized out of the pandemonium, marshalling his troops and conducting his orchestra with mastered skill as the flames erupted behind the old pavilion. The dignity of the remainders brought hope and the gallantry of the incoming promise. The overwhelming momentum and victory-seeking lust blew away the English as well.

  England, who happened to be joint favorites, were trounced at the Sophia Gardens in Cardiff and ousted from their own backyard. It was as immaculate and flawless a performance as cricket has ever witnessed. It was the other way around: unpredictably predictable. Pakistan breathed fire again.

  “We certainly want to come out and put our best game forward and win, and we want to go to London”, was what Mickey Arthur expressed after the see-saw battle against Sri Lanka. Well, that was where Pakistan were headed to after the semi-final thrashing, where the mighty, gifted Indians awaited.

  The Oval, with all its grandeur and majesty, was ready to adopt the vibrant South Asian colors and provide a perfect backdrop for what was to be a memorable Sunday eve. And you just had to be there. Hundreds of thousands of fans strolling down the South London alleys as they chanted trademark sub-continental slogans. Many more millions glued to their TV sets all around the globe.

      Mohammad Hafeez and Babar Azam rejoice after Pakistan completed a convincing win over hosts England in the semifinal (source – gettyimages/bbc.com)

  The sun hung like a brass coin on a thread, further dismissing any chances of rain interruptions. India decided to bowl first, apparently relying upon their stronger suit: chasing. The Pakistani duo made a cautious start until Zaman nicked Jasprit Bumrah to the keeper, in only the fourth over of the innings.

  Zaman begins drifting off the field; the man who has changed the structure of this batting line-up from an old woman pushing a shopping trolley to a rally car fluttering around bends dangerously. But then he is stopped mid-way and there is a daunting reason for that. Bumrah has overstepped.

  The blueish parts of the stands are muffled as the fans slouch down in disbelief. Even the Divinity was backing green that day. Making the most of this reprieve was what Zaman wished to do and he did that in some style. The flaying hook shots, the flashing cuts and drives, the heaves over cow-corner for magnificent sixes. In what seemed to be a blink of an eye, Zaman registered his maiden ODI ton.

  What an iconic venue to achieve it at! What a time to pull it off! What an opposition to score against! An incredible story had been penned down in the history books forever. The Babar Azam-Shoaib Malik pair built on this sensational platform to further stabilize the ship. However, it was not until Mohammad Hafeez arrived on the crease that the actual carnage unleashed.

  Who could have thought that Hafeez would suddenly discover this flexibility, this originality, this flair that changed perception and decimated India’s already woeful bowling attack? A quick-fire half-century supported by Imad Wasim’s unorthodox stroke-play meant Pakistan stormed to a mammoth total of 338/4 – the second highest in Champions Trophy history.

  The battle cry was at its loudest. The revolutionaries were retreating. The crowds waited as a sense of uneasiness surrounded the Oval. Jitters, panic and what not? On their day, the Indian batsmen could single-handedly wipe out the best bowling line-ups. Up front, facing Mohammad Amir, was Rohit Sharma. The dynamic, dominant Rohit, coming off a century in the semi-final.

      Fakhar Zaman raced to his maiden ODI hundred in the final against India, laying the foundation for Pakistan’s massive victory (source – AFP/indiatimes.com)  

  He tentatively nudges at the first delivery, wary of Amir’s murderous combo of pace and swing. Two balls later, he is pinned in front, courtesy of a quick in-swinger. Dead plumb. Rohit is gone. In comes the glorified warrior of the Indian soil, the greatest chaser the game has ever given birth to, the legend of modern-day cricket that is Virat Kohli.

  Amir beats him on the inside edge the very first ball he faces. The unsettled Kohli goes for an extravagant leg-side flick ten minutes later, which results in a top-edge straight to point’s throat. The green-lidded Pakistani section of the audience at The Oval goes berserk and the fielders swarm around Amir in joy. 200 million hearts rejoice and a billion hearts sink.

  At the rear of the Vauxhall End, the blaze rekindles. Synchronously, somewhere in a small dwelling in Karachi, a group of teenage kids scream their hearts out in utter elation, ripping their shirts off as they spurt around their home. Half of the game was won. Redemption tasted sweet. Greatness felt contagious.

  Kohli’s wicket was a killer blow that severely damaged India’s aims. An unthinkable batting collapse followed as wickets fell in a cluster. The greatest batting unit was surrendering as the Pakistani pacemen clawed through its defenses. Each and every bowler in the team got to taste and savour vengeance.

  The last wicket saw the ball lobbing up in the air and after what seemed to be an eternity, it dissipated into Sarfraz’s gloves and it was all done and dusted. The final nail was hammered into the coffin as Pakistan romped to a 180-run victory. The defending champions were dethroned and ambshed by their arch-rivals.

  History had been rewritten and preserved. One of the greatest comebacks in ODI cricket was accomplished. And once again, in all its unpredictability and fortitude, Pakistani cricket rose from its ashes, as resilient and hungry as ever.

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Record Book – The lowest total by a Test nation in the Champions Trophy

  New Zealand and Bangladesh, fresh from playing each other in the tri-series in Ireland last month, are set to face off in a Champions Trophy match at Cardiff on the coming Friday. This will be the second time that the two teams will meet in the Champions Trophy; the first instance being in the 2002 edition in Sri Lanka.

  The format back then allowed only one of the three teams in each pool to enter the semifinals, and as it turned out, Australia breezed into the final four from Pool 1, courtesy of resounding wins over New Zealand and Bangladesh. The final pool game between the two losing teams, played at Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club Ground on September 23, 2002, was thus reduced to an inconsequential affair.

  New Zealand, looking for consolation after having failed to defend the title they won in 2000, were inserted in to bat on a slow track by Bangladesh’s wicketkeeper-captain Khaled Mashud. Left-arm pacer Manjural Islam provided an early breakthrough for the Tigers, scalping the key wicket of Nathan Astle with the score at 11 in the third over.

  Skipper Stephen Fleming and Matthew Sinclair produced a second-wicket stand of 66 at nearly six an over, before Khaled Mahmud pulled things back with a double strike. The medium pacer first got rid of Fleming, who was looking composed on 31, and then had Lou Vincent caught behind in his next over. New Zealand were now 79/3 in the 16th over and needed someone to play a long innings.

         Scott Styris plays a shot during New Zealand’s innings as Bangladesh captain Khaled Mashud looks on (source – gettyimages/icc-cricket.com)

  Sinclair held fort, but the Bangladeshi bowlers ensured that runs were not easy to come by. The fourth-wicket partnership between Sinclair and Scott Styris had progressed to 40, when the latter was caught short of his crease for a promising 26. This setback further dented the run rate, and even though Sinclair and Chris Harris added 48 for the fifth wicket, their stand consumed 85 balls.

  When Sinclair was sixth out for a stodgy 70 from 122 balls to the part-time leg spin of Mohammad Ashraful, who had already dismissed Harris earlier, the scoreboard read 198 in the 45th over. A final flourish from Jacob Oram, who became Ashraful’s third victim, and Daniel Vettori enabled New Zealand to accumulate 46 runs in the last five overs.

  Yet, it was a commendable effort from Bangladesh to restrict their opponents to 244/7. Manjural and Mahmud bowled with control to take two wickets each, while left-arm spinner Mohammad Rafique returned tidy figures as well. The 18-year-old Ashraful, who had become Test cricket’s youngest centurion a year earlier, finished with a career-best of 3/26.

  The target was by no means a daunting one, but Bangladesh needed to put in a highly improved effort with the bat compared to the game against Australia – in which they had painstakingly crumbled for 129 in the 46th over – if they harboured hopes of notching a rare victory; they came into this match on the back of 19 consecutive ODI defeats.

       Shane Bond ripped through the Bangladeshi top order to set up a crushing win for New Zealand at the 2002 Champions Trophy (source – espncricinfo.com)

   A 20th defeat on the trot was a foregone conclusion just five overs into the Bangladeshi innings. The top order had absolutely no answer to the express pace of Shane Bond, who was in the thick of things from the first over itself when he had Al Sahariar trapped leg-before for a duck. At the other end, Oram sent back the other opener Javed Omar to leave Bangladesh at 8/2 after two overs.

  The ferocious Bond, backed by Fleming’s attacking field, had figures of 3-0-9-4 at this point. Bangladesh had suffered their lowest ODI total at the same ground just over a month earlier, when they were skittled for 76 by Sri Lanka. At 19/5, a bigger embarrassment was on the cards. The top scorer of the innings was Tushar Imran (20), who was sixth out to Oram with the score at 37.

  The last four wickets managed to double the score and also – just – avoid a record ODI low for Bangladesh, but nevertheless, the final outcome made for sorry reading. Kyle Mills and Vettori too chipped in with two wickets apiece, as the Tigers were shot out for 77 in 19.3 overs to concede a 167-run defeat. Bond finished with 4/21 in five overs and was rightly named man of the match.

  Bangladesh’s total of 77 was then the lowest in the Champions Trophy, and till date, remains the lowest by a Test nation in the tournament. In the next edition in 2004, Bangladesh were bowled out for another sub-100 total – 93 against South Africa at Edgbaston. The lowest Champions Trophy total overall is 65 by the United States of America against Australia at Southampton in 2004.

Match Scorecard 

VIEWPOINT – A farcical final that was a fitting end

  It was only apt that the last match of the 15-year old Champions Trophy was in effect a Twenty20 game. For as we all know, the main reason of the ICC for bumping off this tournament is that they can cram in more irrelevant Twenty20 leagues into the calendar. The Test championship is of course, nothing but hogwash.

  The Champions Trophy final lost its significance as the final match of a ‘global 50-overs tournament’ the moment it got converted into a 20-over affair. In other words, it became just another Twenty20 international, like the ones that unnecessarily pepper the international schedule, like the one which has been bizarrely scheduled between England and New Zealand for tomorrow. It became nothing but a lottery, and the side which gambled more smartly ultimately won. It was as ridiculous as having a six-a-side final for football’s Confederations Cup. Especially after this fiasco, I wonder if anyone is going to miss the Champions Trophy at all.

2013-06-23T120258Z_1_AJOE95M0XH000_RTROPTP_2_OZASP-RAIN-DELAYS-START-OF-CHAMPIONS-TROPHY-FINAL      The dark clouds and rain covers made for a depressing sight at Edgbaston on the day of the Champions Trophy final (source – yahoo.com)

  All the ICC needed to do was schedule a reserve day for today, i.e June 24th, so that even if the game got interrupted yesterday, it could have been simply continued from where it stopped, on the reserve day. At least there would have been scope for a full 50-0vers final. But the ICC were keen on adding to their list of poorly-organised finals in multi-nation ODI tournaments. The most embarrassing instance was the 2007 World Cup final, where in spite of having a reserve day, it was insisted upon that the two teams, Australia and Sri Lanka, contest a 38-over match which ended in near darkness. In 2002, the Champions Trophy was shared between Sri Lanka and India when the game was re-started on the reserve day instead of just continuing it, leading to a double wash-out. Will the ICC ever learn?

  The final itself was not short of controversy. The decision which resulted in Ian Bell’s dismissal was shocking – even the commentators could not believe it. I wonder what third umpire Bruce Oxenford was thinking when he decided to give Bell out when it was clear to all and sundry that his foot was alright after all, and that the benefit of any doubt goes to the batsman. The decision might have cost England their first major 50-overs trophy. India won after some strange ‘out-of-the-box- thinking by captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni – his  decision to give Ishant Sharma an extra over ultimately proved to be the turning point, as the lanky seamer took two wickets in two balls to begin England’s slide toward a 5-run loss, when the hosts had the match in the bag, needing 20 runs to win off 16 balls with 6 wickets remaining. 

IanBell_out_AP     Ian Bell was given out after a highly dubious decision by the third umpire (source – firstpost.com)

  The pitches on offer for quite a few of the games (including the final) were unusually ‘sub-continental’ in nature. Nevertheless, India no doubt played fearless cricket throughout the tournament, having been regarded by many as deserving winners, and I would certainly like to believe that. Hopefully, the farce was limited to just the organisation of the game.

IN FOCUS – Solid England against resurgent India

  After two weeks and fourteen games of cricket in the 2013 Champions Trophy, there are two teams left standing to contest the 99th and last match of this tournament, which first began as a knock-out competition in 1998. Hosts England and world ODI champions India will lock horns at Edgbaston this Sunday hoping to lay hands on the second-most coveted international 50-overs trophy. 

  While India have been unbeaten so far, having recorded convincing group stage wins over South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan followed by an equally dominating performance over Sri Lanka in the semi-final yesterday, England had a blip when they failed to defend a big score against Sri Lanka in the group stage, the loss sandwiched between victories against Australia and New Zealand which were enough to see them through to the semi-final, where they signalled their intent by beating South Africa in a canter. 

  India’s march to the final has been quite surprising, given that of late, they have flattered to deceive when it comes to playing in alien conditions, especially in England, where they were steamrolled in both the Test series and the ODI’s in 2011. However, the current ODI team have shown renewed zeal, which had been missing ever since India lifted the 2011 World Cup. Struggling senior players have been rightly sidelined and replaced with those who truly deserve to be in the squad. The selectors were repeatedly panned for not taking bold steps after India lost at home to England in the Test series and to Pakistan in the ODI series, but at last some gumption has been shown on their part and the results are here to see.

39c317d8-9b47-4422-839d-a11080d30563HiRes         Shikhar Dhawan has been by far the leading run-scorer in the 2013 Champions Trophy (source – hindustantimes.com)

  India’s biggest success story has been Shikhar Dhawan. The 27-year old Delhi southpaw, who stormed into Test cricket with a blitzing knock against Australia in March, has continued his rich vein of form into the Champions Trophy, and has been a godsend for the team in relation the opening slot, which was an area of deep concern to the think-tank until recently. Even if he fails in the final, he is a strong candidate for being the  player of the tournament. His starts at the top along with the talented but inconsistent Rohit Sharma – who has also found the opening position to his liking – have been pivotal in ensuring that the good work of the bowlers has not been wasted. Another player who appears to be improving with every game is Bhuvaneshwar Kumar. The lanky medium pacer’s ability to swing the ball both ways has led to him taking key wickets at the top while maintaining an impressive economy rate, and has risen to become India’s pace spearhead just six months after his debut. Ravindra Jadeja’s stifling spin bowling and the side’s sudden transformation into a high-class fielding side have also contributed to the India’s unbeaten run thus far. 

  On the other hand, hosts England will come into the final as the only top team not to have won an ICC 50-overs tournament. Over the last couple of years, England have developed into a solid ODI team and at present are a much more improved unit than they have ever been since they pioneered one-day cricket more than four decades ago. Even in the absence of Kevin Pietersen, England have exploited familiar conditions, with the main performers being Jonathan Trott and James Anderson. Trott has made a mockery of those who consider his batting as ‘slow’ and ‘unattractive’ by churning out vital knocks at a strike rate of close to 90. His presence in the middle order in combination with England’s latest talent Joe Root have ensured that the team has not found wanting while batting in testing situations. 

Anderson_2579611b     James Anderson’s nagging length and generous swing has enabled him to deliver the goods for England (source – telegraph.co.uk)

  In the bowling department, spearhead James Anderson’s form is sure to worry the Australians ahead of the Ashes. He was outstanding against New Zealand and South Africa, and has found support from the under-rated off-spinner James Tredwell. Anderson, who has been bowling quite splendidly this summer, has given England the sort of value that someone like Dale Steyn brings to South Africa, and quite a lot will depend upon his bowling spells in the final. The rest of the bowling attack has blown hot and cold though, and over-dependence on Anderson may prove costly against the in-form Indian top-order. Besides giving England their first major ODI title, a win will also put them in a very confident state of mind with the Ashes around the corner, though that is not to say that the focus of the team can afford to be shifted.

  India have had two famous ODI successes in England – first when they won the 1983 World Cup and later the 2002 NatWest Tri Series, both at Lord’s, and at both times defying the odds. This is an opportunity to add to that list and also seal their status as the top-ranked ODI side. Whereas England have their best possible chance to win a rare title – the last time they came this close was when they finished runners up in the 2004 Champions Trophy, also at home.