Pakistan’s ODI team, the number of failures in the past have been many but the will to improve themselves has been found lacking on a number of occasions. In fact, the current ODI ranking of eight seems to suggest that not much in terms of forethought has transpired between the numerous failures which the Pakistan team has faced in recent times.
The former World Cup winners entered the 2017 Champions Trophy as underdogs. This was not an assessment by the experts but by the team coach and captain themselves. This would either indicate that there was a distinct lack of faith in their own abilities or the team management wanted to water down any high expectations from fans and experts alike.
The start to Pakistan’s Champions Trophy campaign was to be a marquee clash against arch rivals India. The hype was to be seen to be believed and parallels were being drawn to the previous glorious encounters between the two nations. Of course, the gap in abilities of both teams became apparent on 4 June at Edgbaston when they clashed in front of a record audience.
Pakistan were swept away by a clinical Indian performance that day, yielding to a 124-run defeat (via DLS method) to a much superior opposition. The bowling which had always been a strong point of Pakistan appeared pedestrian and the batting failed to refute its reputation for being brittle, with the fielding bordering on the comical at times. Bowlers failed to perform with any conviction, the batsmen gave away wickets in schoolboy fashion and the fielders spilt chances to give the game away to the opposition.
Such was the malaise in the Pakistan camp that a visibly irate Pakistan head coach Mickey Arthur openly expressed his disbelief at the manner in which his players had disregarded all training to capitulate in front of India. Arthur remarked at that point that it had to be the magnitude of the occasion that had the better of his team and that the skills and talents were not in question.
The media and the fans may have scoffed at that suggestion, but whether by magic or fate and with a little bit of forethought, what transpired in Edgbaston against South Africa on 7 June left the sternest of critics shaking their heads in disbelief.
A team ridiculed for its lack of effort and poor body language appeared to have undergone a transformation within days, which not only pleasantly surprised their supporters but pulverised their opposition to submission.
Whilst it is true that the Pakistan team management took some wise decisions in terms of team selection, the fact is that the bowlers came up with immaculate lengths and seemed to execute their plans to perfection and the fielders attacked the ball as if their lives depended on it.
The inclusion of Junaid Khan and the ebullient Fakhar Zaman seemed to instil a new sense of purpose in a team which appeared to be heading for an exit at the end of the group stage. The result was a fantastic 19-run victory (via DLS method) against the much-vaunted South Africa which also happen to be the current No 1-ranked ODI side in the world.
The naysayers were having none of that. This was indeed an aberration, they said. False dawns, like the ones in the 2015 World Cup had been seen and had come to nothing in the past. This too was a blip and normal service would resume in the crucial virtual knockout game against Sri Lanka, people thought.
It would appear that the Pakistan side revels in it being labelled an ‘unpredictable’ group of players. But what transpired in Cardiff on Monday would suggest that being unpredictable is not a synonym for failure, but a quality that spurs them to greater heights.
Sri Lanka, fresh from an epic seven-wicket victory against the tournament favourites India were riding a wave of confidence. The theory was that an ‘unpredictable’ Pakistan would be no match for such a team, but whatever Pakistan did in the game against South Africa, they seemed to do better against Sri Lanka.
The bowling was exemplary and the fielding had no blemishes. The run chase was a little too tense for many but once again what emerged was a picture of a team with a new-found determination to succeed where previous units would have collapsed in a heap.
In a sense, this is the key difference between Sarfraz Ahmed’s side of today and those before him.
This is a side which was a shadow of itself at the start of the Champions Trophy, but has turned itself around with sheer grit to challenge the top teams of the tournament. The credit for this transformation must go to the players but the importance of the guidance of Arthur cannot be ignored. He spoke of ‘frank conversations’ after the defeat against India and how he felt that the team was in a better space in mental terms after coming to terms with their disappointing loss. He wasn’t kidding.
If proof was needed of this change, the victories against South Africa and Sri Lanka are great examples of that and if the turnaround in Pakistan’s fortunes continues in the same manner, then Sarfraz lifting the Champions Trophy on 18 June will become more than just a pipe dream.
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