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Cornered tigers face down rampant lions

Big Picture
To say that the Champions Trophy has reached its knockout stage would do a gross disservice to the journey back from oblivion that one of Wednesday’s contenders has already had to make.

If you’d surveyed the wreckage around Edgbaston after Pakistan’s lamentable defeat against India in their opening Group B game, you would have seen a side living down to their ranking of No. 8 in the world, and beating a hasty path towards the first available flight to Lahore. Wahab Riaz’s bowling figures, Imad Wasim’s duck. The sea of resigned faces in the stands. Nothing about Pakistan’s performance left any room for hope at all. But now, just look at them go!

A rain-affected win against South Africa was a huge step on the road to recovery, but let’s be frank. Not even “Chacha Pakistan” would have bet his best shalwar kameez on his boys completing that run-chase without assistance from the heavens. And, as if to prove the point, there was Group B’s frantic, fraught, deluded finale in Cardiff, where Pakistan and Sri Lanka clawed for runs and wickets as if fighting to escape from a tar-pit.

But at the death, Pakistan emerged triumphant, with their captain Sarfraz Ahmed rising above the nonsense, and now, after less than 48 hours to hose themselves down, they face an England team that looks scarily fixated on that elusive maiden 50-over trophy.

With the solitary exception of the hapless Jason Roy, England’s cricketers are in a formidable vein of collective form. Their batting has depth and resilience – witness the stirring revival from 35 for 3 against Australia – while their bowling, potentially a weak area going into the tournament, has come roaring into form, with Mark Wood’s up-and-at-’em variations providing a priceless cutting edge in the middle overs, alongside Liam Plunkett’s canny deck-hitting and Adil Rashid’s googly-dominant legspin. All the signs point to a comfortable progression. And yet … and yet …

Despite being the only unbeaten side in the tournament, England have slipped behind India as the official favourites – thanks in no small part, you suspect, to Pakistan’s essential unknowability. Which of their myriad outfits will report for duty in Cardiff? The subjugated rabble who failed to front up against India, or the unstoppable force who, at one stage of their Group B shootout, claimed four wickets for six runs to leave Sri Lanka in tatters?

And for those who fancy an omen or two … it is 25 years since England were last in possession of a one-day team that, irrespective of the rankings, genuinely looked to be the best in the world. At the 1992 World Cup, Graham Gooch’s men had pushed Pakistan to the brink of elimination in their group-stage encounter at Adelaide, bowling them out for 74, only for rain to save the day. Within the month, Imran Khan had galvanised his cornered tigers to secure his country’s finest hour.

Predict the unpredictable. It’s all you can dare to do when Pakistan get into this sort of mood.

Form guide

England WWWLW (completed matches, most recent first)
Pakistan WWLWW

In the spotlight
He finished England’s last global campaign on his haunches, after Carlos Brathwaite swiped his thunder at the death, and he began this latest one with doubts about his knee, which seemed to be creaking mysteriously every time he entered his delivery stride. But over by over, blow by blow, Ben Stokes has compiled a body of work in this tournament to scotch any doubts about his fitness, his temperament or his right to be considered the most exciting all-round cricketer in the world today. His bowling so far has been quietly efficient, but his batting has, at times, been off the scale, not least during his match-winning century against Australia at Edgbaston, when Virat Kohli, no less, tweeted his admiration for a sublimely timed clip for four. The MVP at the IPL last month, Stokes is in the mood to atone for Kolkata.

Who’s the man? Fakhar Zaman! Despite the hardships of a life in international exile, Pakistan’s ability to cultivate rough diamonds remains a renowned feature of their cricket, and their stunning renaissance since the India debacle owes a huge amount to a 27-year-old debutant opener who has come into the side to give it a go from the outset. Zaman’s opening gambit was a 23-ball 31 against South Africa at Edgbaston, and he repeated the dose in no uncertain terms in Cardiff, mowing Sri Lanka’s bowlers to all corners of Sophia Gardens, including a top-edged six into the River Taff. His 34-ball fifty was the injection of impetus that kept his side in the tournament – without that start, they would have surely run out of steam by the agonising finish…Eoin Morgan could hardly have given Jason Roy more opportunities to prove his undoubted worth, but the manner of his second-ball dismissal against Australia – falling into an ungainly lbw then burning England’s review in his desperation – looks set to have sealed his fate. A run of 52 runs in eight innings makes for ugly viewing in any context. But with Jonny Bairstow bursting for an opportunity to turn his own golden form into a substantial contribution, England have little option but to accept the inevitable. Roy can have no complaints – indeed, he looks as though he would benefit from a break. And he will surely come again. The only question is where would Bairstow fit in? A like-for-like replacement would make sense. He has only opened on eight occasions, but one of those was a not-insubstantial 174.

England (probable): 1 Alex Hales, 2 Jonny Bairstow, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Adil Rashid, 9 Liam Plunkett, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Jake Ball.

Consistency isn’t exactly a Pakistan trait, but their line-up for the semi-final seems as settled as they could hope for. One potential change may be the recall of the legspinner Shabab Khan, especially given Adil Rashid’s success against New Zealand on this ground. The likeliest seamer to miss out would be Fahim Ashraf, even though he followed in Zaman’s footsteps with a hugely composed debut, claiming two wickets as Sri Lanka slid to 236 all out. It certainly won’t be Junaid Khan, whose inclusion at the expense of the hapless Wahab Riaz has traded a hostile but expensive left-armer for a genuine wicket-taking threat.

Pakistan (possible): 1 Azhar Ali, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Shoaib Malik, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), 7 Imad Wasim, 8 Mohammad Amir, 9 Fahim Ashraf/Shabab Khan, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Junaid Khan.

Pitch and conditions
The weather, so woeful for the first week of this competition, looks finally to have turned the corner. A scorcher is in prospect at Cardiff, which ought to mean a run-feast. However, the pitch will be the same one on which Pakistan and Sri Lanka scraped for survival on Monday, which may temper the strokeplay on offer.

Stats and trivia
England and Pakistan have not met in the knock-outs of a major one-day tournament for … ooh, let’s see … 25 years… Can’t imagine what that last occasion must have been?
England have won 12 of the last 14 ODIs against Pakistan, stretching back to their series-deciding win in a memorable encounter at the Ageas Bowl in September 2010.
However, Pakistan did win their most recent ODI against England… and ominously, it came at Cardiff, in September 2016, when the man of the moment Sarfraz led an impressive pursuit of 303.
“I’d have no worries if [Bairstow] has to open the batting. I certainly believe we’re in a good position at the moment as a batting unit, and if Jonny does get the opportunity, I’m sure he’ll take it with both hands.”
Eoin Morgan drops a strong hint that Jason Roy’s time to find his form has run out

“If you look at the game we started well but, after Fakhar Zaman got out, we lost the momentum and then most of our dismissals were soft, which definitely is an area of concern for us.”
Sarfraz Ahmed, Pakistan’s captain, faces up to the frailty of his team’s batting. Courtesy: Cricinfo

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