By Momin Mehmood Butt
Before the commencement of this long-awaited, highly hyped ICC event, 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 hard to make and execute plans when the nation has stooped into 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 amongst the giants of modern cricket. Underdogs, to be precise. A flattering ranking, a newbie skipper, injury concerns to major stars returning to the national squad and depleting resources suggested anything beyond a group-stage exit was highly improbable, if not out of the 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 at CT was concerned. It was so traumatic in fact, it triggered a couple of abrupt changes: Junaid Khan replacing a diminishing Wahab Riaz and Fakhar Zaman, a debutant, succeeding Ahmed Shehzad who looked pretty much out of touch.
When things slumber downhill briskly, writing Pakistan off is the easiest option to select. However, that comes up with its own perils and hazards as three of the finest 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 motive-bursting dose for this team that was 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. 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 Srilanka in what was to be a nail-biting and 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 the hit-everything approach peeled off the early shakiness and perfectly complemented Azhar’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 shape of Sarfraz, materialized out of the pandemonium, marshalling his troops and conducting his orchestra in a mastered skill as the flames erupted behind the old pavilion. The dignity of the remainders brought hope and the gallantry of the incoming encouraged promise. This overwhelming momentum, rigorous passion, and the victory-seeking lust blew away the English team as well, which happened to be the joint favorites. The Poms 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 Srilanka. Well, that’s where Pakistan were headed to after the semi-final thrashing, where the mighty, gifted Indians awaited. The Oval, with all its grandeur and illustrious 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. 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 Jaspit 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’s stopped mid-way and there’s 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 God, did he do 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 do 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-Malik pair built on this sensational platform to stabilize the ship. It wasn’t until 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’s unorthodox stroke-play meant Pakistan stormed to a mammoth total of 338 – the 2nd 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. The dynamic, dominant Rohit coming off a stunning century in the semi-final. He tentatively nudges at the first delivery; wary of Amir’s murderous combo of pace and swing. Two balls later, he’s pinned in front, courtesy of a quick in-swinger. Dead plumb. Rohit’s gone. In comes the glorified lad 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 10 minutes later and he top-edges it straight to the point’s throat. The green-lidded Pakistani section of the audience in 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 pace-men clawed through its defenses. Each and every bowler in the team got to taste and savor 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 laden into the coffin. The defending champions were dethroned and abashed by their arch-rivals. History had been rewritten and preserved. One of the greatest comebacks in ODI history was accomplished. And once again, in all its unpredictability and fortitude, Pakistan Cricket rose from its ashes, as resilient and hungry as ever.