It wasn’t supposed to be like this, right?
The background theme was set up to be more valedictory. England, Australia and India were here to waltz through the group stage and then fight between themselves for a world title. They probably wouldn’t have minded South Africa joining them. This was the Champions Trophy, after all – and even if the Proteas were expected to choke, the No 1 one-day team in the world were mostly supposed to wait till the semi-final stage to do that. Remember how large the gap between the top four and the next four was supposed to be?
This was supposed to be a celebration of the brilliant over the inept. Of consistency over capriciousness. England, “brave”, “new” England, who had plotted and planned for the last two years with the sole aim of winning this title. World champions Australia here with their fast bowlers to crush everyone over and collect (yet) another title.
Then there was India. Led by a modern great of this generation – Virat Kohli. Packed with a team of pedigree and panache. Here to defend the prize they had won in 2013. It should have all come together so well. The best-laid plans, after all.
Tearing up the script
Instead we got Sri Lanka. Yes, Sri Lanka, who started the rebellion, posting a measured, calm chase to stun – would you believe it? – the “chasemasters” themselves, India. Sri Lanka, who showed that despite the loss of legends like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, they still had talent and style in abundance. Style and chutzpah that could defeat even Virat Kohli. Don’t believe? Go, check out Kusal Mendis’s alluring strokeplay. I’ll wait.
Of course, Sri Lanka didn’t actually make it to the semi-finals, despite that barn-storming win over India. Instead, we got Bangladesh. Yeah, the same “Bangladesh are an ordinary side” Bangladesh. Rain gave them an opening against Australia, then they ripped into that opening and proceeded to eliminate World Cup finalists New Zealand. Oh, and by the way, they did so after recovering from 33/4. England kept up their end of the bargain, by disposing of old rivals Australia. Yes, Bangladesh, Bangladesh, were in the semi-finals of an ICC global tournament.
A green force of nature
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and England in the semi-finals. That’s the sixth-ranked (eighth at the beginning of the tournament) and the seventh-ranked team joining No 3 and No 4. Not what you’d have expected, right? But, you’d still take it. A bit of a wobble, but nothing much. Two out of four, after all. India and England would make the final. “Everyone wants to see an India-England final,” said Kohli on June 13.
Instead, he got Pakistan. And not just the old, meek, object-of-derision Pakistan. He got a Pakistan which decided, enough is enough. Mercurial, unpredictable, erratic? Who us, they asked. Yes, replied an entire cricketing world, still unable to come to terms with how they had come this far after India had handed out a proper 124-run thrashing in their first match of the tournament.
So Pakistan pulled one last rabbit out of their hat. They decided to tap into their inner Australia, circa 2003. Perhaps, even they did not know it even existed, but it worked – England were roughed up, slashed and bundled. Ben Stokes, he of the mighty swing and the mighty smash, wasn’t even allowed to croak in a wimpy little 64-ball 34. Their batsmen, as if daring the world to ask them to collapse, defiantly and insolently smashed Eoin Morgan’s men all across Cardiff. For all of England’s planning, for all England’s best-laid-plans to win a world title, they were shown the door at their own party.
But it was against England, right? India was going be more than a match. Right? Right? Right?
South Africa, England, India…they’re all the same, replied Pakistan insolently. And they stuck to their word. Look guys, it’s Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, supposedly two of world cricket’s best spinners. Let’s hammer them all over the park. Hey, look, there’s their special talent Jasprit Bumrah. Let’s give him the kitchen sink and see how fares.
But India are the chasemasters, said defiant fans after that first-innings carnage. But hey, here’s Mohammed Amir bounding in. Doesn’t Rohit Sharma want everyone to stop talking about him? Maybe they will now – and talk more about how Amir ripped through his defences and struck him plumb in front.
No worries, here’s Kohli, the king of a chase. Okay, he just got himself out twice in two deliveries. What about finisher MS Dhoni? Accounted for. Yuvraj Singh? Done. Shikhar Dhawan? Check, check and check….and that’s the lot.
The Champions Trophy was a tournament to showcase the inequalities of world cricket. A chance for cricket lovers to see how far the best have progressed and how far back in the distance, the rest have been left behind. Instead, the beauty of sport means that Pakistan, written off, criticised, lampooned, laughed at, derided, has defeated the No 1 ODI team, the “fearless” hosts and their supposed bogey team to lift a world title after eight long years.
The Champions Trophy may not be a World Cup. It may still not provide enough context. But this edition of the tournament has proven an important point. Cricket is not just about India’s mechanical precision, Australia’s bulldog tenacity and England’s hard graft. Cricket is also about the magic of Sri Lanka’s papare band, the roar of Bangladesh’s passionate tigers and the ludicrous joy of Sarfaraz Ahmed rushing to the fans in a victory which resonates across a cricket-deprived nation.
In a nutshell, thank you, Pakistan, for making cricket equal again. Bring on West Indies next time!