London: As the dust settles on a remarkable Champions Trophy tournament, Pakistani cricket followers around the globe will be scratching their heads and trying to work out whether the events of the last few days were indeed a dream.
To not only have lifted the Champions Trophy in front of a packed house at The Oval, but to have done it in such style against a team who had embarrassed Pakistan at the start of a tournament, is both a major achievement and a huge shock in the sporting world. Everyone loves an underdog, but this underdog was supposed to turn up at the Champions Trophy and be on the first flight home to Karachi and Lahore after the conclusion of the group stages. India and South Africa will qualify from the group and Sri Lanka and Pakistan will fight it out to avoid the wooden spoon said the cricketing community. But they forgot to factor in that in Pakistan cricket, as we have seen over the years, anything and everything is possible.
It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific moment as the turning point for Pakistan, but when adversity strikes, heroes are born. Sometimes a team learns more about themselves from a defeat than they do from a win. That shocking loss to India in Birmingham was exactly the wake-up call that the Pakistan team needed. It was exactly what they required to kick-start the tournament for themselves. They were hurting after such a loss as ex-players bashed them, television channels mocked them, fans berated them and there were requests to investigate the humiliating loss. Pakistan was in cricketing turmoil and the Pakistani cricket followers were not happy. Something needed to be done, but most expected more embarrassment and defeats in the rest of the tournament.
In Pakistani cricketing circles, the team is at its best when they adopt an aggressive, must-win and attacking mindset. After the loss to India, every match was a cup final for Pakistan which is exactly the scenario which Pakistan teams have thrived on in the past.
A different ‘clear-the-air’ meeting
The entire squad sat down after the group stage match against India and had a “clear-the-air” meeting. In the past, such a meeting would have only involved senior players and management, but this time it was different. With the highly-respected Mickey Arthur in charge, he wanted an atmosphere of trust and openness where all players were given the opportunity to voice their concerns, provide feedback, and mention ideas to the rest of the touring party.
It was a meeting that ultimately changed the script for Pakistan. It was a meeting that brought about a the winning attitude in Pakistan. And it was a meeting that altered the course of the Champions Trophy. The frank discussions centred around a change in approach, a change in mindset and allowed for some innovative thoughts to be shared that revitalised Pakistan. Specifics like the strike-rate of the Pakistan batsmen, the approach from the top order, tactics adopted, and the attitude needed to win a tournament such as the Champions Trophy were all on the agenda.
After the all-important meeting, Pakistan never looked back. Admittedly some personnel changes made a lot of difference with the struggling Ahmed Shehzad left out and the out-of-form Wahab Riaz sidelined though injury. Fakhar Zaman came into the team and provided Pakistan with the right type of impetus at the top of the order. He allowed for other batsmen such as Azhar Ali, Babar Azam and Mohammad Hafeez to bat around him. The much-criticised Junaid Khan came into the starting XI and looked like a bowler who was desperate to grab this chance he had craved for. Junaid was a man on a mission and his aggressive approach was exactly what the Pakistan bowling unit needed.
A different Pakistan approach
With nothing to lose, Pakistan built momentum and formulated a game-plan that was ideal for their brand of cricket and for the type of players at their disposal. Gone was the 90s style batting approach; instead with Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order, the batsmen were looking to put the bowlers under pressure and not the other way around as has been so common with Pakistan ODI teams of late. The batsmen showed urgency, they looked to rotate the strike, and they looked to play the big shots that they were so reluctant to do in recent times.
Pakistani bowling attacks have always been at their best when they look to attack and take wickets. It is a philosophy that has served Pakistan cricket so well, working wonders for the World Cup winning team of 1992, under the leadership of Imran Khan. As Wasim Akram once stated, “we were just told to attack and forget about the runs we conceded.”
This was the mindset that Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir and Junaid Khan adopted, which suited their brand of bowling – look to take early wickets, attack in the middle overs and have the opposition on the ropes. It wasn’t rocket-science, but it was an approach that had somehow been forgotten by recent Pakistan ODI captains.
As the senior players found their form, the younger players came to the fore. Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan and Fakhar Zaman weren’t names familiar to many outside Pakistan but in the space of a week they became known throughout the world of cricket. Their fearless approach won them huge praise from many and their futures look bright, if managed properly.
The manner of the wins against England and India proved that this was not a lucky coincidence, but a well-deserved victory, one that came with a lot of hard work and team spirit. It was a win constructed through meticulous planning, a change in mindset regarding professionalism, and a win that was largely down to the no-nonsense approach of the Head Coach Mickey Arthur.
Pakistan cricket has not had much to smile about in recent times, but on a beautiful day in London it was smiling once again. It was also a stark reminder to the cricketing world and experts to never write off the Pakistan cricket team.
The underdogs came, the underdogs won and the underdogs left us with many great memories.