On June 18, 2017, Pakistan defied all odds to win the Champions Trophy. Having qualified as the lowest ranked team in the tournament, TV experts gave them no chance against the juggernaut that was the Indian cricket team. As it turned out, the underdog tag helped Pakistan play the brand of fearless cricket they are renowned for.
The Champions Trophy win sent Pakistan into a frenzy. A nation craving any reason to celebrate couldn’t get enough of this team. Cash awards flew in from all directions. Top performers like Fakhar Zaman and Hassan Ali were made demigods. Sarfraz was praised for his astute captaincy. Even Misbah-ul-Haq who is probably the most composed head in all of Pakistan went overboard to compare Sarfraz with Dhoni.
On social media, Pakistan fans just couldn’t get over the win and continued to talk about it (read troll Indian fans) for months on. But contrary to what Pakistan cricket would have liked, the world didn’t stop spinning on June 18, 2017.
All teams went back to the drawing board to fix any chinks in their armour. Pakistan though was still basking in the afterglow of the trophy win and too busy believing in its own hype, even when in the same tournament the team was pedestrian in the league stages and needed all the luck to qualify for the semi-final.
If Pakistan cricket establishment needed a wake-up call, they could have looked at how the team went downhill in the follow-up to their greatest sporting win of all time, the 1992 World Cup. The world champions followed the landmark win with losses in bilateral series against England and New Zealand in the same year, then failed to qualify for the final of tri-series between Australia, Pakistan and West Indies.
Political turmoil, captaincy tussles, match-fixing allegations surfaced soon after. Some of these are issues that Pakistan cricket is still struggling with. Sarfraz’s team didn’t get to play as much ODI cricket in the follow up to Champions Trophy, but whatever they played didn’t help get rid of the same question marks that faced them even in the lead up to Champions Trophy. They defeated a hapless Sri Lanka 5-0 in UAE, then lost 0-5 to New Zealand and glossed over their shortcomings by beating Zimbabwe 5-0.
The pre-tournament favourite tag in Asia Cup was well and truly based on past reputations and the fact that they were playing at home more than their preparations and form.
Handling success in professional sports
The folklore of professional sports is full of comeback stories. Nothing fits the archetype of a sports hero more than a person or a team that can put a shattering defeat behind and throw everything into preparing for the next big contest.
But if you are seeking greatness in sport, then more than tackling defeat, you must learn how to handle success. Take Roger Federer for example. A Grand Slam win for him is just a milestone in achieving unassailable greatness in his sport. It’s not as if these greats don’t stop and celebrate every victory, only that they seek a more significant purpose than merely collecting trophies.
In team sports, Australian cricket teams of the 1990s and 2000s were a great example of this “win as a milestone” approach. Winning everything wasn’t enough for them, even breaking every record in sight didn’t satiate their hunger. They always managed to reset the goals they were aiming for, both as individual players and teams.
If you look at their World Cup campaigns from 1996 to 2007, each time they turned in a better performance than the last, winning more games and winning more comprehensively each time.
Even India followed the 1983 World Cup win with World Championship win in 1985 and the 2011 World Cup win with Champions Trophy win in 2013. Some would argue, and with good merit, that their triumph in 1985 and 2013 was better than the preceding World Cup success.
A quick look at the teams that played the finals for India in 1985 and 2013 tells another remarkable lesson in following up success. The team that won in Melbourne in 1985 and the one that won at Lord’s two years earlier had just five players in common.
Dhoni’s 2013 Champions Trophy final team had only three players that played the famous 2011 final at Mumbai. These weren’t teams stuck in limbo after the win. They were moving on, both in terms of their approach and choice of personnel to get better and newer challenges.
For Pakistan, moderation is a crime
A lot of teams settle for moderate success if they aren’t good enough at the moment to set the world on fire. In Pakistan cricketing establishments though, moderation is a crime. You either get an invincible Pakistan or a defenseless Pakistan. For Indian cricket fans, both these sides are frustrating to watch. These erratic ways of Pakistan make them all the more attractive as a team.
Cricket fans can’t get more of them as they lend the sport that elusive unpredictability they seek. Modern sports teaches you to reduce players into bots to fit into singular roles and to use computer simulations to crunch data representing each event in the match before deciding team strategy.
No one can deny that these modern methods go a long way in producing more consistent results, albeit at the cost of getting stuck on the path of mediocrity at times. Pakistan cricket though continues to play the game for the sheer joy and agony of the contest. It’s not consistent, but it is sure as hell more fun to watch!