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Planned to perfection: Pakistan’s win against England

When Mohammad Hafeez, the oldest player in the team, pulled Ben Stokes over square leg for four, Pakistan’s fans roared and danced and shouted and waved flags of green and white in the sunshine of Sophia Gardens. Fireworks cracked and soared up and around the ground’s perimeter. Above the maelstrom of celebration, Dil Dil Pakistan boomed out from the stadium’s speakers and found an echo among the jubilant throng.

On the edge of the third man boundary, Ravi Shastri, a man as BCCI as they come, quietly observed these scenes of Pakistan’s victory, wondering if his team or Bangladesh would also reach Sunday’s final at The Oval.

Nobody expected Pakistan to get this far. How could they beat England? A formidable one-day team that scores three hundred as a matter of routine, a total that Pakistan can’t seem to work out how to get near.

Fortunately, Pakistan only required three hundred once in this tournament. Even so, their best total is 237 in a sequence that includes 164, 119, and now 215. This isn’t how modern cricket is meant to be. Yet Pakistan are in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, and the accolades belong to their bowlers. For the first time in many years, possibly dating back to the 2009 T20 World Cup in England, Pakistan’s bowling unit is back to its best. In particular, other than a crazy final four overs against India, each bowler has adhered to exemplary lines and lengths of attack with subtle and well judged variation.

The margins of error are so fine these days that even minor waywardness is punished by batsmen primed to power hit. Bowling as brilliantly as Pakistan have done is possible but it requires tremendous concentration and skill. A collective rejuvenation of this magnitude must be down to the hard work of the players and the influence of the coaching staff.

In Cardiff, a back injury to Mohammad Amir barely deflected Pakistan from their purpose. They still scuttled England for 211, with Rumman Raees, Amir’s stand in and another left-armer, making an honourable debut. Junaid Khan took on senior duties and might have dismissed Jonny Bairstow in the first over but was perplexed by Marais Erasmus’ peculiar decision to deny a convincing LBW shout.

Those early encounters went England’s way, hinting that Pakistan’s luck was running dry. But this was a day when luck wasn’t necessary. Pakistan were outstanding and irrepressible. They were patient and calculating. They were dynamic and ruthless. In short, they completely outplayed, out-thought, and out-gunned England, who were the tournament favourites.

Pakistan’s star turn was Hasan Ali, the find of the tournament, whose man-of-the-match performance accounted for Bairstow, Stokes, and Eoin Morgan, England’s most dangerous batsmen. Hasan has added a new dimension to Pakistan’s recent cricket. He brings a consistent wicket-taking threat to the middle overs, and is a lively option at the death too. His greatest contribution, however, is the sheer competitiveness he brings to each spell, and the infectious joy and celebration that follows any victory.

Pakistan’s bowlers were supported by another excellent fielding display. It wasn’t just the standard of fielding but the field placings themselves. The captain had a clear plan for each bowler and batsman. He introduced spinners to peg England back after an opening burst of pace, and then recalled his pace bowlers in what is now a productive middle period for Pakistan in the field.

Afterwards, England made much of the track, that it was re-used and suited Pakistan. But blaming the pitch embarrassed England. They seemed strangely flat here, unwilling to take the initiative from a stable platform of 128 for 2. Stokes, star of the recent IPL, faced 60 balls without a boundary.

What probably bothered England more was that they were humbled by an unfancied, rookie Pakistan. On the same devilish pitch, Pakistan, a team not known for its batting prowess, raced to 215 for 2 courtesy of the flourishing opening partnership between Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman.

Fakhar bats in an uncomplicated way. His first thought is to attack, either with a front foot pull or a forcing shot on the drive. Occasionally, he’ll turn attack into defence, looking to dab a quick single. But it’s a fearless approach that allows Azhar to settle in at the other end before he begins to show why he is the most improved one-day player in Pakistan’s team.

None of this allays concerns about Pakistan’s fragile middle order, which hosts Pakistan’s two oldest and most immovable players. The rest of the team is much newer but not especially young. Only Shadab Khan is still a teenager. This begs two questions? First, where have these players been? Second, if using newer players is working so well why not go further still?

In the meantime, the team of Sarfraz Ahmed is playing with a joy, passion, and skill that reminds us of the beautiful artistry of Pakistan cricket. It is a new team, finding its way in the world, but it is also discovering that with preparation and planning, the traditional strengths of Pakistan cricket remain as intoxicating and beguiling as ever.

This is why we suffer the days of gloom and despair for these stupendous moments that lift our hearts and lives.

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