Ah Pakistan. How we love you and your carefree approach to the game.
We had written you off after your embarrassing loss to India, but we shouldn’t have. Clearly we had forgotten your modern-day trademark – to win games when nobody expects you too and when your backs are firmly against the wall.
It’s true. These days, nobody knows which Pakistan is going to show up. The one that plays like a newly assembled group of park cricketers, or the one that is capable of defeating the powerhouses of the international game through grit and determination.
We saw it against South Africa, where a master-class in reverse swing bowling from Amir, Junaid and Hasan saw Pakistan dismiss one of the tournament favorites for a total of 219, before Malik made hay while the sun shone against a South African bowling attack ravaged by Kolpak deals.
It was brilliant to watch. Not simply because reverse-swing has seemingly gone AWOL since the introduction of two new Kookaburra balls, but because cricket thrives when Pakistan is playing like they did in the days of Akram and Imran.
But these occasions are few and far between; only appearing when you least expect them too.
Even against Sri Lanka, Pakistan could have pulled a Pakistan and collapsed short of the finish line like a dehydrated marathon runner. They were already seven wickets down when the game was completed and captain Srafraz had been dropped not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession by an undisciplined Sri Lankan side who fielded as if they were ready to board the plane home. Not like a side that was desperate to give its travelling supporters something to cheer about.
Plain and simple, Pakistan wanted it more than Sri Lanka; they were hungrier for victory.
This approach is evident in the Test Match arena as well. Out of nowhere they have climbed the ICC rankings quicker than a feral cat scaling a telephone pole despite the fact they are a side of lightweight’s taking on the heavyweight champions of the world.
They’re unpredictable and often enter a bout as rank outsiders, but when you least expect it they’ll throw a haymaker that knocks their opponents to the ground quicker than a right-hook from Mohammad Ali.
This is best exemplified by their captain, the enigmatic Sarfraz Ahmed; and their coach, the often misunderstood and unorthodox Mickey Arthur. A man best remembered for being sacked after setting the Australian team homework on their tour to India in 2013. The clincher here is that, if you can recall, he played the role of headmaster and sent a few of his player’s packing for failing to complete it.
Unsurprisingly, Australia lost that series 4-0.
Arthur is like the teachers pet sitting on his lonesome at the back of a dimly lit classroom. He is bullied, bruised and teased for his differences, but makes his peers red with envy when he passes a test he is tipped to fail. Luckily for Arthur, he has made a habit of doing so just when the knives of his doubters, namely those being wielded by members of the PCB, begin to sharpen.
When he rose from his seat on Monday evening to celebrate Pakistan’s progression to the semi-final stage of the Champions Trophy, some of that unbridled joy would have been pure, unadulterated relief. Only a week earlier his job was under threat. India had handed Pakistan their backsides and there were whispers that the waters had muddied in the team camp.
But, like an unpopular high school student, he overcame the hurdles of adversity and passed the test. A sign that Arthur has pitched his tent on Pakistan’s property like a nomadic traveller and doesn’t plan on leaving until those with more power come knocking.
Nothing about Pakistan is conventional. But they always seem to find a way to get the job done.
Shortly before the start of the Champions Trophy, Pakistani opener, Sharjeel Khan, was banned for spot-fixing and yet another strike was put against Pakistan’s already sullied name.
Due to Sharjeel’s absence at the top of the order, Pakistan was forced to draft in a debutant during a major world tournament. Hardly ideal.
Quite clearly, corruption continues to act as a major stumbling block for the progression and performance of Pakistan cricket.
Young opener Fakhar was thrown into the deepest of dead ends and has responded admirably, scoring a half-century against Sri Lanka. But what if he hadn’t. How much could you blame on Sharjeel’s alleged crimes?
How much could you blame corruption for Pakistan’s struggles during the start of the decade, a period spent without whiz kid Mohammad Amir, who was rubbed out of the game along with two other members of Pakistan’s set-up for dealings with an illegal bookmaker.
Mohammad Irfan, a member of Pakistan’s ill-fated 2015 World Cup Campaign, was also banned at the beginning of this year for failing to report approaches by bookmakers linked to spot-fixing. As a result, Pakistan have had no choice but to introduce young, inexperienced seamers whose performances could have seen them exit the Champions Trophy without so much as a whimper.
Pakistan has a worrying association with corruption, but a finals berth at the Champions Trophy would make many players reassess the reasons why they play the game.