Sometimes it is a delight to be proved wrong.
Two weeks after it seemed Pakistan’s Champions Trophy campaign was doomed to failure, they have pulled off a victory every bit as unlikely as any in their history.
Yes, as unlikely as the 1992 World Cup win, when the Pakistan team contained several players that can reasonably be described as great.
And yes, as unlikely as the 2009 World T20 success, when the Pakistan team again contained some fine, experienced players.
This Pakistan squad contained three men – Fakhar Zaman, Rumman Raees and Faheem Ashraf – that made their ODI debuts during the tournament, a teenage legspinner (Shadab Khan) and a couple of more experienced campaigners that might uncharitably be described as journeymen. It came into the tournament ranked No. 8 in the world and so nervous about securing their place here that they pulled out of a tri-series event in Zimbabwe that took place a couple of weeks before qualification was finalised.
Their preparations can hardly have been helped by news that Umar Akmal had to be sent home, either, having once again failed to meet the fitness requirements. By the time Wahab Riaz limped out of the tournament at the end of that first game, the chastening defeat at the hands of India, even their coach Mickey Arthur was warning of “a reality check.”
It was hard to be optimistic.
But maybe we should have known better. This is Pakistan, after all. And it is less than 12 months since their Test team stood on this same Oval outfield and celebrated reaching the top of the Test ratings. They keep defying our predictions. They keep surpassing our expectations.
It is the progress of the young players that has been most striking here. Conventional wisdom would suggest a team going into a high-profile global event requires experience and role definition.
Arthur’s intolerance towards Akmal’s fitness record, his decisiveness after Ahmed Shehzad fielded so poorly and batted with such caution in the first game sent out a clear message
But conventional wisdom didn’t discover reverse swing or the doosra. Conventional wisdom wouldn’t have thrust Wasim Akram into international cricket after a couple of impressive net sessions or Waqar Younis into the side after Imran Khan saw him on TV. Pakistan have often taken a bold approach to change that has given their cricket a fresh taste that few can match.
So here Pakistan appointed a new opening batsman (Zaman), a new fielder in the backward point position (Shadab, who might just go on to be seen as one of the best fielders the country has produced) and, when Mohammad Amir was injured ahead of the semi-final, they had no hesitation in asking Raees to take the new ball on his ODI debut.
You wonder what some of these young players – what this team – could achieve if they were given the advantages and opportunities of their rivals. Starved of cricket in their home nation, barred from the IPL, it is remarkable that they continue to produce players of such flair and resilience.
Both before the final and after, Arthur was keen to praise the contribution of the younger players. Describing the “one or two personnel changes” as “a breath of fresh air,” he credited their willingness to buy into the “fearless brand of cricket” he and his captain desired as key factors.
The introduction of the PSL might be relevant, too. If players can graduate to international cricket as easily as Zaman has – and two half-centuries and a century in his first four ODIs suggest he has taken to it pretty well – the PSL might be preparing them for the big occasion a little better than had been anticipated.
But perhaps as relevant as the emergence of the young players is the curtain that appears to have been drawn around the careers of a couple of more experienced ones. There was a time in Pakistan cricket when you wondered what certain players had to do to be dropped, but not any more.
Arthur’s intolerance towards Akmal’s fitness record, his decisiveness after Ahmed Shehzad fielded so poorly and batted with such caution in the first game sent out a clear message. It said ‘you buy in or you get out.’ It said ‘what was tolerated in the past is no longer acceptable.’ It said ‘times have changed.’ Both may be young enough to come again, but they will have to prove they have embraced Arthur’s approach.
You wonder whether previous coaches could have acted as decisively as Arthur. Whereas several of them were steeped in complicated political fabric of Pakistan cricket, Arthur is fresh and untainted. He has no ties or allegiances. He doesn’t care if a former player alleges corruption or a politician demands the recall of a favoured player. He just wants what’s best for the team. And it appears in Sarfraz Ahmed, like Misbah-ul-Haq before him, he has a captain who is similarly uncompromising.
Misbah’s contribution bears restating. It would be hard to exaggerate the depths to which Pakistan cricket had sunk at the time he inherited the captaincy in 2010. It wasn’t just the results – they will always come and go – it was that three players ended up in jail and the reputation of a team with a proud history was dragged through the mud. That Misbah was there, in the darkest moments, to rebuild the side will always be to his immense credit. This victory could not have happened without him.
But it may be Arthur’s reaction to defeat in that first game against India that will be remembered as they key moment in this campaign. While some coaches might have ranted and raved – he sure had reason to do so – Arthur reasoned that to increase the pressure on a side who wilted in the spotlight that day would be counterproductive. Instead he held his course and tried to inject calm and confidence.
“If we had tried to train any more, we as a coaching staff, would have been seemed to be panicking,” he explained. “And that’s the last thing you want to do in those situations.
“We trusted the players. We trusted what we had put in place, but we had some good honest conversations. We had some conversation about stepping up. And the way they have turned things around is unbelievable.
“That first India game was an aberration. We didn’t play anywhere near our capability.
“So we just had to keep believing. We have to keep them trusting the techniques and game plan. And that’s why I say I’m incredibly proud of that dressing room. They kept on believing and they kept on trusting the game plan that Safraz and I had set up.”
Maybe Pakistan were a touch fortunate. Maybe they were, in hindsight, fortunate that Wahab and Akmal’s fitness injuries forced them into changes. Certainly they were fortunate that Zaman survived that edge when he had just 3.
But let nobody dismiss this success as a fluke. They have beaten the world’s top-rated side (South Africa), the tournament favourites (England) and the defending champions (India) on the way to this success. And it wasn’t their fault Jasprit Bumrah overstepped. Virat Kohli also survived an early life. He was unable to capitalise.
Where does all this leave Pakistan cricket? It is hard to be certain. Were the final to be replayed next Sunday, India would probably still be favourites. Arthur, a man who had seen five semi-finals in his time with South Africa, described the success as “surreal.” It seems a pretty accurate description.
But it’s a success that provides strong grounds for hope. To see Zaman swing with abandon, to see Azhar Ali continue to push himself to improve as a limited-overs batsman, to see Mohammad Hafeez skip down the pitch and drive his first ball for four, was to see a team united in purpose and committed to a selfless, bold approach.
And to see Amir and Hasan Ali move a ball that has proved begrudging and defiant to other seamers, was to be reminded of the remarkable skill levels that continue to develop within Pakistan. They are not the finished article and, even now, remain close to those battling for an automatic World Cup spot. But with this approach and young payers of whom much more can be expected, the future looks much brighter than it did a couple of weeks ago.
Despite the obstacles, despite the setbacks, despite logic, Pakistan cricket finds a way. There is some spirit, some defiance, some skill that has proved irrepressible. It is heartening and it is an inspiration. And it is a reminder for those of us who doubted them that no Pakistan side can ever be discounted.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.