The good thing about him is he is very confident, says Azhar Ali about his free-scoring opening partner
So what happened to Pakistan after that loss to India in the opening match of the ICC Champions Trophy 2017? How did Pakistan turn it around to make it all the way to the final?
It’s difficult to explain the drastic change in fortunes but the man who has turned out to be the difference between the side that lost the opening game and the ones that won the subsequent ones is Fakhar Zaman.
Pakistan’s bowling has been excellent, so it’s no surprise that the bowlers have fired in unison in the campaign. What Pakistan needed most was aggression in the batting unit, and Fakhar provided exactly that right at the top.
It’s incredible that Fakhar was handed a debut in the middle of the big tournament, in place of Ahmed Shehzad, but the left-handed opening batsman has taken up the challenge superbly with scores of 31, 50 and 57 in his three matches. Most importantly, all his contributions have resulted in wins for Pakistan.
Is he, then, the team’s lucky charm?
“Yes,” he said with a laugh in an exclusive interview to ICC. “You can say that because I've played three matches and we've won all the three. So you can say that, but all the boys are playing well and the credit goes to all of them, especially the bowlers.”
Fakhar has infused positivity to the batting unit – something the team desperately lacked in the first match. His strike rate in the three matches is in excess of 117, which has allowed the batsmen around him to take their time.
The quick scoring helped Pakistan get past the DLS par score in the rain-affected game against South Africa. It also came in handy against Sri Lanka when his half-century at the top ensured Pakistan did enough despite a middle-order wobble.
“At this stage, if you can play the shots, you should play them,” he explained. “At this level, all teams have quality bowlers and quality attacks. If you go on the back foot, they'll come very hard. In my mind, I always try to get on top of the bowlers and play some shots.”
Fakhar’s free-hitting style has also helped his opening partner Azhar Ali, who can now bat without worrying about the strike rate.
“We want to attack upfront and Fakhar provides that,” said Azhar. “I can just carry on the way I bat. A lot of the pressure is taken off by the way he bats, he takes the game on which is good for the team and the game of cricket.
“The good thing about him is he is very confident and very simple. Whenever we meet between overs, his thinking is very simple. He plays his game and I can just contribute what I can. When we get together, we just tell each other to make the most of it to make things easier for the coming batsmen.”
Amazingly, as Fakhar suggested, the aggression didn’t come naturally to him. He said he had adapted his game to the team’s needs: “No it's not my natural style. I don't play like this at the start usually. I take time. But I thought in this stage, I thought this is the best game plan and I started playing aggressively.
“That's the main reason why our team was lagging. All people were saying it's modern-day cricket and all that, so we're trying to adjust to this way. It's not really my game, I take time at the start but on these wickets, they are very true and I had to adjust. These wickets are very true compared to our domestic wickets. It became easier for me to play the shots.”
Those shots were on display on Wednesday (June 14) in Cardiff against England in the semi-final. It was perhaps the biggest game of Fakhar’s career, with the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 final on the line, but his mind was clear. His team had only 212 to chase and he ensured he rocked it, hitting a 58-ball 57 in an opening partnership of 118 with Azhar.
“My mind was very clear today,” he said. “England have a strong bowling attack, so we were thinking we will not give them any chance to fight back. So we were trying to attack them early.”
It wasn’t easy because England peppered him with plenty of short balls, but Fakhar took them all on, playing horizontal-bat shots with ease. “I exactly knew from before the match that they will bowl here (face),” he explained. “Because in the previous matches, I was struggling a bit there. So I worked on it and they bowled exactly in that area which was in my mind.”
His knock and the bowlers’ performance have meant that Pakistan now travels to London for the final on June 18 where it will take on the winner of the India v Bangladesh semi-final.
Which of the two teams would Fakhar prefer to face? “May the best team win.”
Prod him further to go past diplomacy, and his preference comes out: “India.”
If India does qualify, and Pakistan is to win, Fakhar might well have a say in the way things pan out.