“Which team do you want to face in the final?”
“May the best team win.”
“Come on, don’t be diplomatic. India or Bangladesh?”
This was the conversation Fakhar Zaman had with ICC after Pakistan defeated England in the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 semi-final last Wednesday.
In many ways, it’s a fairytale that Fakhar got exactly what he wanted. He began his One-Day International career with a bang with three crucial knocks, but all of that came after Pakistan’s loss to India in a group game. Neither his nor Pakistan’s dream run in the tournament would have been complete without a solid performance against India.
And as fairytales go, that was precisely what happened on Sunday at The Oval. Fakhar got his wish, and showed that he was the missing link in the Pakistan side that India had faced earlier with a swashbuckling century that took his team to 338 and set up an incredible title win.
It was almost like Fakhar was destined to be Pakistan’s hero in its biggest win since the ICC World T20 2009. He wouldn’t have even made it to the squad had Sharjeel Khan not found himself in a spot-fixing saga in the Pakistan Super League. He wouldn’t have made it to the XI if not for Pakistan’s abysmal performance against India in the group game.
In fact, Fakhar’s journey into competitive cricket itself is an incredible one. He was born in a small town in the district of Mardan before moving to Karachi at the age of 16. Not to play cricket, but to join the navy.
Fakhar underwent training for 18 months, but simultaneously managed to impress the navy team’s coach with his cricket skills.
“On January 12, 2007, I joined the Navy,” Fakhar said, remembering the minutest of details. “There were tests (for the navy) previously as well but on January 12, I went to Karachi from Mardan. There I was trained - proper training, like it happens for the soldiers.
“In Karachi, Azam Khan, our coach, saw me playing cricket and told me I could play higher (levels). He then wrote letters to the headquarters and said he needed me for cricket. That's where my cricket started.”
Fakhar stuck with the navy for six years, constantly in a dilemma on whether to take the plunge into the game full-time. He did that in 2013, when he made his first-class debut and toiled in the domestic circuit for four years, averaging more than 42 in first-class cricket and over 51 in List A games.
His breakthrough finally came earlier this year when Mickey Arthur went to Lahore for a three-day camp in March to familiarise himself with the best domestic players. It was Arthur’s first such meeting with Pakistan’s local players after taking over as full-time coach last year, and gave Fakhar a chance to impress the national coach.
Fakhar took that opportunity and also made a name for himself in the Pakistan Super League. And soon, with Pakistan requiring a dasher at the top to replace Sharjeel, he found himself in the squad for the limited-overs leg of the West Indies tour.
Fakhar played all three T20Is on that tour with modest returns but had to wait until Pakistan’s ICC Champions Trophy 2017 game against South Africa for an ODI debut.
The rest is history. Fakhar was roped in with a specific plan – to infuse energy in the batting unit with quick starts. He did just that in his first three games, including against the top bowling attacks of South Africa and England, and went one step ahead in the final against India.
After four games, Fakhar’s strike-rate is 113, but he’s no mad slogger. His runs are a result of a fearless and unorthodox approach – just the mix Pakistan needed, especially for a big game. On Sunday, he also showed the ability to pace his innings. He played out two maiden overs against an in-form Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the first ten overs and managed only 14 runs from his first 27 balls, but picked up pace effortlessly, especially against the spinners.
Fakhar’s maturity was impressive too. He played a big part in Azhar Ali being run out after a century opening stand, but put it behind him quickly. He not only moved on but also took Pakistan along, striking India’s spinners for 33 runs in two overs to help keep the momentum.
It was such a knock that the opposing captain could do close to nothing.
“A guy like Zaman, when he gets going, because he plays a number of shots, it becomes real difficult to stop,” said Virat Kohli. “I think 80% of his shots were high-risk and they were all coming off. So you can only do so much as a bowler and as a captain. Sometimes you have to sit and say, the guy is good enough on the day to tackle anything. You can only do so much.”
None of that might have happened had Jasprit Bumrah not overstepped and denied himself Fakhar’s wicket when the batsman was on three.
None of that might have happened had Fakhar not recovered from an illness that troubled him on the eve of the match and allowed him only five hours of sleep over the night.
“When we came for practice yesterday, I wasn’t feeling good,” Zaman revealed. “I knocked only five to ten balls and told the coach I didn’t want to practice because I wasn’t feeling well. I was sweating a lot although there was some wind.
“Then I came back to the dressing room and called the physio (Shane Hayes) to tell him I’m not feeling good. When we came back to the hotel, I told him I can’t play tomorrow. The team was going for dinner but I told him that my health was very bad, so we didn't go for dinner as well.
“Shane was with me throughout and he gave me tablets, protein, glucose – he gave me everything and told me, ‘No you will play tomorrow’. I couldn’t walk, but they looked after me very well. He told me to tell him how I’m feeling in the morning, and when I woke up I was feeling good. I messaged him at 7am telling him, ‘Shane thank you, I’m feeling good’.”
Fakhar was feeling even better at the end of the day. And thanks to him, an entire country, as well.