Pakistan’s rise has been like the proverbial Phoenix; now, with World Cup qualification guaranteed, it is time to build on the gains
October 3, 2015: Pakistan loses to Zimbabwe, slips to No. 9 in the ICC ODI rankings. Had this result come four days earlier, it wouldn’t have qualified for the ICC Champions Trophy 2017.
April-May 2016: Waqar Younis resigns as Pakistan’s coach after a run-in with the Pakistan Cricket Board. He is replaced by Mickey Arthur.
September 5, 2016: Pakistan falls to its lowest-ever points tally in ICC ODI rankings after losing 1-4 to England in a five-match series. It makes its chances of a direct entry into the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 tougher.
September 2016-June 2017: Azhar Ali resigns as ODI captain after a little over a year in the post, handing over the job to Sarfraz Ahmed. Pakistan also loses a couple of key players to a spot-fixing scandal and another to fitness issues.
June 4, 2017: Pakistan loses yet again to India in an ICC tournament, this time in its opening game of the ICC Champions Trophy.
June 18, 2017: Pakistan wins the ICC Champions Trophy 2017, thrashing India in the final. On the way, it also defeats South Africa, Sri Lanka and England.
It’s impossible to make sense of Pakistan’s journey to its maiden ICC Champions Trophy title. And that’s precisely what makes it a staggering achievement. It might not even have made it to the tournament. But for Sri Lanka’s sloppy catching, Pakistan would have been knocked out in the group stage.
And yet, Pakistan is here as the champion. The journey, particularly from June 4 to June 18, has been so crazy that not a single press conference since has gone by without a question on the transformation. It’s almost become clichéd, but it’s also understandable – how can an outsider make sense of Pakistan’s random, rapid rise when the coach himself calls it surreal?
“It sort of feels surreal really, to be honest,” conceded Arthur after the win on Sunday. “But the thing about that loss (on June 4) was we knew that was an aberration. It wasn't the norm because we had prepared properly. We knew the calibre of players we had and that certainly wasn't what we had trained for, and we didn't play anywhere near our ability.
“We just had to keep believing and keep them trusting the techniques and keep them trusting their game plan and keep them trusting their roles. That's why I say I'm incredibly proud of that dressing room because they did that. And it was one or two personnel changes, they brought in a little bit of a breath of fresh air, and the younger players that have come into the setup have been fantastic because they've played the fearless brand of cricket that we want to play.
“We had some good, hard conversations, but we didn't train any more because we knew the base had been done. If we had tried to train any more, we would have - as a coaching staff - been seen to be panicking, 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 conversation. We had some conversation about stepping up and the players almost drove that conversation, which for us was very new, but also showed a maturity. The way they turned it around was unbelievable.”
The turnaround was indeed incredible, but Pakistan’s success in the tournament is as much about the country’s future as it is about the journey.
It no longer need worry about points and qualification for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. Pakistan now has a core squad to work on as well.
Only two players in the victorious squad have played more than 100 ODIs. Fakhar Zaman, the Player of the final, is just four ODIs into his career. Hasan Ali, the highest wicket-taker and the Player of the tournament, is only 23 years and 21 ODIs old. Even Mohammad Amir, the chief destroyer with the ball, is just 25.
All of a sudden, Pakistan’s kids have heroes to look up to, just like the ‘90s kids grew up inspired by the tigers of 1992. While the rest of the cricketing world figures out what struck them, the likes of Zaman, Hasan, Amir and Shadab Khan will become household names in Pakistan.
“It'll be massive. I really do. I hope that,” said Arthur on what the victory means for the nation. “I'm sure that the nation of Pakistan is really happy tonight because they deserve it. For what they've been through - you talk about our players not playing at home. But also the fans don’t identify with heroes because they just don't see international cricket. That's massive for the country. So let's hope that this really kick-starts that momentum in Pakistan again.”
Most crucially, Pakistan is hoping the victory would encourage teams to tour their country once again. Pakistan has not hosted international cricket since 2009, barring a short tour by Zimbabwe in 2015. But if Giles Clarke, the president of the England and Wales Cricket Board and head of the ICC's Pakistan task force, has his way, a World XI could visit Pakistan for a few T20s in September.
“We didn't have cricket at home for eight years. It was a big setback,” said Sarfraz Ahmed, the skipper. “When we arrived here, we were No. 8, and now we are the champions. So hopefully this win will boost Pakistan cricket and hopefully all playing nations will come to Pakistan.”
Sarfraz’s desire – echoed by Arthur - might sound like a long shot, but so were its championship ambitions a couple of weeks back. As is often the case with Pakistan cricket, the possibilities are endless. For now, they all appear bright after the manic two weeks.