Ringside at the miracle of Pakistan
You had to be there. Thousands upon thousands of cricket fans streaming down the Harleyford Road and in through the gates named after two of Surrey's most favourite sons: one, Jack Hobbs, the Master, from an age few of those chanting their affections could even begin to understand; the other, Alec Stewart, whose association with the ground began with watching his father and continues to this day, as the lads under his wing press for honours and caps exactly as he once did.
The Oval, the place of Hobbs, yes, and of Andy Sandham; of the Bedser twins, May and Barrington; of Laker and Lock, Edrich, Arnold and Jackman; of the Stewarts, the Butchers, the Bicknells, the Hollioakes, and now the Currans, about to make their mark. But none of these fine men were a whisper on the day of the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy, the day that this little corner of South London became Asian and the vibrant colours of India and Pakistan provided the backdrop to a monumental achievement.
Two weeks ago, without a home, short of money and limited in resources, the cricketers of Pakistan were a team struggling for direction, from a nation fighting for identity. The country has long been at the mercy of fickle politics and driven by its passions. The people simmer with volatility at their core and celebrate as if vindicated for being who they are. Inevitably the inner turmoil has been reflected in the way the national team has played its cricket. It is hard to build structures and stability when neither exists in the society at large. It is difficult to assert authority when the holders of high office themselves are constantly at sea. It is hard to make a plan when the nation itself has no confidence. Everything is transitory.
For now, eight years on from the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus near the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore, these players find temporary facilities in the Middle East. They have made themselves hard to beat on the arid surfaces of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but they play to the echo of an empty stadium, like an orchestra that rehearses but never makes the Prom. At the start of the tournament, they were ticketed for the sellout show against India and missed every note.
It was horrible to watch, a nation in love with a game they could no longer feel or touch at the national level that so inspires the young. But on they played, retuning here and replacing there. South Africa were held off, Sri Lanka held back. Slowly the sound improved; notes were made and stanzas completed. From these came confidence and from that came expression. An opening batsman was found. So too a legspinner and a fast bowler. Suddenly, miraculously, Pakistan were in the semi-final and trounced England, the joint favourites. Hope had been found in the dignity of those who remained and the promise of those who arrived. A fine leader emerged from the cacophony and Pakistan marched to The Oval with their wits about them. India awaited - sure, strong, gifted India - who had won the last seven ICC major tournament matches between adversaries whose bitter fight for independence dominated world affairs 70 years previously.
Let's start with the sun-kissed morning "We will bowl first" decision by Virat Kohli. This was a choice surely made in hubris and which, deciphered, means you're not much good, so we'll knock you over for 240 - yes, even on this belting pitch - and knock 'em off. Wrong. As Kohli was to later admit there was no stopping Fakhar Zaman. Who? Fakhar Zaman. Oh. Sorry, who? Fakhar, the man who made 114 off 106 balls in only his fourth appearance for his country. How old is he? Twenty-two. What, a Pakistan 22? No, actually he's 27. Really? No idea. But he can bat like you can't believe. He had Zorro's sword in his hands, flashing and flaying the ball to all parts. One slog-sweep was a triumph of imagination, eye and athleticism; one on-drive - I think we can call it that - was a miracle of flexibility and power. These strokes, and many others, were more like cuts, both vivid and threatening.
In little more than an hour Fakhar gave back Pakistan's street-cred. Truth be told, the feeling in the hood was that the performance against England was a one-off, just one of those Pakistan on-days, measured against an England off-one. But now, as Fakhar went about his killing field, he changed perception and momentum completely. India made mistakes - that's the same sure, strong, gifted India - and out there, when the battle cry is loudest, mistakes are hard to rectify. Spectators from Chandigarh to Chennai asked questions of their team. Why did he bowl first? What's a par score? What are the odds now? We will still win, won't we? What the hell is happening?! If Saeed Anwar had played this innings, it might have been more beautiful, but it would neither have been so electrifying nor so impossible to recover from. Even the activists were retreating.
After Fakhar came Babar Azam and after him Mohammed Hafeez. From where did Hafeez find such originality, such freedom of thought? With Imad Wasim, he added a quick-fire 71. Whoosh, gone! Swish, gone! Six more! Three thirty-eight on the tally after 50. Wow.
And now for my favourite bit. Eighteen years old and idiotic, but coerced and betrayed, Mohammad Amir might have been forgiven for throwing cricket to the wind. Instead he did time and resolved to put right his wrong. Last summer in England, he beat the bat, saw catches shelled and beat his fist upon the ground. His God was ready to forgive but not to reward. Redemption was at hand but not complete.
Three balls to Rohit Sharma, a few more to Kohli, during which time he got them out three times. Wait, look, is it Wasim Akram with the new ball? Nope. Might as well have been. Rohit trapped in front by some pacy inswing; Kohli caught at slip by one that nipped a little off the seam. Oh no, dropped it! Azhar, what have you done?! No matter, the next ball nipped too and Virat's leading edge fell into the gleeful hands of Shadab Khan at cover point. OMG ROHIT AND VIRAT GONE! This the Rohit who made a sublime hundred in the semi-final and the Virat who is the best batsman in the world. Hearts rejoiced and hearts sank. Put frankly, we came to see Virat make a big score. We knew the record, we wanted to see the live performance. Fine, Pakistan can win, be great if they did, not that we want to patronise or anything, but Kohli must still entertain us: it's a part of the package.
Not today, it wasn't. Today was Amir's Bob Marley moment, his "Redemption Song" - Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / none but ourselves can free our mind. In figures, the result was 3 for 16. In point of fact, it was the game. Hasan Ali took 3 for 19. That's 6 for 35 after you bat first and score 338; a slam dunk if ever there was one.
The noise was unforgettable. There were fireworks behind the old pavilion - of course there were - but it was the green that caught the eye: the Pakistan fans wrapped in the flags and shirts of their cricket team, which too often makes no sense but at such times as this, brings overwhelming joy to those who belong. Sarfraz Ahmed conducted his orchestra with the skill, flair and certainty of the maestros. The ball fell softly into his gloves, the match into the record books. The Champions Trophy had been won. Of all the dotty, improbable things!
You had to be there. It was fantastic. I left by the Hobbs Gate and sensed that Jack would have nodded his approval. Past Alec I went, both of us purring. Another time, another time.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK