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Pakistan, the Improbables

In today's age when analytics and reason underpin most aspects of life, all the data indicated that Pakistan did not have a chance. How then did their Champions Trophy win happen?

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Improbability, like Rome, isn't built in a day. You don't suddenly up and arrive at a situation of no hope, thinking: "Well, no hope here." No, if an achievement that was once probable has now become improbable, then it stands to reason that there was a journey, and it must, by definition, have been a dispiriting one. To understand that something is now improbable is to acknowledge that each moment on that road would have sapped the soul a little. This could be done. Now, no way. With each step forward, eyes would have opened wider. The destination would have begun to take clearer shape. And anger would have grown as it approached.
Why are things so bad? Why are we coming here? Why is nobody stopping this? And then, when the destination is clear, the anger would have bubbled over, not burning like fire but flowing like lava. That point, at the end of the road, represents the final defeat of the spirit: from there, very little is probable. Almost everything is improbable and the only difference is in the degree.
The improbability of Pakistan's Champions Trophy triumph (I watched it, slept and woke up, and it still happened) began, in earnest, two years ago. Actually it began many years ago, but right after the 2015 World Cup was when it escalated. In that tournament, Pakistan were showing clear signs of lagging. After it, as the game went boldly forth, Pakistan meekly retreated. They made Azhar Ali the captain, and though it wasn't on him entirely, they looked like a side that didn't know the 1990s were over.
At first, the batting appeared to be the issue. Good sides were making 350 for fun, and Pakistan were happy with 300. In England last year, they made 260, 251, 275, 247 and 304; in Australia this year they made 176, 221, 263, 267 and 312. Too many dot balls, 270-degree batting, and no power-hitters; in the time of Tinder, Pakistan were a bricks-and-mortar marriage bureau.
The real kicker was that their bowling became outdated. Once every four games, they were taken for over 300, and usually it wasn't just over but well past it: in the last two years Pakistan conceded 329, 334, 368, 355, 444, 353, 369 and 319. There was no diversity, no personality. The spinners were not Saeed Ajmal. The fast bowlers were not express. They did little with the new ball, less through the middle, and the less said about the death the better.
You don't need to be told about the fielding.
When they dumped Azhar as captain and put Sarfraz Ahmed in his place, it was two series too late and two years too late. They came into the Champions Trophy ranked eighth, thanks mostly to a bit of manipulative scheduling. And the ranking flattered them. It had taken two years - or 20 - but anything beyond a group-stage exit was highly improbable, if not out of the question.


Six years ago, jolted by an improbable Pakistan victory against Sri Lanka in Sharjah, I determined to write a bigger piece on the nature of the win. Sri Lanka were 155 for 3, coasting to a target of 201, until suddenly they weren't. Pakistan, I felt that night, had done this too many times for it not to mean something. Of course it meant something, and what's more, it warranted deeper study.
I went wide rather than deep, though, drawing on Sufism, pop culture, sports psychology, Qawwali, reverse swing, and politics to produce a kind of loose thesis: what happened in these moments in matches, on days and even over entire tournaments when Pakistan did the improbable, was the appearance of Haal - the ecstatic state of being in which, as Idries Shah explained in his book Oriental Magic, "Sufis are believed to be able to overcome all barriers of time, space and thought. They are able to cause apparently impossible things to happen merely because they are no longer confined by the barriers which exist for more ordinary people." This Haal - it created something special, a synchronicity between the team, the spectacle in that state, and the observer, also within the trance.
Truth be told, as the years have passed I have become a little embarrassed by the article. Partly it is because I can see holes in it I wish I had filled. But as Pakistan struggled to regularly produce such moments, I have seen it as, at best, a jinx, and at worst an absolute fantasy. One commenter on the piece said it was, "Orientalism at its best", and it still stings because, you know what, there is truth to it. I justified it by saying it was an exploration of a very personal sensation.
But I can't deny that the further I have got from it, the greater the sense of guilt that I overlooked a more rational, analytical way of understanding Pakistan. One of the ways of growing older is to cede to rationalism: resigning to the truth that there is, sadly, reason behind everything. It just needs to be found. This happens because that happened, and we can measure and explain - and not just feel - this as well as that. One of the best things to have happened to cricket in recent years is that it has been opened up to rigorous analytical and data-based scrutiny. That has peeled off a layer, allowing a changed understanding of each game, contest, even each ball.
I haven't fully embraced it, but I don't deny it. I understand it underpins everything and for explanations, it must be the first recourse. If it hasn't already, science, reason and data will one day render Haal redundant as theory.


Pakistan have deserved better than to be further enshrouded inside mysteries and riddles, bouncing between states of Haal and otherwise, to be the subject of lazy stereotyping. They are not magicians or Sufis. They are professional athletes.
One of the truest joys of the Misbah-ul-Haq era was that on the occasions Pakistan did pull off the improbable, Misbah was there to tell you exactly why it happened. And he would tell you that some inexplicable, elemental force had not seized the day, but that his side had planned this, off and on the field.
So I'm here to tell you, and myself, that there is a reason for this Pakistan win, the mightiest of which is that they bowled their way to it. Break it down to how they have fought off a modern trend by attacking it and exposing it for what it is. The middle overs are no longer the stretch where batting takes stock and sets itself up for a final ten-over tilt. The middle is the tilt, especially between overs 30 and 40, where power-hitters have begun to take games away.
Pakistan called this bluff. What happens if we attack, with our lengths, fields and skills? If we get wickets, will you blink first? They have been happy to bowl softer overs up front, and then attack when batsmen are set to attack. This ten-over stretch is where Pakistan cut sides off: taking eight wickets while conceding just 3.53 per over. That rate is nearly a run better than all other sides. Other than a few overs from Imad Wasim and Mohammad Hafeez, Pakistan used their fast bowlers and legspinner: Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Hasan Ali and Shadab Khan.
The return of Hafeez as bowler has been a safety net, but they have been smart about that. He bowled 18 overs against South Africa and England, but just six against India and Sri Lanka. And Shadab, with turn both ways, has been a game-changing find: the wicket-taking option that coach Mickey Arthur so dearly wanted in the middle overs.
Then in two matches, against Sri Lanka and England, Pakistan got used pitches, slower and lower, which they would have been familiar with. Still, familiarity doesn't mean adeptness - in the UAE, on similar tracks, they have lost six of their last eight bilateral series.
They also got to bowl first in four games out of five, and by getting sides out cheaply in three, their batting orders made sense. No Pakistan batsman has worked harder to expand and develop his game than Azhar Ali, in Tests but especially in ODIs. He may still not be the ODI opener for this age, but he was perfect for Pakistan's plans: if you bowl sides out cheaply, Azhar is exactly the kind of opener Pakistan - as nervy, awkward and neurotic at chases as Woody Allen, without any of the intelligence - need. An unlikely hero of this campaign sure, but not an inexplicable one.
So far, so reasonable, which is about as far as I can take it.
Here's a list, on the other hand, of things I'm having trouble explaining in full, or at all.
1. If it was the bowling that won it, then how? Because by no metric has it been good since the 2015 World Cup. In matches where they bowled first, Pakistan's average between overs 11-40 was the worst (53.68) of all teams, including Zimbabwe, and their economy fourth worst. They took the fewest wickets per innings. Between overs 30 and 40, their average put them ahead of only Ireland, Scotland and Papua New Guinea, and economy ahead of Sri Lanka and Scotland. In two weeks they have gone from being among the worst for two years to being the best. Light switches take more time.
Wahab Riaz was their first-choice third seamer. Junaid didn't start because in the six matches since he returned in January, he'd gone at 6.45 an over and averaged 42. Rumman Raees, palpably the kind of bowler Pakistan have needed in limited-overs cricket, was not even in the squad.
Wahab's injury, unforeseen, set into motion a chain of events that led to Junaid ending as the Champions Trophy's third highest wicket-taker, and Raees' ice-cool and incisive debut in the semi-final.
2. I can partially explain Fakhar Zaman, in that nobody in Pakistan said abracadabra and out he came (no one ever does, not even Waqar Younis or Wasim Akram). He has been prominent in domestic cricket for a couple of seasons, as well as in the 2017 PSL.
But he was not their first-choice opener, because of Ahmed Shehzad. Pakistan went to Zaman only in desperation, having convinced themselves for the umpteenth - and probably not last - time that they were done with Shehzad. And he was debuting, so yeah, go figure, 252 runs - sixth-highest in the tournament - and runs against three of the world's best sides.
While there, let me know how it is that a domestic limited-overs set-up as archaic as Pakistan's produced a batsman with the highest strike rate in this global tournament (of the top 20 run scorers)? Higher than Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Eoin Morgan, Virat Kohli, David Warner, Aaron Finch, David Miller, Martin Guptill, Quinton de Kock: true LOLs for the irrationals.
3. Three players debuted for Pakistan in this tournament. No other side had even one debutant. Imagine thrusting one into the world's sharpest tournament. Three? And each of the three contributed a defining moment. I can stretch reason to its tether, and offer the PSL as some kind of explanation for the readiness of Raees and Zaman. Faheem Ashraf has never played the PSL. You may never hear of him again, yet try and erase his imprint - that Dinesh Chandimal wicket.
4. I find no rationale for the two chances in six Lasith Malinga balls granted to Sarfraz. I can try - the dolly to Thisara Perera may have swerved a touch (I could be totally wrong, imagining a light breeze of destiny). And the Seekkuge Prasanna drop happens, especially to a side fielding as poorly as Sri Lanka. To be granted luck twice is no big deal. To be granted it twice in such quick succession is about credible too. For it to arrive when it mattered most, when this was literally the wicket that would have ended the game and Pakistan's tournament? I'll leave it there.
And then, in chronological order, events of the final, which means Jasprit Bumrah's no-ball first, off his ninth ball of the day. There is a reasonable explanation. Bumrah is not a surprising culprit. He has 11 no-balls in 16 ODIs, which in the age of free hits is like pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It is a commitment to waste. In this tournament he had bowled just one until then. But it was Zaman, the one man more than any other Pakistan would have wanted to be the beneficiary of such fortune (just as later he was the more important partner who wasn't run out).
Then, 338. Casually they strolled to their highest 50-over total since the 2015 World Cup (excluding games against Zimbabwe). In the final of a global event, against India, who even if they did have a bad day, have only needed to be inked down by the ICC as an opponent for Pakistan to have already lost. I'll take no recourse to reason here, none whatsoever.
Especially because the innings formed in such a way it meant demoting Hafeez and delaying his entry until the 40th over. Neither Pakistan nor Hafeez like that. And yet, in a small sample since 2010, of 14 innings, his strike rate in the death overs (before the final) was 8.63 per over. Out he came in the 40th, and did exactly what those numbers suggest he could. It was exactly the right thing to do and there's no suggestion Pakistan had planned it. It was the first time since January 2013 that Hafeez had batted outside the top four.
And where to seek reason in the mini-opera of Amir-Kohli? Amir's little skip of anticipation at the edge, cut short by Azhar's slow tumble and spill; the look on Amir's face, of instant death upon Azhar; Azhar flinging his cap. Buried. Gone. And then again, and Shadab Khan, of such conviction, at point, a little skip to his right and in. Alive. No, not alive, soaring.
Targeting Kohli's fourth stump is a tactic and the left-arm angle makes it more legit, but the world's best batsman, the most fearsome slayer of chases, twice in two balls, on this stage? Give me relief in numbers.
There is some. If the general feeling around Amir has been that he is somewhat dimmed from how we remember him, know that since his return, with a minimum cut-off of ten wickets, he has the joint-most wickets, the third-best average and best economy of bowlers in the first ten overs.


You could analyse and reason each of the above. I try, but I'm not even including Pakistan dropping at least seven catches in five games and Ahmed Shehzad actually running someone out. And for all of this to have come together over the course of five games, four knockouts, in 14 days, I can't.
This may not be Haal and there may not be any such thing on a cricket field. If at all there is something from that article that remains striking, it is Waqar Younis talking about Pakistan locating a surge and then riding it for all its worth.
There is one other thing. I ended then by arguing that Pakistan make you - opponents and observers - submit to the world they create in these moments. I'm not saying this happened. But look around of what's left of this tournament. Look at how Pakistan took teams back to the 1990s and beat them. Look at the strength of feeling it has aroused around the world. Look at the incredulity that the improbability of it has borne. Listen over and over to Nasser Hussain's voice as he calls the Kohli dismissal.
I don't know what more to tell you.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo