The balance has been restored now. The gap between the top four and bottom four teams has been bridged. Most importantly, with Pakistan’s triumph in Champions Trophy 2017, the world has realized two things. First, rankings matter the least in cricket. Second, the game of cricket will remain as unpredictable as ever.
For ranking is just a rating based on the past performances of a particular team. It gives an illusion, it enforces an assumption and most importantly, it gives a tag to a particular team as the best or the worst. However, a ranking is never permanent; it is rather temporary and momentary. Although, it gives a measure of the past performances of the team, what it does not show is the improvement of the team at present and what to expect from them in the future.
Pakistan justified exactly that with their title-winning campaign in Champions Trophy 2017. They showed that their No 8 ranking based on past performances had nothing to do with their present and future. They scripted a story which is very similar to a fairy tale, a story in which they went from ‘rags to riches’, a story in which the underdog triumphed! However, the tournament should not only be remembered for their fairy tale journey. The world should also celebrate the way the other underdogs, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, played in the tournament.
The tournament was going exactly in the way it would have been scripted. The top three favourites to win the tournament in England, South Africa and India had humbled the underdogs in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan respectively in their opening encounters. Only Australia, another favourite to win the title, was struggling a bit with their first couple of matches being marred by rain. Barring that, most of the things were going in the same way as it had in the previous editions of the tournament. Once again, it had started to look like a tournament in which one amongst the top four teams would go on to be the Champions and the participation of the bottom four teams was just a mere formality.
But then Sri Lanka versus India happened. Yes, it was that small island nation located at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent that ignited the spark which then spread like wildfire among the other underdogs in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Yes, it was that team left shattered by the retirement of legends like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jaywardene. But they proved that they still have plenty of talent and potential in the form of Kusal Mendis, Danushka Gunathilaka, Asela Gunaratne and other young guns as they went on to chase down a mammoth target of 322 runs set by the defending champions, India. And yes, it was that new team on the scene which trumped the team who are the masters of the art of chasing down targets. Although, they didn’t qualify to the semi-finals, Sri Lanka started an underdog revolution overnight.
The very next day, the world witnessed something spectacular again. This time, it was Bangladesh who humbled World Cup finalists New Zealand and knocked them out of the tournament; that too from a precarious position of 33/4. Again, it was that Bangladesh, which had made a sudden surge in limited overs cricket in the past couple of years, but somehow things still went wrong at crucial junctures in ICC tournaments. But now they have started a new chapter in their history, having got their first bite at the semi-final of an ICC tournament; of course with some help from Australia as they went down to England in the last match of their group stage. However, no one can rob Bangladesh of their credit for their magical fight-back against New Zealand that helped them in getting the ticket to the semi-final.
And suddenly it had boiled down to four teams – India, England, Pakistan and Bangladesh to clash in the semi-finals. That makes it two teams from the top half of the rankings table and two from the bottom half. It was something that had not been expected; a bit of a surprise to be precise. But hey, India and England, the No 3 and the No 4 ranked teams respectively, were still in the hunt right? They could still make it to the final. After all, how far can the underdogs progress? It will come to a stop at some point. Good thing that they had made it to the semi-finals. But making the final is too much, right? After all, they were to be up against India and England, two of the most dangerous ODI teams, in the semi-finals.
Yes, making the final seemed to be too much for Bangladesh; they surrendered to the mighty Indians in the semi-finals. But, Pakistan proved that they are in for something special this time. They had left the hosts England gasping for breath in a contest which was touted to be too stiff for Pakistan by the pundits. But here was Pakistan, proving all punditry wrong, demolishing a strong English batting line-up, taming a fearsome Ben Stokes to play a sedate innings of 32 (64) and then romping towards the target with ease. There was Pakistan, into the final of a major ICC tournament after eight long years and that too up against their arch-rivals India.
The stage was set. An India-Pakistan encounter in the final was not only significant for the fans on the two sides of the border but also to the entire cricket world. But India were too much of a match for Pakistan! Wasn’t it so? In what was summed up to be a David versus Goliath fight, India looked like the stronger force, the favourites or in other words ‘Goliath’. And Pakistan was like David- the underdog in every respect. However, history has witnessed that it has always been the David who has prevailed in a ‘David-Goliath’ fight. And this time it was no different as it was ‘David’ who prevailed again.
Yes, it was Pakistan who had overcome all odds, defied every pundit and surprised everyone to emerge as the champions. They started it with their young gun Fakhar Zaman bashing the world’s best spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, all around the ground and finished it off with Mohammad Amir running over India’s terrific three in Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan with a great spell of fast bowling. And then there was Yuvraj Singh too who was taken care of by a young Shadab Khan. Don’t forget Mahendra Singh Dhoni who fell prey to a short delivery and thus didn’t get the opportunity of repeating something similar to that of the final of the 2011 World Cup.
Somehow, Pakistan made this performance look similar to that of Australia in the 2003 World cup final against India. Did the combination of ‘Green and Gold’ have some luck factor to go with it? Who knows? But one thing is for sure – it was a victory earned mostly with their efforts. It was a victory in which they completely outplayed the defending champions. Most importantly, it was a victory in which they had defeated the same team who had ran them over by a mammoth margin of 124 runs in their opening encounter of the tournament. To turn it around in this way and win over the opponents by 180 runs in a final requires a big heart, willpower and self-belief. And Pakistan showed that they have every bit of it.
With this victory, Pakistan have restored the much-needed balance in the cricket world; a world which had started revolving only around the ‘big three’. This victory means much more as people will think a thousand times before calling a team an underdog or a minnow. In spite of all the predictions, assumptions, analyses and opinions, the game of cricket will always remain like Pakistan: unpredictable.
(This article first appeared on Firstpost on June 20, 2017)