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It was predicted to be a one-sided match. And for once, the first Champions Trophy semi-final lived up to the billing. Only the roles were reversed. England came on the back of three comprehensive victories in the league stage. Pakistan, on the other hand, reached the last four with a mixture of pluck and luck, and as the team never tires of mentioning, some divine intervention as well.
The way the hosts had been playing, Sarfraz Ahmed and his boys needed to play the perfect match. They did that, and then some, bowling out the tournament favourites for a grossly inadequate 211, and then cantered to the target with as many as 77 balls and eight wickets to spare in front of a Cardiff crowd which seemed more South Asian than British.
The crowd representation and the used pitch even prompted England skipper Eoin Morgan to remark that there was no home advantage in the semi-final. With India and Bangladesh set to fight for the right to face Pakistan in the final, the Champions Trophy has now turned into another version of the Asia Cup.
As victories go, it was a totally un-Pakistan-like win with none of the usual drama and tension usually seen when the team chases a modest total. Azhar Ali played the steady hand, which he is very adept at, while Fakhar Zaman took the attack to the England bowlers with some audacious, unorthodox and fortuitous shots. Their century partnership settled the contest for all intents and purposes. Babar Azam and Mohammad Hafeez then completed the formalities against a dispirited attack.
For all the improvement England have made in the 50-over format since the 2015 World Cup, they have had very little to show in the results column. They have often been built up as contenders for major honours, but more often than not, have suffered stage-fright on the big day.
Bowlers set up victory
Pakistan did not have the services of Mohammad Amir — out with a back spasm — but debutant left-armer Rumman Raees stepped into the breach admirably. Hasan Ali has been a revelation in the tournament with his skiddy pace, control and variations. Junaid Khan, as the most experienced member of the pace trio, played his part as Pakistan never allowed the long and explosive England batting line-up to get away. Leg-spinner Shadab Khan got rid of the prolific Joe Root. Even the other two spinners, ‘local boy’ Imad Wasim and Hafeez, were hard to get away.
As expected, Jonny Bairstow replaced the out-of-form Jason Roy at the top of the order, and was saved by the infamous ‘umpire’s call’ in the first over itself when Junaid had him trapped ‘almost’ in front. The Yorkshireman scored 43 but it did not help his team on the day, whereas England were on a winning spree with the struggling Roy in the XI. May be, he was their lucky charm!
England were 128/2 in the 28th over, set for a total of at least 280, but Pakistan have been adept at taking wickets in the middle overs in this tournament, and they hit the home team repeatedly. Morgan and Ben Stokes played slow and torturous innings and were dis missed trying to hit out in frustration.
The Pakistan fielding, which can be as mercurial as the team itself, had one of its better days, with Zaman taking a splendid catch in the outfield to get rid of Moeen Ali, and Adil Rashid run out with a direct hit by substitute Ahmed Shehzad.