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Less than a week before he bowled that no-ball at Lord’s in 2010, Mohammad Amir was at the Oval bowling Pakistan to a famous Test win. He took five crucial wickets in England’s second innings before securing victory with the bat. That was the last time he was ‘man of the match’ in an international. And Pakistan let out a huge collective cry of delight. With their teenage sensation at the helm, their cricket seemed to have turned the corner. In little over a year, he was some 125 miles away at a young offenders’ institution serving a six-month sentence for having indulged in corruption.
On Saturday, Amir was back at the Oval on the eve of the Champions Trophy final. Importantly he was fully fit having missed the semi-final against England with an injury and also bowled for quite a bit unhindered in the nets under the hot London sun. Pakistan drew a huge collective sigh of relief. Sunday’s match, of course, is perhaps the biggest and most significant they have played in during the 21st century.
The last time they appeared in the final of an ODI tournament was at the 1999 World Cup. And this is their ultimate chance to turn the corner yet again. It’s only obvious they would need their talisman, now seven years older and a lot wiser, leading the way once more. It only seems apt that we should be back at the Oval.
Amir’s not the only one for whom there’ll be a lot at stake on Sunday. It’s the final of a premier tournament. It features the most divisive rivalry in world cricket, and neither team will be content with anything short of lifting the trophy. Defending their title from four years ago would mean the perfect crowning glory for Virat Kohli’s team as they look to establish themselves as the most dominant team of this era.
It would also ensure the perfect culmination of what has been a glorious year where Indian cricket seems to have turned the corner under their new captain. For Pakistan, like it’s always with their cricket, it’ll be a case of all or nothing.
What would it mean for Pakistan to win the Champions Trophy though? Sarfraz Ahmed & Co came into this tournament as the lowest-ranked team, barely edging out the West Indies. And they lived up to their ranking in their opening game against the same team they’ll face on Sunday. Even as their Test cricket seemed to rise to unprecedented levels, that too briefly, last year; they continued to struggle in the shorter formats. They tried changing captains, they tried changing coaches, they tried changing their line-up and they even kept giving Shahid Afridi many opportunities to come out of retirement. But to no avail. Only Afghanistan, Bangladesh and West Indies had a worse win-rate or won fewer matches than Pakistan since the last Champions Trophy.
Even as Amir returned to the fold having exorcised his demons, Pakistan cricket kept getting riddled with fixing controversies. If the Pakistan Super League was their way of catching up with the rest of the world, it also ended up being the latest platform for their past evils to catch up with them again. They haven’t played a match at “home” for more than eight years and even their decision to bring big high-profile cricket back to Lahore with the PSL final earlier this year was met with great criticism from their own experts. They’re still reeling from having lost the last doyens of an era lost to controversy, chaos and crises.
“You can expect anything from a Pakistan team.” It’s something that’s said incessantly about the Pakistan team, but for many it doesn’t only stand for what they do on the field. Such has been their history. It’s unfortunate, for someone or the other always seems to have a problem with Pakistan, when they lose matches and at times even when they win.
Past cricketers are never too far away from stirring up bizarre hullabaloos. Former captain and selector Aamir Sohail alleged recently that there was “foul play” involved with Pakistan’s victories and that “someone else” had helped Sarfraz and his team win matches. The Pakistan captain’s smile when asked about Sohail’s accusations on Saturday summed up what he thought of them.
A win on Sunday would not just shut the likes of Sohail up; it will also lend a new voice of confidence to Sarfraz Ahmed’s brave new Pakistan team that has laid all pre-tournament predictions to waste with their progress. They have beaten both the No.1 ranked team in the world and also the bookmakers’ favourite to reach the final.
A win might not right all the wrongs back home, but it certainly will give the team and their fans a reason to believe. The last 50-over trophy they won came at the twilight of Imran Khan’s career. An addition to their cabinet on Sunday could well bring in the twilight of a new era.
And Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur didn’t shy away from highlighting what a win could do for his team, and how it could set up their campaign here at the World Cup two years from now.
“For us it’ll just be almost a clincher for us in terms of the brand of cricket we want to play, where we want to take the team.The focus after tomorrow is certainly going to be on the 2019 World Cup,” he said. But like is the case with Pakistan, a loss could easily just wipe out all that they have achieved over the last couple of weeks. It’s just that fickle.
This is not to say that India will take a defeat on their chin and move on, even if that’s exactly what Kohli said they would. Over the last 10 months, Kohli and coach Anil Kumble have developed an aura around their team across all formats by playing complete cricket. They have got to this point, being on the verge of world domination, by creating a core group of talented individuals who all seem to buy into the team ethos. They have managed to find a group of batsmen to rival the much-publicized golden era from a decade ago and possess the most formidable and well-rounded pace attack ever in their cricket history.
They have a captain who leads from the front in more ways than one and a former one behind the stumps who still remains keen to manage the reins on the field. The transformation had commenced in 2013 when they won here. Four years on it is complete. Becoming the first team since Australia to defend a Champions Trophy crown on Sunday will be their “clincher” as well. Either way, history will be made. While one team could turn the tide, the other might just rise higher with it.
Live on Star Sports: 3pm