Champions Trophy 2017: Pakistan and Sri Lanka are two sides of the same coin
In the 43rd over of the South African innings on 7 June, Pakistan’s Hasan Ali held a simple catch at long on to dismiss Chris Morris in an ICC Champions Trophy match. Six overs later, Kagiso Rabada hit the ball to the deep and Ali ran 20 yards in from long on to complete another catch.
It was superbly done, and the fielder stood with arms outstretched, egging on the cheering fans. He knew that the spilled chance against India—he dropped Yuvraj Singh (when he was on 9; he made 53)—would be a thing of the past. South Africa were restricted to 219 for eight wickets, and Pakistan made a rousing comeback from the brink, after their 124-run loss against India.
There was something different about Pakistan that day—it was a concerted effort to improve every facet, starting with the fielding. It was almost as if they were trying hard to look like a team and not a bunch of random individuals wearing the same coloured jersey.
“We did nothing different really. We didn’t even practise fielding drills as it was raining for two days in the build-up to the South Africa game,” said Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, after the win.
It was a statement that induced much laughter in the post-match conference, but it summed up Pakistan cricket. This team is much like the English weather, perhaps even more unpredictable. You just don’t know what to expect.
Except when they are playing India, that is. Gone are the days of Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Saeed Anwar, batsmen of resolve who could match their Indian counterparts blow for blow. The current Pakistani lot is too mentally weak to turn it up on the big day (against India). It is akin to what pressure does to South Africa, a self-induced choke.
It has had a severe impact on this age-old rivalry. So much so, Pakistan’s last victory against India in an International Cricket Council event came eight years ago, when they won at Centurion in the 2009 Champions Trophy. The overall number of wins stands at two, the other win also coming in the 2004 edition of this tournament (at Birmingham).
“We are No.8 (in ICC One Day International rankings), so we have nothing to lose,” skipper Ahmed had said in his pre-tournament press conference in Edgbaston. It was an odd statement, given that a week later, coach Mickey Arthur used the same ranking (moving from No.9 in 2016-17) as a parameter of progress after the loss to India.
Much of this comes down to lack of leadership, both on the field as well as in batting. In 2015, Pakistan lost both Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. Afridi played his last match then too, and although he was never a reliable batsman, you could expect him to pull his weight on the field. The same cannot be said of the likes of Mohammad Hafeez or Shoaib Malik, their more experienced batsmen at present.
However, it isn’t like Pakistan are the only team suffering from a downturn in experience, and fortunes. Neighbours Sri Lanka are in the same boat, with the loss of Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara. But their approach is vastly different from that of their subcontinental neighbours, with coach Graham Ford and skipper Angelo Mathews undertaking an intense rebuilding job.
The key difference is in thinking. While Pakistan wilted against India, Lanka were audacious even when faced with a 322-run target, and won. It was a stunning upset last Thursday, one that turned this tournament in England upside down. And Lanka’s adventurism came to the fore—though it didn’t work on Monday, when Lanka lost to Pakistan and the latter went through to the semi-finals.
Never mind their inexperience in English conditions, Lanka have approached this tournament differently—they are the only team to attack in the first 10 overs.
Chasing 300, they attacked South Africa from the word go, but failed on 3 June. Five days later, they still attacked India, keeping up the pressure on bowlers even more than in their last game, and succeeded. It is a side lacking in experience, but they are learning from failure.
“Every single game is an opportunity and an experience to learn. We have got a young set of players who are still coming through the ranks and who are still unfamiliar with the international level, but the skill is obviously there. We know what we can do. We showed that the other day (against India),” said Mathews, as his side prepared for a do-or-die clash against Pakistan in Cardiff on 12 June.
In the end then, the fate of these two countries boils down to their batting talent. Lanka have Danushka Gunathilaka (76 off 72 balls against India) and Kusal Mendis (89 off 93 balls against India) as investments for the future. Niroshan Dickwella (41 off 33 balls against South Africa) and Asela Gunaratne (34 off 21 balls against India; also smacked 52 off 37 and 84 off 46 balls against Australia in two Twenty20 Internationals earlier in February) provide firepower at both ends of the batting line-up. It could yet come around with Mathews as the focal point, as the skipper showed in the superlative run-chase against India.
Pakistan too have Babar Azam, the 22-year-old who matched the joint record of Vivian Richards, Kevin Pietersen and Quinton de Kock in crossing 1,000 One Day International runs in just 21 innings. He already has the No.3 spot sewn up in that batting order.
Only time will tell though if he follows the path traversed by Misbah and Younis, or falls short, like Umar Akmal. The staunchest supporters across India’s border will be hoping for the former outcome.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.