As both India and Pakistan gear up for Sunday’s final of the ICC Champions Trophy’17 at The Oval, the cricketing world is still in a frenzy over Pakistan’s road to the final. India, the number 3 ranked team coming into the tournament, was expected to reach the semis along with South Africa in Group B consisting of Sri Lanka and Pakistan as the two other teams. However, it’s Pakistan’s journey to the finals that has surprised many, and associate the ever so common adjective of being unpredictable with Pakistan cricket.
Much has been spoken and written about how a team ranked lowest in the tournament, battling the loss its players to charges of corruption (Opener Nasir Jamshed), to fitness issues (middle order batsman Umar Akmal), injury (Wahab Riaz) and what not as is the case with Pakistan cricket, has made it to the finals. Their journey has been so surprising that even when they have produced one of the most clinical displays of the tournament against England, the cricketing fraternity labelled it as unpredictable. For the win came without any drama, nerves, collapse, panic etc which is often related to Pakistan.
But the question arises is how can Pakistan beat India in the all-important final on Sunday? Pakistan historically might have enjoyed greater success over India by winning 72 ODIs as against to India’s 52, but the last time Pakistan beat India at an ICC event was almost 8 years ago in Champions Trophy 2009 in South Africa. Then Pakistan had batted first and scored more than 300 batting first and had won by 50 odd runs to register a clinical victory. That has also been Pakistan’s only victory at ICC events in the last 10 years. However, there’s some respite if you look at overall head to head in the last 10 years with India ahead with a 12-8 record. What must be mentioned is that when these wins came when Pakistan had batting line up comprising of Younus, Misbah and at times Mohammed Yusuf too. While the batting prowess of all the teams have drastically increased over the last 5-7 years, with targets of 300 plus being chased down with relative ease, Pakistan still seems to struggle in this aspect, where fans are not assured of a victory when the target is roundabout 250 or whereabouts.
Still, Pakistan have followed a template in which they have resorted to chasing by restricting the opposition under 250 and have been successful at it except for their opener against India at Edgbaston. Most teams back their stronger suit to take the pressure in the second half of the game, but this is the Pakistan team for a reason. So how can Pakistan beat India in the final?
Generally you don’t change your strategy in a final, but I feel Pakistan would be better suited to batting first than bowling first. India’s batting line-up is arguably the best in the world, and with Ashwin/Bhuvneshwar coming at number 9, even on it’s bad days, you back India to reach 270-280 in an ODI game. Add to that the scoreboard pressure, the pressure of a final game, a few good overs at the beginning by Indian bowlers, and Pakistan batsmen will have the required rate of 6 runs/over in no time. A situation which not many Pakistani batsmen are comfortable with. Add to that the pressure created by Indian fielders and India’s bowling in the middle overs, along with the reluctance of strike rotation of middle order batsmen like Hafeez, the Pakistani batting line up is bound to commit hara-kiri sooner rather than later.
Therefore, Pakistan must bat first and relieve their weaker suit from pressure and hope that they can put up a good score, at least around 280, to have any chance of defending it on a fresh Oval pitch where the average score batting first since the 2015 World Cup has been 293.
The recent runs might not show it, but Shoaib Malik has looked like the most complete batsman in this Pakistani team, who unlike other Pakistani batsmen is adept at strike rotation. The only time during their game versus against India did the Pakistan batsmen showed any intent of chasing the target was when Malik was at the crease and had decided to take the attack the opposition. Even in the match against South Africa, Malik came in made sure that there was no loss of momentum and Pakistan stayed ahead of the DLS target in his innings of 16*(14).
If Malik’s record against India is to be considered, he has scored 1649 runs from 38 innings at an average of 48.50 with 4 hundreds and 16 fifties. Not only that, his highest scores of 143, also came against India. On playing against India at neutral venues, his average goes a touch higher to 49.18, and when he bats at number 3 against India, he scores at an average of 54.92 and a strike rate of almost 95. And guess what, who was the man of the match when Pakistan beat India at centurion in 2009? It was Shoaib Malik who scored 128 off 126 balls who rescued Pakistan from 65-3 with Mohammed Yusuf made sure Pakistan scored above 300.
Babar Azam for all his talent and potential has performed well in the past, but he doesn’t have the experience which Malik has and must come at 4 and make sure he doesn’t eat up balls and keeps the run rate going at around 5 an over, if not more.
Pakistan’s batting order must look like: Fakhar Zaman, Azhar Ali, Shoaib Malik, Babbar Azam, Mohammed Hafeez, followed by Sarfraz Ahmed and Imad Wasim (if fit) and then the bowlers.
Mohammed Hafeez for his all his technical prowess does take up a lot of balls in the middle overs and always strikes at less than 80, something which Pakistan can’t afford against India.
As obvious as it might sound, Pakistan didn’t open the bowling with their two quicks but with Amir and the left arm spinner Imad Wasim, thus giving Indian Openers the time to settle in. If this was not enough, Pakistan decided to drop Junaid Khan, who had dismissed Kohli on all 3 occasions in the bilateral 3 match series played in India in 2012.
Mohammed Amir, who is fit to play in the final, will replace Rumman Raees and has had an impressive record against Rohit Sharma where he dismissed him both in the Asia Cup last right and the subsequent World T20 game in Kolkata. It was also visible to the naked eye that Sharma looked quite tentative against Amir. Whosoever wins the battle between the two, will be doing his team a great benefit.
Also, both these bowlers will able to take the ball away as well as bring it in to the left hander Shikhar Dhawan and will do well to stop the Southpaw, who is all set to take the golden bat trophy irrespective of the result.
First and foremost, Sarfraz Ahmed must make sure that he has Junaid Khan bowling to Kohli first up because of his record against him. Secondly, Kohli likes to take the 10-15 balls to settle in by knocking the ball around and taking singles. South Africa, did well to stop his singles, however, couldn’t induce a rash shot from because of two reasons. One, the target was not steep him to make Kohli worry about dot balls. Two, Shikhar Dhawan at the other end made sure that runs kept coming in the period Kohli hadn’t settled in.
Pakistan must adopt a similar plan and try and cut off the singles for Kohli and make him go over the top. They must have an extra fielder inside the circle for him, though it may leak some runs, but that is the best way to get him out other than hoping that he runs either himself of Rohit out while they are batting together. If a spinner is bowling on one of the ends, Sarfraz must have both mid-off and mid-on than a long-on/long-off.
India will under huge pressure if Kohli falls early in a chase and Pakistan’s confidence, energy, belief etc would have gone up a notch higher.
Though these 3 players haven’t had much of a bat during the entire tournament, Pakistan would do well to not underestimate them either with the bat or the ball. India have been put under pressure twice while fielding in this tournament, that is against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, because both the sides ensured that they attacked one of Pandya/Jadeja, something which Pakistan never did in their match against India.
South Africa too, before coming apart at Oval, had set themselves up beautifully to go after Pandya and put India under pressure but their running let them down and India never looked back. Sri Lanka had been severe on Jadeja as he returned with figures of 0-52 in 6 overs and made sure Pandya went for runs as well as he returned 0-51 in his 7 overs. Jadhav, who turned the tide against Bangladesh, might bowl again as well in the final at some stage, and Pakistan would do well to milk him atleast, if not attack him.
With the bat, they are the reason why the Indian team is confident of chasing down any total as all three have the capability of finishing off the innings well enough for the team and can deliver even if the required rate goes up to 8/over. Pakistan will have to make sure that their death bowling is up to task against them to restrict India to a gettable score or stop them from chasing the target.
On current form, the quality, big match temperament and all other attributes which matter, India should beat Pakistan 9 times out of 10 on Sunday. However, for Pakistan to have a realistic chance of beating India, they would need quite a few things to go their way in order to claim their first Champions Trophy Title.