On Sunday, exactly two weeks after the first time these two cricket teams played each other in the tournament, they will face off for the last time – with a lot more at stake. Much has happened in these two weeks. For starters, that was the first and last match Pakistan lost in this Champions Trophy. They were demolished so comprehensively that it came as a shock that India then chose to get demolished by a weak Sri Lankan team three days after that. It made no sense – almost as much as the fact that Pakistan went on to win a rain-curtailed game against the mighty South Africa. Then they were somehow cobbling together an eighth wicket partnership for the ages against Sri Lanka and sneaking through to the semifinal. It also made no sense that Pakistan then outplayed England at every level in the semifinal.
That’s the beauty of it all. That’s the beauty of Pakistan or West Indies in ICC tournaments. They just happen. The matches are always in their hands, dependent on their moods and not the opponents’. Nothing made sense – except, perhaps, India reaching the final to face their old rivals.
This will be the first ever World ODI final between the two teams, with them having played just one final before this – the classic 2007 World T20 final.
Except for the blip against the Lankans, the defending champions have been the strongest team in the tournament. It was supposed to be England’s trophy, but they wilted in the wrong game – a knockout match against Pakistan. In contrast, India got their bad game out of the way early on at the best possible stage. They now seem to be in auto mode, carrying off from where they left off four years ago. This is their fourth final in the last five ICC tournaments – establishing themselves as the new big-tournament team, taking over from an inconsistent Australia.
Everyone is firing. They have the two top scorers of the tournament – their openers, Shikhar Dhawan and now Rohit Sharma. Virat Kohli is back in sublime form, too. He needed a chase to get going. Yuvraj Singh is always available, but hasn’t had much to do except in the first game. Even Kedar Jadhav finally made a telling contribution – but with the ball! His two wickets against Bangladesh turned the tide. With the ball, Bhuvneshwar Kumar is doing what he was always expected to do in England – taking top order wickets. Jasprit Bumrah has transcended his bad luck to take more wickets. Ravindra Jadeja has been economical, and became the highest wicket-taker in Champions Trophy cricket with his wicket against Bangladesh. The fielding and catching has improved after the disaster against Pakistan early on. Kohli’s captaincy has matured too.
Arguably India’s finest bowler of the season, Umesh Yadav has been on the bench for the last two games to include an extra spinner in R. Ashwin. Ashwin hasn’t been as effective as his captain might have expected, and has even been a bit clumsy on the field. Yadav bowled very well against Pakistan the first time around with three wickets, and they’d do well to include him in the final at the Oval. With an extra bowling option in Jadhav now, perhaps Ashwin isn’t needed in ODI cricket unless Jadeja goes woefully out of form.
Nobody expected Pakistan to be in the final. They are ranked 8th in the world, and have been one of the poorest ODI teams over the last few seasons, in contrast to its test form. Yet here they are, playing their first ever Champions Trophy final in their eighth appearance – a tournament they almost didn’t qualify for because of Bangladesh’s terrific form over the last two years. Instead, they shunted West Indies into 9th, and now find themselves on the cusp of the most unexpected history – the only kind of history Pakistan make.
Nippy pacer Hasan Ali has bossed the middle overs like few before him this tournament. He has nine wickets since that India game, and has been Pakistan’s best bowler on show. Even the incoming Rumman Raees, who replaced an injured Mohammed Amir, bowled very competently against England. And perhaps the biggest blessing in disguise for the team has been Wahab Riaz’s early injury. The inclusion of Junaid Khan has been a blessing for them. The spinners Imad Wasim and teenager Shadab Khan have been tremendously controlled and economical in the middle overs too. The batting finally clicked for a single game – the most important game against England. Aggressive opener Fakhar Zaman, who replaced the overrated Ahmed Shehzad, has been a revelation, hitting quick fifties and getting them the starts they lacked sorely. Azhar Ali has been slow and steady, while captain Sarfraz Ahmed won them the thriller against an awful Lankan side.
Surprisingly, it’s the seniors who really haven’t stepped up yet. Mohammad Hafeez has struggled to make a telling contribution, but steadied the boat decently against England. The in-form Shoaib Malik has wasted his form, and he will definitely come into play against the Indians. The fielding has been inconsistent, despite the occasional brilliance against a shocked English side. The problem is that Pakistan always seems to let the occasion get to them whenever they play India in a big tournament. They’ve rarely defeated their rivals when it counts over the last decade – a role reversal from India suffering at the hands of Pakistan for two decades. This time, they will truly have to play like they have nothing to lose. Or, in short, like Pakistan.
Prediction: The heart says India. The mind says India. Irrespective of which Pakistan decides to show up.
OTHER EVENTS THIS WEEKEND
US Open Golf
The second Major of the calendar year is underway at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. Sergio Garcia won The Masters a few months ago. The favorites this time are Rickie Fowler, World no. 1 Dustin Johnson, Rory Mcllroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth.
Roger Federer made his comeback to competitive tennis after two months. He lost in the first round to 39-year-old compatriot Tommy Haas in his first grass-court match of the season at Stuttgart. Federer will now head into Halle – his Wimbledon warm-up tournament, before launching a bid to win his 8th title at the SW19 later this month. Rafael Nadal will not play at Queens, and will rest his tired legs before playing on grass directly at Wimbledon.
29-ranked Indian shuttler HS Prannoy pulled off the shock of the season, defeating World no. 3 and Malaysian legend Lee Chong Wei in straight sets to enter the quarterfinals of the Indonesian Super Series. Kidambi Srikanth, too, entered the quarters on his side by beating the Danish player, Jan Jorgensen. The final will be held this Sunday.