2017 – The year when I saw my heroes become Champions!

2017 – The year where I saw my heroes become Champions!
Shukriya Pakistan

Pakistan were to face their biggest challenge of 2017, the Champions Trophy. Pakistan had barely made it to the tournament, they were rated as the worst side of the whole tournament and rightly so as they were the bottom-ranked team at eighth in the ICC ODI team ranking. They had an inexperienced captain with a new team combination. There were statements like ‘We have nothing to lose’ from the skipper himself. To be honest, Pakistan were expected to take a flight back to home after the group stage. Their warm-up match against Bangladesh made it more obvious where they managed a win by just two-wickets courtesy of an unknown all-rounder then, Faheem Ashraf. Pakistan’s second practice match against Australia was abandoned due to rain and their next stop was facing India in the inaugural game of the Champions Trophy.

I was nervous. It was one of those moments where I was actually not sure whether I should be excited about watching a Pakistan vs India game or I should be concerned about how embarrassing the outcome could be. Indians were super confident, they were trolling Pakistan team and their fans on social media like anything. Their former cricketers were calling Pakistan game a walk in the park. Their actors were getting loud-mouthed ahead of the contest.

Pakistan won the toss and decided to bowl first. India were not outclass on the day, but, Pakistan were extraordinarily poor. It seemed like they got numbed as soon as they stepped into the field. There were misfields, miscalculations, extras and in short everything against them. Four of the five Indian batsmen who batted, struck a half-century. Pakistan were given a mammoth target of 320. The revised target due to D/L method was 289 in 41 overs. I had lost all hopes. There were Ramadan, so I was praying every second for my team’s victory, but unfortunately, my prayers alone could not give Pakistan a win.

I was broken, I logged into social media and all I could see were curses for my players and trolling from Indian fans. It seemed like we are some kind of minnows. I rushed to my old cricket collection and fetched out posters of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam Ul Haq. I stared them as I wanted to them to gear up once again and become our saviours, I was recalling how Indian cricket used to fear our mavericks, but the time had changed. It was not easy to be a fan of Pakistan cricket anymore, I was losing the belief inside, it was all humiliation, broken heart and depression.

Pakistan were up against another challenge, South Africa, the top-ranked ODI side of the world at that time. Despite all the pain I went through a couple of days back, I was again in front of television, hoping against the hopes to see Pakistan win. We Pakistan cricket fans are actually stubborn, we do not give up supporting our team. Pakistan team has a quality of either destroying the opponents or destroying themselves. Fortunately, the Pakistan side that turned out that day was the conquerors.

They bundled up the batting line-up that had names like Quinton De Kock, Hashim Amla, Faf Du Plessis, AB De Villiers, David Miller and JP Duminy for just 219 runs. I could see the glimpses of old Pakistan team, the team that had passion, intend as well as skills. I was seeing the rise of new heroes in the likes of Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan and Fakhar Zaman. The former Navy sailor gave Pakistan a flying start and it seemed like Pakistan will just run through South African bowling attack. But, my team does not enjoy a win unless they give their fans some minor heart attacks. Pakistan lost a couple of quick wickets which made the contest interesting, however, at the end they won the match by 19 runs with D/L method.

To advance to the playoffs, Pakistan had to tame the Lankan Lions in their third contest of the group stage. Earlier in the tournament, Sri Lanka had absolutely dominated India, where they defeated them by seven wickets.

Pakistan bowlers were in top form, they did not let Sri Lankan team to play freely and kept striking on regular intervals. Junaid Khan and Hasan Ali struck thrice in the inning, whereas, Mohammad Amir and the debutante Faheem Ashraf took one wicket each to restrict Sri Lanka to a low total of 236 runs. When Pakistan came out to chase, Fakhar Zaman was off to a flier. I was missing this flamboyance from Pakistani openers for long, I was questioning where was Zaman hiding for so many years, seeing him play strokes like those was delightful. He gave Pakistan a solid opening stand of 74 runs before falling after scoring a half-century. As soon as he lost his wicket, I was hoping not to see a batting collapse. My fear got reality as Pakistan went downhill from 74/1 to 137/6.

The end of Pakistan’s Champions Trophy journey looked obvious. However, there was more action left in the game. Pakistan team’s chase can be more thrilling than the best of Hollywood’s thrillers. Sarfraz Ahmed, who is known as a fighting character, joined hands with Mohammad Amir to take Pakistan to an unbelievable victory.

Pakistan team was in the semi-final and I started to dream of seeing my team in the white blazers with the trophy in Sarfraz’s hands. However, I did not want to be overexcited as Pakistan’s next opponent was England, who were in the ruthless mood.

England were one of the favourites to win the tournament. They were unbeaten in the campaign and they definitely had an edge of being the home team. Just before the start of play, the news came out that Mohammad Amir has suffered an injury and he is out of the team. I was worried, he was a key component of the side. However, his niggle gave Rumman Raees, the find of PSL 2016, a chance to showcase his skills. And as they say, Pakistan has plenty of pace bowling talent and Rumman is one of such.

With the start of play in Cardiff, Pakistani bowlers gave nothing away to English batsmen. They were disciplined and kept it tight, which eventually resulted in poor shots from the Englishmen and wickets for the Men in Green. They kept a player like Ben Stokes quiet for 64 deliveries, where he could not score a single boundary. Pakistan, who conceded the highest ever ODI total of 444 against England last year, restricted them to just 211 runs.

Once again, Fakhar Zaman started off the proceedings in a blistering manner and scored a run-a-ball 57 runs. On the other hand, Azhar Ali also stepped up and contributed 76 runs. Very unlike Pakistan chase, there were no hiccups as Pakistan chased down the total at a loss of just two wickets in 37.1 overs.

On the other hand, India had defeated Bangladesh in the second semi-final convincingly, which had set up a dream final, Pakistan vs India.

There was too much tension in the air. Fans from both the sides were on fire, they were not leaving a moment to attack each other on the social media. The whole mainstream media was involved in the contest, there were nerves everywhere. Indians were thinking that there team can easily replicate the performance they put up on June 4. Whereas, Pakistani fans were also up for the challenged and believed June 18 will be a different day and the way their team has crushed their opponents in the last couple of games, they can do the same to the arch-rivals. There was a debate of superiority, there was the war of words everywhere.

Then came the big day, probably every Pakistani and Indian was ready to get involved in the action. It will not be false to say that Pakistanis were hoping for a miracle as India had got better of their team in the last many meetings.

India won the toss and elected to bowl first. I saw a confident Sarfraz Ahmed out there in the toss, almost mimicking the gestures of great Imran Khan during the final of World Cup 1992. On the other hand, Virat Kohli was also poised as experts had said that even if India play up to half of their potential, they can beat Pakistan easily.

Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman came out to open the inning, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah started with the new ball. Pakistani batsmen were nervous, their feet were not moving, and they could not time it. Bumrah came to bowl and managed an edge of Fakhar Zaman that was easily caught by MS Dhoni behind the stumps. My heart sank, I did not want to see another humiliating defeat at the hands of India. As I was mourning over the dismissal, umpire stopped Zaman to check the legality of the delivery and it turned out to be a no-ball. The Pakistani crowd roared so did I. There was no looking back for Zaman afterward, he made the most out of that opportunity and struck a magnificent century. He became Pakistan’s heart throbbing hero within no time. Apart from him, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam and Mohammad Hafeez also ripped apart Indian bowling line. Pakistan posted a mountainous target for India in the big final of 339 runs.

I was over the moon, the win for Pakistan looked almost certain, but Indian batting line can never be underestimated, so I was still hoping for the best.

It was once again, Rohit Sharma facing ‘an ordinary bowler’ Mohammad Amir, who had not let him move in the past in any encounter between the two. The left-arm came to bowl, fires an in-swinging delivery and Rohit Sharma was trapped in front of the stumps, umpire gave it out and the celebrations were off. I was screaming my heart out. However, Kohli was still left, he had just came out to bat. Amir tested him with a couple of deliveries and finally got an edge, which went to the first slip and dropped by Azhar Ali. I punched on the wall in disgust, how someone can drop Kohli in such a crunch game. I felt like we have dropped the trophy here.

Amir once again came in running, bowled another beautiful delivery that Kohli edged it to the point and caught by Shadab Khan. I relished the lines from English commentator Nasser Hussain ‘Pakistan cricket at its best, one minute down next minute up!’

Amir had not delivered to the expectation throughout the tournament, but he stepped up on the big occasion and blew away Indian top order single-handedly. The rest of the job was completed by Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan and Junaid Khan, who took 3, 2 and 1 wicket respectively. Pakistan registered their biggest win, by 180 runs, against India, it was also the biggest win in terms of runs in an ICC event final.

My team bowed down at The Oval to thank their Lord. I was witnessing the scenes that I once dreamed of. I was excited, emotional and proud at the same time. It is impossible to predict what Pakistan will do, if you think you can predict them, you are yet to understand Pakistan cricket. As I said above, it was tough to be a fan of Pakistan cricket, but all those humiliations, pains, heartbreaks paid off at the end. I will always remember 2017 as the year when I saw my heroes become Champions!