Synchronised Pakistan trample England to reach final

Fifties from Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman after unarguably Pakistan’s finest performance with the ball in Champions Trophy 2017 helped Sarfraz Ahmed’s side to a crushing eight-wicket defeat of hosts England, and hence the passage to the final, on Wednesday (June 14).

Sarfraz started the day with the bold move of opting to bowl first on a dry Cardiff surface on a warm and sunny day, and went on to make smart and instinctive bowling changes, with his bowlers supporting his moves well by stepping up in unison. The pace attack, minus their leader Mohammad Amir, started well, the spin triumvirate kept up the pressure by applying the choke through the middle and the bowlers’ refusal to relent or afford England even an inch of comfort during the death overs set the game up nicely for them.

In a pleasant turn of events for Pakistan, their batsmen responded well to the enormous toil put in by the bowlers. With only 212 to defend, early wickets was the prerogative for England, or pushing Pakistan into an ultra-defensive shell and generating scoreboard pressure, the next best alternative. The attempt to force the latter was thwarted as early as in the fourth ball of the innings, when a top-edge off a Fakhar Zaman pull landed in the stands for the first six of the game.

Zaman continued to front his adventurous side against England’s desperation, stepping out at every opportunity. Mark Wood and Jake Ball tested the left-hander’s temperament against the short ball, but returned empty-handed early on as Zaman refused to back down, even if it meant taking a hit flush on the helmet. Zaman’s ability to keep England bowlers thinking and re-thinking their plans meant Azhar Ali’s typically cautious start didn’t hurt Pakistan’s scoring rate too much.

Ben Stokes and Liam Plunkett, the second batch of England’s fast bowlers, couldn’t find a way to bring Pakistan’s cruise ship to a halt, as they bled 32 runs in the four overs they bowled in tandem. Even after Zaman had convincingly blunted England’s bouncer-ploy against him, Morgan’s bowlers kept digging it short and, expectedly, drawing blanks.

With time, even Azhar found a smart way of dealing with such deliveries – by getting in line of the ball and pulling it down towards fine leg. Introduction of spin too couldn’t capture Zaman’s free-spirit straightaway, as he completed his second successive half-century in the 17th over. Azhar may have not matched Zaman’s flamboyance on the day, but his dogged, survival approach added to Pakistan’s essay as he too brought up a vital half-century. Soon enough, however, England saw a faint hope flicker to life when Zaman lost his balance while trying to put away a smart wrong ‘un from Adil Rashid and walked back stumped for a 58-ball 57.

Much to England’s chagrin, the breakthrough couldn’t quite help them carve the Bangladesh line-up open and orchestrate a comeback. With the asking rate just over a modest three runs an over, there was no urgency to the next partnership – between Babar Azam and Azhar – that followed. The only real risk in their brisk 55-run stand came when Azam stepped out and carved a Rashid delivery for a six.

Even as Ball’s well-disguised slower bouncer ended Azhar’s match-winning essay and snapped a 55-run second-wicket stand, the inevitability of England’s ouster from the tournament was palpable. Mohammad Hafeez and Azam carried the baton forward with aplomb, dispatching poor and free-hit balls for sixes. As a smiling Mickey Arthur, looking a lot calmer than his version from the last fixture against Sri Lanka, watched from the balcony, Hafeez and Babar took Pakistan over the line in the 38th over.

A cake walk to the final would’ve been an ambitious dream for Pakistan ahead of the game against England, considering they were up against one of the tournament favourites. But like Eoin Morgan had warily said at the toss, England’s mercurial opposition were capable of upstaging any team on their day. It was indeed one of such days, but mainly so because of the hard yards put in by the bowlers.

In Amir’s absence, debutant Rumman Raees blended in well into Pakistan’s bowling plans, that initially revolved around frustrating Alex Hales with a straighter line and length that didn’t allow the England opener to dominate early – something he has rather enjoyed doing in the 50-over format in recent times. Soon enough, he bit the bullet and tried to find a way out, only to gift Raees his maiden ODI scalp. The big occasion did not seem to overwhelm Sarfraz, as he made swift bowling changes and struck gold on almost each occasion.

With England brushing aside an early wicket and marching to a brisk score by the 10th over, Sarfraz unfurled his next trump card – employing spin from both ends and getting Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan to tie down the batsmen with flat trajectories. Another attack-minded batter – Jonny Bairstow – was thus consumed.

Morgan and Joe Root’s partnership was characterised by a period of lull, when the boundaries dried up completely as Sarfraz threw the ball to Hafeez, whose spin bowling too was bereft of any flight. The partnership between Morgan and Root was building but hardly at a pace they’d have liked, as Shadab and Hafeez kept tightening the noose. They bowled eight overs in tandem from the 23rd, during which Root’s attempt to cut a shortish ball from Shadab resulted in the former’s return to the pavilion, caught behind for an uncharacteristic 56-ball 46.

Such was Pakistan bowlers’ propensity that even Stokes couldn’t bring about an upturn in England’s fortunes. Hasan and Junaid foiled his hopes of teeing off, England could only make 36 runs between the 30th and the 40th over. If Zaman’s phenomenal catching effort at deep square leg to dismiss Moeen in the 39th over wasn’t evidence enough, there was a lot more to suggest that Pakistan’s stars were continuing to align perfectly.

Raees lived up to his reputation of being a resourceful death bowler, smartly dropping the pace on the ball and unfurling his cutters frequently. In complete contrast to the lofty expectations, Stokes (34 off 64 balls) suffered perhaps his worst outing with the bat, earning an ignominous statistic of facing most deliveries without scoring a boundary in the history of Champions Trophy, before becoming Hasan Ali’s third wicket of the day.

England set Pakistan a paltry target of 212, which the latter polished off with eight wickets and 77 balls to spare and now await the victors of India vs Bangladesh.

Brief Scores: England 211 in 49.5 overs (Joe Root 46, Jonny Bairstow 43; Hasan Ali 3-35, Junaid Khan 2-42) lost to Pakistan 215/2 in 37.1 overs (Azhar Ali 76, Fakhar Zaman 57; Adil Rashid 1-54) by eight wickets.

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