Cornered tigers face down rampant lions..
1. Applying the squeeze
The areas where England should be able to dominate Pakistan are fielding and running between the wickets. Those two factors should add up to a 25-30 run sway in England’s favour. Throughout the tournament England have been very consistent in the field.
Even quick bowlers such as Jake Ball are decent fielders who are able to get down quickly to save runs. England have taken most of their catches and been agile in the field. If Jonny Bairstow plays he will lift the standard even further. He has good movement and catches brilliantly.
England should be able to squeeze Pakistan. Their batsmen like to play a lot of dot balls. Azhar Ali, Mohammad Hafeez and Babar Azam are good players but they chew up balls because compared with England’s batsmen they do not run well between the wickets. They are not alert to the ones and twos.
To say that the Champions Trophy has reached its knockout stage would do a gross disservice to the journey back from oblivion that one of Wednesday’s contenders has already had to make.
If you’d surveyed the wreckage around Edgbaston after Pakistan’s lamentable defeat against India in their opening Group B game, you would have seen a side living down to their ranking of No. 8 in the world, and beating a hasty path towards the first available flight to Lahore. Wahab Riaz’s bowling figures, Imad Wasim’s duck. The sea of resigned faces in the stands. Nothing about Pakistan’s performance left any room for hope at all. But now, just look at them go!
A rain-affected win against South Africa was a huge step on the road to recovery, but let’s be frank. Not even “Chacha Pakistan” would have bet his best shalwar kameez on his boys completing that run-chase without assistance from the heavens. And, as if to prove the point, there was Group B’s frantic, fraught, deluded finale in Cardiff, where Pakistan and Sri Lanka clawed for runs and wickets as if fighting to escape from a tar-pit.
But at the death, Pakistan emerged triumphant, with their captain Sarfraz Ahmed rising above the nonsense, and now, after less than 48 hours to hose themselves down, they face an England team that looks scarily fixated on that elusive maiden 50-over trophy.
With the solitary exception of the hapless Jason Roy, England’s cricketers are in a formidable vein of collective form. Their batting has depth and resilience – witness the stirring revival from 35 for 3 against Australia – while their bowling, potentially a weak area going into the tournament, has come roaring into form, with Mark Wood‘s up-and-at-’em variations providing a priceless cutting edge in the middle overs, alongside Liam Plunkett‘s canny deck-hitting and Adil Rashid‘s googly-dominant legspin. All the signs point to a comfortable progression. And yet … and yet …
Despite being the only unbeaten side in the tournament, England have slipped behind India as the official favourites – thanks in no small part, you suspect, to Pakistan’s essential unknowability. Which of their myriad outfits will report for duty in Cardiff? The subjugated rabble who failed to front up against India, or the unstoppable force who, at one stage of their Group B shootout, claimed four wickets for six runs to leave Sri Lanka in tatters?
And for those who fancy an omen or two … it is 25 years since England were last in possession of a one-day team that, irrespective of the rankings, genuinely looked to be the best in the world. At the 1992 World Cup, Graham Gooch’s men had pushed Pakistan to the brink of elimination in their group-stage encounter at Adelaide, bowling them out for 74, only for rain to save the day. Within the month, Imran Khan had galvanised his cornered tigers to secure his country’s finest hour.
Predict the unpredictable. It’s all you can dare to do when Pakistan get into this sort of mood.