KARACHI: For man-of-the-match Mohammad Hafeez, it was a “total team effort.” For his squad members, it was a chance to flip the script and make up for the humiliation of the West Indies skittling Pakistan out for a paltry 105 three days ago.
But most important for Pakistan, the stunning triumph Monday against World Cup hosts and tournament favorites England confirmed that not only is there no other team like Pakistan in world cricket, there might not be any other team like Pakistan in all sports.
Trying to make sense of Pakistan’s many odds-defying victories by using exotic, mystical, often reductive troupes, and calling their team unpredictable and irrational, is nothing new. In a piece describing each of the ten teams participating in the ICC World Cup 2019, Sri Lankan journalist Andrew Fernando, wrote: “It is clearly orientalist to label Pakistan ‘mercurial’, because they are merely a talented team that sometimes underperforms.” And yet, time and again, Pakistan have come “from nowhere to win, leaving us reporters no choice but to hail the glorious, mystical, voodoo of Pakistan, making racists out of us all,” Fernando concluded, referring to a long history of Pakistan starting out at global tournaments as underdogs, only to end up delivering results that defied all logical explanation.
So how else would you explain Monday’s match in Nottingham? How do you describe other than as ‘mercurial’ or ‘unpredictable’ a victory that goes against so much logic and a team whose performance can switch from the shambolic to the sublime in a matter of days? “What we’re left with is what we’re so often left with, with Pakistan,” ESPNcricinfo senior editor Osman Samiuddin wrote in a match review on Monday: “A great big tangle of threads that can’t be untangled, unless its Pakistan, in a specific moment in time, doing the untangling.”
To put into context just how unlikely Monday’s win was, just take a look at the statistics:
Pakistan has lost its last 11 one-day internationals, and an unofficial match against Afghanistan also; they lost four games in a row in an ODI series against England last month; and they just posted the tournament’s lowest score in their last match against the West Indies.
England, on the other hand, have not lost a single game in the past four years when chasing at home; they have successfully chased 300-run targets more times in the last four years than the second and third teams combined; and no team has ever lost a World Cup match in which it also scored two centurions, as England’s Joe Root and Jos Buttler did on Monday.
And as if the odds weren’t already stacked up against Pakistan, the team decided to complicate matters further with their tactics and execution. Pakistan’s think-tank upended two years of much touted development for the World Cup by panicking at the last minute and bringing in players based on reputation rather than the stated criteria of fitness or outstanding numbers. Both Wahab Riaz and arguably Mohammad Amir, who starred today, benefited from that panic. Also, despite much evidence to the contrary regarding the tactic’s effectiveness, the team chose to drop a bowler to strengthen their batting, thereby weakening their main strength by keeping Shoaib Malik in the side despite his terrible numbers dictating he should be dropped.
Similarly, the data overwhelmingly shows that Pakistan’s captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed, should bat at 4, and not in the final overs; he did both today. Playing part-timers against the world’s best batting lineup at the world’s most batting friendly ground — as Pakistan did on Monday — had led them to concede a world record score not so long back.
Yet, Pakistan still got all of the above decisions ‘wrong’. And if that wasn’t enough, the team seemed to be dropping catches for fun. While England also had an uncharacteristically poor day in the field, advanced analytics from Cricviz showed that despite the drops, their overall efforts gained them an extra 20 runs while Pakistan’s fielding cost them 18 runs.
Still, somehow, every single thing worked out for Pakistan. In the face of all the numbers, data, logic or the lack thereof, Pakistan’s team just seemed to laugh and walk through to the other side. Had they played this match another 99 times, it is highly liked this England team, the strongest ODI side in the world, would have won. But somehow, on Monday, Pakistan came out the winners.
This isn’t, after all, the first time. As Fernando’s words made clear, this has become Pakistan’s label: the team that defies odds, quite literally, time and again, rising from nowhere to grab all the glory. There are many teams that have their ups and downs, whose performances ebb and flow, but the one thing that sets Pakistan cricket apart is that the up and the down are never far apart. Despite winning a global cricket tournament in each of the last three decades, the team has never really had a spell of sustained dominance at any point. And while there are many teams that defy odds regularly, there are none that yo-yo so regularly, so predictably and so consistently from one day to the next.
It was in the aftermath of this win that I was reminded of the matter/antimatter symmetry problem — a fancy of way of saying that as far as we understand it, the universe shouldn’t exist. As per the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, “during the first fractions of a second of the Big Bang, the hot and dense universe was buzzing with particle-antiparticle pairs. If matter and antimatter are created and destroyed together, it seems that the universe should contain nothing but leftover energy. Nevertheless, a tiny portion of matter – about one particle per billion – managed to survive.”
That statistically improbable particle has created all of the universe and time, created everything we know — created you and me. That particle was created in a moment that should likely have never happened — yet it did.
Pakistan beating England in Monday’s match was a moment that also likely should never have happened — yet it did.
“Don’t worry about England — they’ll be fine. Probably,” the Guardian wrote on its live blog of Monday’s match. “Today, however, is not about them; it’s about the most exhilarating team in the history of sport. Pakistan Zindabad!”