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Predictable unpredictability is Pakistan's strength

So often Pakistan's weakness, their unpredictability could be their biggest strength against England in Cardiff

No team flirts with the emotions of their fans quite like Pakistan.

One moment they are brilliant, the next they are miserable. Their performances fluctuate between these two extremes like a pendulum and the emotions of their fans go with them.

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One day they can lose a game to their biggest rivals by 124 runs, the next they can trump the world number one team and hand the world's No.1 batsman his maiden golden duck.

Their fluctuating performances were on full display in their virtual quarter-final against Sri Lanka in Cardiff on Monday, where they made a victory target of 237 look like an uphill battle despite being 0-74 at one stage.

Pakistan through to semis in Cardiff thriller

Pakistan are ranked No.8 in the ICC ODI rankings and are the lowest seed at the Champions Trophy. They're ranked so low that their automatic berth in the next Cricket World Cup is yet to be confirmed. And they barely made the cut for this Champions Trophy as well.

But two years on, they're into the semi-finals ahead of world’s No.1 team, South Africa, and the finalists from the last World Cup, Australia and New Zealand.

Not even their most optimistic follower would have predicted that.

But that's Pakistan; the most unpredictable side the game has ever known.

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"Nobody was rating us and everyone was thinking that it will be difficult for this team to win any match,” captain Sarfraz Ahmed said on Monday.

"These two wins have been very important for us as a team.

"The credit goes to our team management for boosting us after the India game."

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The force behind their improved performances in the last two games has been their bowling. Although they conceded 319 from just 48 overs in the first game, including a game-changing 72 in the last four, they have looked an improved unit since then.

They brought back Junaid Khan for the second game and put Mohammad Hafeez’s bowling back in the mix. Their new bowling combination helped restrict South Africa, with four of world’s top ten batsmen in their side, to a total of just 219.

And then in the very next game, they bowled Sri Lanka out for just 237, the same Sri Lankan team that in its previous game had pulled off the highest successful run chase in the history of the tournament.

From 3-161 at the second drinks break and with Angelo Mathews and Niroshan Dickwella eyeing a total near 300, Junaid and Mohammad Amir ripped out four wickets for six runs in the next four overs. Amir later also scored 28 not out in a 75-run partnership with Sarfraz, the highest eighth wicket stand during a chase in history of the tournament.

Dropped catches cost Sri Lanka dearly

Once again, they were unpredictable.

"The credit also goes to our bowlers who made a strong comeback first against South Africa and then against Sri Lanka,” said Sarfraz.

"Aamir and Junaid’s spell was the turning point for us.

"I hope we will take this confidence into the semi-final now and will again perform well as a team."

Another difference for Pakistan since the India game has been the aggression of Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order. If the 31 from 23 balls he scored against South Africa had been anything like Azhar Ali’s 9 off 22 balls or Hafeez’s 26 off 53 balls, Pakistan wouldn't have found themselves ahead of the required rate when the rain intervened. And they wouldn't be here for the semi-finals.

Pakistan quicks run through Sri Lanka

Fakhar’s 34-ball 50 against Sri Lanka, the second fastest fifty by a Pakistan batsman in Champions Trophy history, reduced the required scoring rate to the point where it allowed his skipper and Amir to bat cautiously when they desperately needed a partnership later in the match. The 65 runs Pakistan posted in the first Power Play, their highest score at the 10-over mark in a Champions Trophy match in 15 years, was down to Fakhar.

"I just wanted to play my natural game. Sarfraz had asked me to play the way I did in the previous match,” Fakhar said.

"It is not that I was asked to attack from ball one. They [the coaches] know about my natural game. That’s how I play in domestic cricket as well so they had asked me to just play the way I do.

"I just want to play cricket on the basics and that will be our plan in the next semi-final as well."

In their first semi-final in nearly five years, Pakistan will now lock horns against the hosts England, tournament favourites and the most improved 50-over team in the past two years.

On paper, it's a mismatch. Since the World Cup, England have scored 300 or more 23 times while Pakistan have done it just eight times.

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England, on a bad day, score 250. That's what Pakistan score on a good day.

England have won each of their past three semi-finals in ICC tournaments, while Pakistan have lost each of their past four. England have also won eight of their past 11 games against Pakistan in the United Kingdom.

But Pakistan can draw comfort from the fact that the last time they played against England, they successfully chased 303, their highest ever successful chase outside the subcontinent. And it came here in Cardiff as well.

But they still need improvement. They deserve credit for reaching the semi-finals, but they've got here thanks to some big slices of luck. England probably won't drop three catches like Sri Lanka did and the weather forecast indicates there won't be any rain to help them like it did against South Africa.

But the unpredictable nature of their team, according to former England opener Ian Bell, will work in their favour.

"For Pakistan, its unpredictability could be considered as its biggest strength," Bell wrote in his column for the ICC.

"The home side won’t know what it is going to be up against and if Pakistan play to the levels of which it’s capable, then it’s going to be one hell of a match.

"Pakistan can beat anyone when it is in form, we all know that. And given England’s position as the home team, in form, with everyone backing them, Pakistan will be even more dangerous.

"It’ll have nothing to lose and will go out there throwing caution to the wind."


Champions Trophy 2017 Guide

Squads: Every Champions Trophy nation


Schedule


1 JuneEngland beat Bangladesh by eight wickets

2 JuneNew Zealand v Australia, No Result

3 JuneSri Lanka lost to South Africa by 96 runs

4 June – India beat Pakistan by 124 runs

5 JuneAustralia v Bangladesh, No Result

6 JuneEngland beat New Zealand by 87 runs

7 JunePakistan beat South Africa by 19 runs (DLS method)

8 June Sri Lanka beat India by seven wickets

9 June  Bangladesh beat New Zealand by five wickets

10 June England beat Australia by 40 runs (DLS method)

11 JuneIndia beat South Africa by eight wickets

12 JunePakistan beat Sri Lanka by three wickets

14 JuneFirst semi-final (England v Pakistan), Cardiff (D)

15 JuneSecond semi-final (Bangladesh v India), Edgbaston (D)

18 JuneFinal, The Oval (D)


19 June – Reserve day (D)


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