Pilloried, ranked last; Pakistan first into ICC final
ISLAMABAD (AP) Sarfraz Ahmed's Pakistan team had the lowest ranking entering the Champions Trophy, and was pilloried after a disappointing opening loss that had critics suggesting it couldn't advance beyond the group stage.
A sequence of three straight wins, including a semifinal victory over a confident host, means Pakistan is the first team to qualify for Sunday's final. And now that they're in it, Pakistan fans want a rematch against India.
Imran Khan, the legendary allrounder who guided Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup final, forecast an Indo-Pak final even before India's semifinal match against Bangladesh.
''Now the whole nation awaits our team making amends in the final against India - if they defeat Bangladesh,'' Khan posted on Twitter as he congratulated Pakistan on its semifinal win over England.
Pakistan was thrashed by 124 runs by defending champion India in the first group match in the eight-team tournament but rebounded quickly to beat South Africa and Sri Lanka to qualify for its third Champions Trophy semifinals.
Sarfraz Ahmed, seemingly lost for words after the heavy loss to India, maintained faith in the younger players in the squad and it paid off in one of the most lopsided semifinals in the tournament's history.
The eight-wicket victory at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff was made possible with the likes of fast bowler Hasan Ali, opening batsman Fakhar Zaman and young spinner Shadab Khan.
Ali, who conceded 70 runs against India, is now a leading bowler in the tournament with 10 wickets. Zaman has provided Pakistan some electrifying starts. And Shadab's ability to control big hitters in the middle overs has helped Pakistan restrict the scoring of opponents.
''The turnaround is built on the inclusion of youngsters and it could only be done by a Pakistan team,'' said Ramiz Raja, an ex-Pakistan captain who now works at a cricket commentator. ''The tournament is no more about the rankings, because already No. 8 team is in the final.''
Pakistan, which can be shaky when batting second, has successfully chased down in three successive matches that included Ahmed's gritty half century against Sri Lanka after Pakistan had collapsed to 162-7 while chasing 237-run target.
Pakistan's more seasoned players like Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez are yet to fire in the tournament and have so far been overshadowed by the young performers.
Imran Khan is hopeful that the squad of 2017 can achieve a victory during the holy month of Ramadan, much like his squad did 25 years ago.