On Sunday, Pakistan’s cricket team beat their arch rivals India to win the final of the Champions Trophy, the country’s first major title in eight years. Within the cricketing world, just the details of that sentence represent enough of a shock. But this win, and the entire tournament run by Pakistan, was so improbable and unexpected that it is difficult to think of any analogies. Having been ranked as one of the world’s lowest sides for several years, Pakistan qualified for the tournament by the skin of their teeth and then began it by being thrashed by India in their first match.
After that however, the team first beat the world’s no. 1 ranked side South Africa and then qualified for the semifinal by beating Sri Lanka. In the semifinal, they destroyed hosts and favourites England to book a rematch with India in the final. The Indians, easily the best tournament team in cricket, had made a habit of decimating Pakistan of late, particularly in tournament matches. Their opening match win was their seventh in a row in tournaments against Pakistan. They were full of superstars, while many Pakistanis couldn’t recognise the players in their own team. The match ended with Pakistan’s heaviest win over India in its history.
It was pretty quickly obvious that there are few parallels to this Pakistani team’s story within cricket itself, so I began looking for major upset stories in other sports. I thought of Liverpool’s famous comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in football, but that involved a good side that came back from one half of very bad football. I thought of basketball’s Cleveland Cavaliers coming to win the NBA Finals 3-1 down after four games, but the Cavs had one of the sport’s all time greatest players in their side, so nothing at all like Pakistan’s understated side.
I thought of Greece’s fairytale victory in the 2004 Euros, but those underdogs won everything by recreating the Spartans’ stand against the Persians, defending resolutely against much bigger foes. Pakistan’s wins against the biggest sides in the Champions Trophy were of a completely dominant nature. I thought of the USA’s victory over the USSR in the 1980 ice hockey Olympics gold match, but mismatched as the Americans were, they came from one of the world’s best sporting infrastructures, so not quite the same.
I began searching wider, thinking of sport films instead, which might hold that unbelievable Hollywood touch that Pakistan’s cricket victory had. I thought of Al Pacino’s American football team in Any Given Sunday, but that was a team of talented, temperamental stars coming together for the greater good. There was a time when that description fit Pakistani cricket to the T, but that time was now in the past.
By the end, I was left with two stories that felt even more improbable than Pakistan’s recent triumph. One was Leicester City’s incredible Premier League win in 2016, and the other was the story of Rocky Balboa in the film Rocky. Both stories involved winners possibly overcoming greater odds - at least on the field/ring - that one could say Pakistan might have.
But step outside the ground, and the context of Pakistan’s win makes the story even more improbable. Because one of the main reasons Pakistan is such a low ranked side is that since 2009, it hasn’t played any cricket at home (with the exception of a short, one-off series against fellow strugglers Zimbabwe in 2015). An attack by terrorists on the Sri Lankan cricket team led to all international cricket being cancelled in the country.
For eight years, its cricketers have been nomads in a sport where home conditions have an oversized impact.
On top of that, the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 - which India blamed Pakistan for - saw Pakistani players being first officially, and currently unofficially banned from the lucrative Indian Premier League, a domestic competition featuring the world’s best players and analogous in quality and wealth to football’s Champions League. And if that wasn’t enough, in 2010 they lost their captain and two star players to jail time after they were exposed in a fixing scandal.
Neither Rocky, nor Leicester carried these burdens, nor did they carry the expectation of being the sole mass-sport in one of the world’s most populous countries, where the team had a proud past but was struggling to compete in the present. The lack of home cricket and exclusion from the game’s monied centre had strained local infrastructures, and the historically weak domestic game had only worsened in quality.
Indeed, many fans in Pakistan feared the sport was going the way of hockey and squash. In both these sports, Pakistan had spent decades at the top, winning all the major titles before slipping into obscurity and irrelevance within the span of a generation.
But somehow, all those things turned on their head for two weeks in England. Led by a new captain, Pakistan looked to attack with their bowling rather than batting - in contrast with modern tactics. They lacked any stars, which perhaps allowed for the team to play with unity and avoid the dressing room dramas that Pakistani teams have been notorious for. After the opening loss to India, they also played without fear, perhaps having endured the worst.
Upon their return, the value of the sport to this violence stricken, poor nation really came through. Sarfaraz Ahmed, the captain, came home to a rapturous welcome, with huge crowds thronging the streets of the house he has lived in all his life. Up north, the team’s new star Fakhar Zaman arrived in his small town to find that the mayor had named a roundabout after him. In Gujranwala, the top bowler Hasan Ali came home to to find his mother trying to entertain the entire village that had come to meet him.
Months after winning the league, Leicester fired their lovable manager after the team plummeted down the league. Rocky also found himself resurrected for sequels of increasingly worsening quality. It is therefore quite likely that Pakistan’s underdog team will soon find that life isn’t going to turn out happily ever after.
But for the moment, the team, and the nation, are living a dream they had never imagined possible.