Pakistan stuns England to reach Champions Trophy final
PAKISTAN wasn't meant to make the final of this tournament - it simply wasn't on the cards.
Having arrived in England as the eighth-ranked nation in the world, Pakistan was officially the worst side participating in the eight-team tournament.
It was a reputation it was living up to early on, going down by 124 runs to India in their first match of the tournament.
The bowlers were inept, the batsmen were sub-par and the fielding was disgraceful.
A game into the tournament and the post-mortem was already being planned.
Three games later Pakistan is the first team into the Champions Trophy final, where they will have the chance to either exact the ultimate revenge against bitter rivals India or take on Bangladesh, the one side less fancied than them.
Pakistan defeated England with an eight-wicket semi-final win in Cardiff on Wednesday.
After scoring only 211 all out, Pakistan chased the total down in just 37.1 overs for the loss of only two wickets.
No one could've predicted that after Mickey Arthur's frank press conference less than two weeks ago when he was peppered with questions about the lacklustre opening defeat to India.
"The worrying thing for me - and it has been for a period of time - is we just do the basics wrong," Arthur vented - calmly - after the India shambles.
"We do the simple things wrong. We drop simple catches. We don't run well enough between wickets.
"We don't hit the keeper with our throws and we don't understand when to bowl our variations.
"We bowled a really good over and then we bowled a variation with our sixth ball and that's the ball that ended up going for a boundary.
"So it's the simplicity of those things that are worrying me at the moment."
The team's skipper, Sarfraz Ahmed, said his side "lost the plot" in going down to India.
But from the ashes of that defeat has grown the unlikeliest of Champions Trophy finalists.
HASAN ALI IS A GEM
Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Mohammad Amir, Kagiso Rabada, Trent Boult - Hasan Ali has outshone all of them to be the most impressive quick of the Champions Trophy.
The 23-year-old went into the tournament with a career bowling average of 26.24 from 16 ODIs and a burgeoning reputation as one of the game's canniest young quicks.
That reputation has only been enhanced in England, with Hasan top of the wicket-takers' charts with 10 at 17.20 - with an economy of 4.52 to boot.
With Mohammad Amir ruled out of the semi-final through injury, Hasan brought his A-game against England in the semi-final, registering figures of 3-35 off his full allotment and leaking just two boundaries.
And he did it all while battling the discomfort of a shin injury, his skipper revealed.
"I think (Hasan) had a little bit shin problem, but he's okay and bowling extremely well for us," said Sarfraz Ahmed, who hopes to have both Hasan and Amir fit for the final.
"I think (Amir) has a little bit of back spasm. Hopefully, he will recover for the finals.
"Obviously, he's our main bowler. He's our best strike bowler. Hopefully he will recover."
Hasan was simply brilliant, mixing slower balls and cutters with deceptive pace and reverse swing late in the game.
No bowler this tournament has looked so confident bowling to Ben Stokes and fittingly he was the man to remove the all-rounder.
In truth, the performance was not a surprise: Hasan has been producing the goods all tournament.
He was strong against Sri Lanka (3-43 off 10) and he was the man that breathed life back into Pakistan's campaign against South Africa. Even against India, when he leaked 70 runs off his 10 overs, he was impressive, with 40 of the runs he conceded coming off the final three overs - that can happen when Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli are in the right mood.
He's now been man of the match in two of Pakistan's games, and if Sarfraz Ahmed's men go on to take out the Champions Trophy he could be the player of the tournament.
BEN STOKES GO SLOW
Few batsmen in the game are as exciting to watch in full flight as Stokes and heading into the semi-final, his strike rate over the past year sat at 105.96 and his average 64.23 - remarkable numbers for a man batting at No.5.
But on Wednesday it simply didn't click, with the all-rounder's 64-ball stay only bringing him 34 runs. That's his second-slowest ODI innings ever (minimum 20 balls), just behind the 15 off 39 he scored against Australia in January 2014. He also failed to pick up a single boundary - it's the longest innings he has played without a boundary.
In fairness to Stokes, he was not helped by the fact Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler fell so early in his innings, meaning much of his job was holding England's innings together. It was proof if anything that the best way to keep England's big hitting middle order quiet it is to take wickets.
PAKISTAN'S FIELDING NEAR IMPECCABLE
Arguably the worst thing about Pakistan's performance against India at the start of the tournament was the fielding. Against England, the Pakistanis were close to perfect. There was still one regulation chance put down - Babar Azam spilt a simple catch at slip - and an extremely tough catch shelled by Azhar Alia at short mid-wicket, but aside from that it was perfect.
The improvement in Pakistan's fielding standards was underlined when Fakhar Zaman sprinted around at deep square leg to a take a brilliant catch at full stretch to remove Moeen Ali and expose England's tail with more than 10 overs to go. Just two games earlier, Fahkar had put down a simpler chance at deep square leg to grant Virat Kohli a second life.
Pakistan's fielding only improved from there, with Ahmed Shehzad and Sarfraz Ahmed both pulling off direct hits to run out Adil Rashid and Mark Wood.
FAKHAR THE ANSWER TO PAKISTAN'S PROBLEM
For a long time now Pakistan has struggled to get its top-order right, lacking an explosive partner to pair with the reliable but somewhat conservative Azhar Ali. For a little while it looked like Sharjeel Khan was the man for the job, but that proved a short-lived solution with the big hitting left-hander suspended by the Pakistan Cricket Board for alleged corruption charges.
Sahrjeel's suspension saw Pakistan turn to Ahmed Shehzad - again - but the issue with Shehzad is his strike rate sits at 72.44. That's simply far too slow in today's game and especially opposite Azhar.
Pairing them together just left Pakistan's middle order too much to do in terms of upping the run-rate - something it's poorly equipped to do due to a lack of power hitters.
In Fakhar it looks like they've finally found the right man for the job.
"Fakhar Zaman, he's playing in his third match, and now he's batting just like a champion batsman," Sarfraz said.
"So I'm really happy about his performance. Hopefully, he will do well in future as well."
Boasting a strike rate of 134.15 in Twenty20 cricket and 95.18 in List A, the 27-year-old has brought impetus to Pakistan's top order and three matches into his ODI career his strike-rate sits at 117.94 with an average of 46. Not bad at all for a man who had never played an ODI before this tournament.
Chasing a low target, the most important thing for Pakistan was a solid start, and Fakhar and Azhar provided them with just that, putting on a 118-run stand in 21.1 overs, with the youngster making 57 off 58.