What other teams get right at tournaments

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE in London

SARFRAZ Ahmed looks like a teddy bear, smiles like an angel and speaks not a lot more English than most of the reporters who have tried to get a quote out of him at the Champions Trophy speak Urdu.

Thirty-three players have scored more runs than him in the tournament, among them Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and David Miller.

None of that can get in the way of the obvious — the man knows how to captain a cricket team.

Not just any XI. Pakistan are less a team than they are a collection of conflicting egos bound together by an undefined anger and thrust forward by the stink of injustice.

They lose matches to other teams, but only one opponent can beat them: Pakistan.

And there they were, playing in the final against India at The Oval on Sunday.

They must be doing something right.

“After the first loss, we are very down,” Sarfraz said after his team had put England out of the tournament in the semi-final at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff on Wednesday.

“But credit goes to the team management. They boost up really well for us. And credit goes to the players as well. They motivated very well.

“And after that match, everything — we bowling well, fielding well, and now today also batting clicking as well.

“So that’s why credit goes to the bowlers and team management.”

If more of the reporters present had more Urdu, they would have had a more expansive answer.

Not that that they should have needed it.

Pakistan reached the final because being thrashed by 124 runs by India — “the first loss” — at Edgbaston in Birmingham two weeks ago failed to douse their self-belief.

They refused to be derailed like lesser teams would have been by so comprehensive a klap, and instead reeled off convincing victories against South Africa and Sri Lanka to reach the knockout stage.

That didn’t surprise Virat Kohli.

“You will see more clinical performances in tournaments like these because you don’t want to give even a 1% chance to the opposition,” India’s captain said after his team beat Bangladesh by nine wickets in their semi at Edgbaston on Thursday.

“Once you see an opportunity you have to seize that particular moment and grab it with both hands, and today we just felt like the wicket is so good.

“So there was no need for us to play a stupid shot and let the opposition in unnecessarily.”

No-one knows a moment that’s there for the seizing as well as Kohli. The instant Bhuv Kumar had Kagiso Rabada caught behind at The Oval last Sunday, he inserted himself into the slip cordon — and Morne Morkel immediately proved Kohli’s genius by steering a catch into his hands.

The last time the South Africans saw Kohli outside of the Indian Premier League, during their test series in India in November 2015, he was a brat who waded into juvenile arguments on any subject going.

Happily, he has since grown up and into a fine leader who has lost his fear of allowing others to hold a different opinion.

Eoin Morgan, born irresistibly Irish and now elegantly English, has never had Safraz’ and Kohli’s problems.

Indeed, to listen to him after England’s defeat on Wednesday was to hear a captain who had won more than he had lost despite the result.

“One of the huge contributing factors towards topping our table and playing very good cricket in the group stages is that we’ve stayed true to what we believe in and what’s worked for us the last couple of years, and I think that’s the continued formula for the future,” Morgan said.

“I think it will have to evolve in whatever manner the game does over the next two years in the lead-in to the [2019] World Cup, but certainly I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Every team in this kind of company can bat, bowl and field with the best of them; that is never in question.

What determines the winners from the losers is more difficult to parse, but there is much for other teams to learn from Pakistan’s unshakeable faith in the gospel according to themselves, India’s magnificent confidence in their ability to do the right thing at the right time every time, and England’s embrace of an overtly aggressive style of play that they know will serve them well in the years ahead, even though they let things slip this time.

These are difficult concepts to understand for sides who can’t fathom who they are, much less how they need to change.

But’s that’s not impossible because champions are not born; they’re made. So are losers. Spotting the differences — and implementing them — is the challenge.

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