It’s immense pressure. It’s the highest voltage game on a cricket field. It’s more gripping than any rivalry in cricket. It’s India versus Pakistan.
“I can’t forget those three wickets in the final,” Mohammad Amir told Wisden India, of the final of this year’s Champions Trophy, in England. “If say that these are the three best wickets in my career, it won’t be wrong. They are particularly special because they helped Pakistan win a memorable match, and that too against India.”
When India play Pakistan, it’s pulse-numbing, nerve-wracking. The fans feel such pressure, as do the 22 players playing match as well as the two on-field umpires. Both countries come to a standstill.
So did both nations on June 18 this year as India met Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final, the first time the two sides came face-to-face in a 50-over ICC event final. A packed gathering at The Oval was buzzing with endless chants from fans of both sides when Virat Kohli won the toss and asked Pakistan to bat on a flat track full of runs.
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Having missed the semifinal against England, Amir was under more pressure than most. He had gone wicketless in the group match between the old rivals which India lorded by 124 runs. Amir had limped off the field. He did come back against South Africa but the wickets column continued to remain vacant. His best match was against Sri Lanka, when not only did he take 2 for 53, but also scored a supportive and authoritative 28 not out to help Sarfraz Ahmed steer Pakistan to a narrow three-wicket win.
But missing the semifinal left Amir rusty. “A cricket match always has its pressures,” said Amir. “Anyone saying that an India-Pakistan match is just a normal game is not speaking the truth.
“I took some half a dozen injections to manage my back pain but I could not play the semifinal. But I was ready for the final. Early that morning, I prayed; I was very keen to do well against India. I was full of passion, as were all the others. We wanted to rewrite history, having never won a big ICC event match against India.”
Under Kohli, India have matured as a strong unit and given the manner in which they crushed Pakistan in the group match, very few people had given Pakistan any chance in the title clash.
But Amir believed the pressure was on India going into the final.
“We had nothing to lose,” stressed Amir. “Clearly, the pressure was on India because they had a strong batting unit while our strength was our bowling. We lost the toss and had to bat first but even if India had batted first, we were sure to get them under 260.”
Pakistan were off to a solid and lucky start as with the total on eight, Fakhar Zaman had a let-off when he was caught behind off a Jasprit Bumrah no-ball. It changed the complexion of the game as Zaman’s century and a late-order flurry took Pakistan to 338.
“Even after scoring 338, we knew that India could chase that total down. Their top order was in great form,” said Amir of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli, who by then had scored 874 runs between them in the competition. “The pressure was not of their runs but of their great form.”
Amir had bowled a destructive spell in last year’s Asia Cup in Bangladesh, and he visualised that. “It was in my mind. I knew that if I brought one in, Rohit would struggle. The third delivery turned out to be the one I wanted, and we got him upfront.”
There was big drama off the third ball of Amir’s next over. “It nipped away but the light faded before my eyes when I saw Azhar (Ali) bhai dropping that catch. I can’t tell you how I was feeling. How on earth did we let him (Kohli) off, he is the best in the world in a chase and he never gives a chance. It would have been calamity had we not got him next ball. I was on cloud nine when I dismissed him immediately; we had got a second wicket and had won half the match.”
By then, Dhawan had taken it upon himself to drive the chase, cracking sweetly-timed boundaries. He smashed two off Amir and was looking dangerous. “Thankfully, Safi (Sarfraz Ahmed) bhai persisted with me and in my fifth over, I got his prized wicket. By then, we knew that we had one hand on the trophy.”
Barring a whirlwind knock by Hardik Pandya, India’s resistance faded and Pakistan created history.
“We were all celebrating once we got the last man. We used to remember the 1992 World Cup win, the 2009 World Twenty20 win but this is something special. I am happy that we discovered a good bowler in Hasan Ali in that tournament, someone who takes a lot of pressure off me.
“The Champions Trophy win ranks at the top in my career, and it will remain so until we win a bigger event, like the World Cup.”