The Oval Underdogs

Misbah-ul-Haq and Wahab Riaz

Cricket is defined by its quirks and oddities, but there is surely no more mercurial phenomenon in the sport than Pakistan’s national cricket team.

Never far from controversy, rarely fancied by anyone, but with an unerring knack of unearthing some of the most exciting talents in the game, and punching above their weight.

The ICC Champions Trophy at the Oval was the epitome of the anomalous nature of Pakistani cricket. Their batting, criticised as being stuck in a bygone age of one-day cricket, was ignited by the discovery of the explosive Fakhar Zaman.

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Meanwhile, the once-disgraced Mohammad Amir led the bowling, his redemption complete as his pace and swing conjured scenes reminiscent of the great Wasim Akram. Hasan Ali, another unknown became a star in the space of a few weeks.

Pakistan never do things the easy way, but the underdog tag is one that they wear with gusto. Their defeat of India sent shockwaves across the cricketing world. But exactly how revelatory was the result?

In truth, their victory in the Oval final should come as little surprise to the keen-eyed observer, given Pakistan’s long history of defying expectations at the ground.

This summer on July 27, the Oval will host its 100th Test Match when England meet South Africa – a remarkable feat matched only by Lords, the MCG and Sydney Cricket Ground. In all that time, Pakistan have enjoyed more success as a visiting side than any other Test nation, having won 50 per cent of their Test Matches at the ground, often against the expectations of pundits and fans.

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Pakistan caused a stir on their very first visit to the Oval in August of 1954. In scenes that foretold what would follow in the decades to come, Pakistan arrived with most expecting them to be dispatched by a confident England side. What followed was the sort of spellbinding swing bowling performance that Pakistani bowlers have come to be known for at the Oval. 20-year-old Fazal Mahmood displayed accuracy and skill to take 12 wickets at the cost of 99 runs in the match. England had no answer to Mahmood’s quality, and as they tried to smash their way out of trouble they fell to a 24-run defeat at the hands of the tourists.

Pakistan’s visit in August of 1967 was less successful as they lost by eight wickets, but was notable for the individual brilliance of Asif Iqbal. Asif arrived at the crease with Pakistan 53/7 and needing 167 runs just to make England bat again. Just over two hours later, Iqbal struck a 14th four to reach his first Test hundred. In astonishing scenes the game had to be paused for five minutes as hundreds of Pakistani fans raced to the wicket to hoist Asif into the air. Eventually, he would fall for 146, but the reaction of the partisan ground was a sight that has become familiar to cricket-lovers in South London.

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Pakistan’s match at the Oval in 1987 was significant for wholly different reasons, as a draw confirmed their first series victory on English soil. Javed Miandad was the hero of the hour, smashing 28 fours in an innings of 260 as Pakistan batted for 15 hours to reach 708 – one of their highest ever test totals; and, to this day, the second highest test score at the Oval. The legendary Ian Botham took particular punishment – the 217 runs scored off his bowling would almost have been enough to beat England in the Champions Trophy semi-final! Only the desperate defence of Mike Gatting and Botham with the bat rescued England from defeat.

Pakistan returned exactly five years later and achieved revenge for England’s narrow escape in their previous Oval battle. It was the first time Wasim and Waqar had visited the Oval as a pair, and a terrifying sight it was for English batsmen as the superb seamers shared 15 wickets between them in the match. Pakistan won by ten wickets.

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The 2006 Oval test remains the most famous, and controversial, the two sides have played out at the ground. After accusations of ball-tampering by umpire Darrell Hair, Pakistan refused to take to the field and the match was awarded to England. This remains the only Test Match in history to be forfeited.

Pakistan went some way to exacting revenge, beating England in the Oval test in both 2010 and 2016. With a tour upcoming in 2018, they will be hoping to make it three Test wins in a row to go with their Champions Trophy victory.

The Champions Trophy final perfectly encapsulated all that is best about cricket. Indian and Pakistani fans packed out the stadium and videos of fans of all nations dancing together were plastered across social media. With plans afoot to extend the Oval to a 40,000 capacity by 2023, fans on the sub-continent can look forward to many more memorable matches to come at London’s premier cricketing ground.

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