It’s hard to think of a sporting event with more of a fairytale ending. Perhaps South Africa’s rugby World Cup final victory in 1995, with Nelson Mandela wearing Francois Pienaar’s shirt in the stands, would come close. But South Africa were a nation at the cusp of a new beginning, a country trying to say goodbye to a deeply divisive and forgettable past. Pakistanis are currently engaged in a battle for existence, against the forces of extremism that have already dragged parts of central Asia back to the Middle Ages.
Sporting victories don’t alter such harsh realities, but they can certainly do wonders for morale. When India won a Test match against England at Chennai less than three weeks after the terror attacks in Mumbai, it was so much more than just a win. For Pakistan fans who danced to Dil Dil Pakistan and We Are The Champions at the end, this will never be just another day out at the cricket. It will be THE day.
Younis Khan, who announced his retirement from international Twenty20 games after this triumph, spoke jokingly of how he was the Second Khan (after Imran) and seriously of how determined he had been to be remembered for a World Cup victory. There were certainly similarities too. Pakistan were a push and a shove from the exit when they took on Australia at Perth on March 11, 1992, and 17 years on, they were left in a situation where they had no option but to win convincingly against the Netherlands. Having been thrashed by South Africa and India in warm-up games and then outclassed by England in their opening group game, few expected much from this side.
But when needed, they made the big calls. Out went Salman Butt and Ahmed Shehzad, and up came Kamran Akmal to open the batting. When Yasir Arafat got injured, they called up Abdul Razzaq, one of the veterans of Pakistan’s run to the 50-over World Cup final in 1999. Not only did Razzaq add experience and nous to the bowling, but he was yet another sounding board for Younis in conditions that he knew intimately because of his county experience. The awareness came to the fore in the final as early wickets ensured that Sri Lanka couldn’t aspire to anything more than a par score.
But the biggest change was in Shahid Afridi. An accident waiting to happen with the bat in the early stages of the competition, he batted with a maturity that astonished even his captain in the two games that mattered. Until Isuru Udana was clubbed over midwicket late on, it would have been hard to convince yourself that it was Afridi batting. Or that it was Pakistan. So used to living on their wits and winning the hard way, they won this final with as clinical a performance as you could hope to see. They played Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan better than most teams have, and treated Udana with contempt, taking 44 from his four overs. It was the sort of display you associate with Australia.
You had to feel for Sri Lanka. In tremendous form for a fortnight and with the player of the tournament in Tillakaratne Dilshan, they came up short yet again in a major final. Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews batted beautifully at the end to take them to a half-decent score, but failure to take wickets in the Power Play meant that the ground never shook beneath Pakistani feet.
And so the team who won’t be playing much cricket at home this decade, and whose players were barred from IPL riches, has proved just why world cricket can’t afford to isolate them. In the worst of times, they produced a performance redolent of the best. The thousands of fans who never gave up on their team, who turned up with faces painted and hearts thumping, deserved nothing less. This was their MCG, an evening to etch in the memory. The second Khan and his boys may just have paved the way for Pakistan cricket’s second coming.