England's Steven Finn (left) and Jonny Bairstow (centre) practise in the nets at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff on the eve of their ICC Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan. Pic/AFP
After a dull start, the ICC Champions Trophy came to life with a couple of upsets. And all the upsets came from the sub-continental teams. Pakistan started it by defeating top-ranked South Africa, Sri Lanka followed it up by humbling defending champions India, and then Bangladesh pulled off an outstanding chase against New Zealand to give the tournament its best match. Interestingly, three teams from the sub-continent have made it to the semi-finals of a tournament in England.
The best team in the tournament became not only the first team to qualify for the semis but also, remained undefeated in the league phase. The new brand of cricket it has embraced is both entertaining and effective. Their batting unit is full of exciting hitters, which is backed by the clear intent of going hard irrespective of the stage of the game. England was reduced to 3-35 in the game against Australia but that didn't deter Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes from adopting the aggressive route. 'When in doubt, take the aggressive approach' seems to be England's mantra. In addition to the destructive batting, now England have the bowling depth for English conditions. Their fast bowlers hit the deck hard and their spinners are used to bowling tight lines. England is the team to beat in this tournament.
The defending champions started the tournament in style but slipped badly against Sri Lanka. Then, in the do or die game against South Africa, they brought their A game to the park. In the first two games, the Indian fielding left a lot to be desired but it was their fielding that made the difference in the virtual quarter-final against SA. India's openers, barring the game against SA, have given them a solid start. The new template of playing ODIs is to take it easy in the first 30 overs, keeping wickets in hand and then treating it like a T20 game thereafter. Every Indian batsman, with the exception of Kedar Jadhav, has scored crucial runs and that allows the team to play an uninhibited brand of cricket with the bat. It's almost certain that India will continue to treat Hardik Pandya as a fifth and not the sixth bowling option. While it worked against South Africa, it might put the champion Indian bowling under the spotlight against England (if India reaches the final).
Bangladesh has reached the knockouts of two consecutive ICC 50-over tournaments and that highlights the upward curve in their cricketing fortunes. The biggest change in their approach has come in form of their bowling resources, for now the focus is to field pacers instead of spinners. Their over-dependence on spin in the past made them a formidable team at home but mere pushovers abroad. Since that changed, they have started downing some good teams. Their batting has also finally come out of the shadows of their big three. It's no longer about Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib Al Hasan, for the likes of Soumya Sarkar, Shabbir Rahman and Mahmadullah have started making winning contributions regularly. However, it might be a little tough to go past India in the semis.
There isn't a dull moment when the Pakistan team is playing. They have the bowling to bring the team back from the dead and their batting has the ability to squander the advantage seized by their bowlers. Their fielding might have improved a little over the years but is still miles behind where other modern day teams have reached. Like most teams, even the Pakistani bowlers haven't found swing with the new ball but unlike most teams, their bowlers have discovered reverse-swing, and therefore have been the most potent in the death overs. While the new template of ODI batting works fine against the rest, it's prudent to flip the tactic while batting against Pakistan. The best chance of making runs against them is when the ball is new. Pakistan's batting, however, has the tendency to undo all the good work done by their bowlers, for the senior guys haven't stood up even once. For Pakistan to beat England in the semis, it has to create a perfect storm, which looks unlikely.
Video: Team India abused on Champions Trophy 2017 Wikipedia page
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