The Oval: Pakistan’s home away from home
Hollywood, Bollywood, the West End and Broadway – everybody knows that nothing sells better than a true underdog story. And when it comes to the tag of ‘underdog’, only a few have worn it so frequently and with such relish as the Pakistan cricket team.
Before the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy final, few could have predicted what would unfold. In a tournament packed with surprises, viewers could be forgiven for wondering whether Pakistan had reached their peak. But doubt Pakistan at your peril.
As Sarfraz Ahmed tore across the outfield, arms outstretched in joy, Pakistan wrapped up their first 50-over trophy triumph in a quarter of a century. As with that famous win in 1992, the brilliance of a left-arm fast bowler made the difference with the ball. It was fitting that Mohammad Amir’s road to redemption should lead him here, emulating the aggression and skill of Wasim Akram in his pomp.
Amir has been dogged by controversy in recent years, a feeling all too familiar to Pakistan team visiting England. But this finally felt like true vindication for Amir, the realisation of his world class talent when his side needed him most. This was a coming of age for the young bowler, and for a Pakistan team proving all the doubters wrong.
But it was not just on the pitch that Pakistan’s brilliance was told, but also off of it. The performance of the fans from the subcontinent made a tournament that could have appeared irrelevant into a non-stop carnival. The final perfectly encapsulated the romance of the sport, Indian and Pakistani fans danced together, and scenes of friendship and humour dominated social media.
And yet while so many were surprised by the result, students of cricket will have looked at this game at the Oval and known that Pakistan are a team you can never write off when visiting South London.
The Oval made history this summer when England met South Africa on July 27th. It was the 100th Test match to be hosted by the ground. This remarkable feat has only been matched by the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Sydney Cricket Ground and Lords.
Since the first Test was played at the ground in 1880, no touring side has enjoyed a better win ratio at the ground than Pakistan, who have won an imperious 50% of their games. Their matches at the ground are characterised by defying expectations with bravery, ingenuity and skill.
As wonderful as Amir’s performance was, Pakistan seamers have been giving batsmen nightmares at the Oval since their first visit to the ground in August 1954. In a now familiar scenario, Pakistan arrived unfancied, with a strong side England expected to sweep them away.
If their first visit prophesied the many spellbinding bowling performances yet to come from Pakistan swing bowlers at the Oval, the 1967 meeting between England and Pakistan was significant for the partisan crowd that packed in to watch the game in South London.
England dominated and would go on to win the game, but Asif Iqbal, batting at nine, produced a stunning batting performance to keep the tourists in the contest. He struck a 14th boundary to move to his first Test century, and in incredible scenes the match had to be stopped for five minutes as hundreds of Pakistan fans ran on to the pitch and lifted Asif into the air.
The August Test of 1992 was the first occasion the Oval ground was able to watch the beauty and wizardry of Akram and Waqar Younis bowling in tandem. They certainly did not disappoint, blitzing the England batting to claim 15 wickets between them in the match. The shell-shocked English batsmen were powerless to resist, and Pakistan stormed to a 10 wicket victory.
One cannot discuss Pakistan at the Oval without mentioning the most controversial encounter of all – the 2006 Test series. Pakistan refused to return to the field after umpire Darrell Hair’s accusations of ball-tampering and the match was awarded to England. This remains the only Test match in history to be forfeited. Pakistan captain Inzamamul Haq was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Pakistan have since gone some way to righting the wrongs of 2006, winning on their last two visits to the Oval in 2010 and 2016. They will hope to make it a hat trick of Test wins on their next tour in 2018.
Plans are now afoot to extend the Oval’s capacity to 40,000 by 2023, which would make it comfortably the largest cricket ground in the UK. After the spectacular scenes at the Champions Trophy, Pakistan fans can look forward to success at their home of cricket in England for many years to come.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.