Pakistan overachievers? Who’d have thought it?
A last-gasp victory and after all the turbulence of ten days of Test cricket the result in the end has been somewhat predictable. For the sixth season in a row Pakistan will end up unbeaten in the desert. It has become such a state of affairs that even the local fan base has become used to it – almost taking it for granted. It bears repeating: there’s nothing wrong with being a bully at home. Perhaps being dominant at home is worth being satisfied about, rather than being something worth denigrating as somehow unworthy, somehow Indian even.
One of the more fascinating things to come out of this series – against England, and so bound to be high-profile – is how the results affect so much and yet so little: you can change your form, your reputation, your performances, but the narrative? That takes more than mere competence.
In the weeks before the series started, most headlines inevitably revolved around Mohammad Amir (him of zero first-class matches in five years) not being back in the team immediately after his ban was lifted. The rest focused on Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman – neither of whom had played a Test match in the year prior to the team selection for this series – being excluded from the squad. It almost seemed as if Pakistani cricket might as well have been in stasis during their time between the last home series against England and this one, rather than having gone through a downfall and a revival, as was actually the case. Pakistan went from a spin-led juggernaut to a team struggling without identity, which eventually rebounded thanks to domestic veterans and batsmen playing beyond their own expectations.
Of course, that is a better alternative to, say, the Australian perspective. For instance, the conversations at the start of the Australian season last year seemed to indicate there had been a memory wipe regarding Australia’s tour to the Emirates. While it has become a cliché to lampoon what happens in the Channel Nine commentary box, it was still surprising that a discussion there on cricket’s fastest centuries failed to mention Misbah-ul-Haq’s effort barely a month prior, against their own lot. At least for England, what happens against them still counts as actual cricket, even if it takes place far from their shores.
Pakistan exist as the pariah of the cricket world, and even when they enter the mainstream, they seem to do so temporarily. To be fair, it’s not as if Pakistan and the builders of their narrative play a particularly positive role in changing this state of affairs.
That doesn’t mean their achievements should be played down, particularly at home. Pakistan have gone through a quiet, televised revolution. The return of Younis Khan, the appointment of Misbah, and their relocation to the UAE came at perhaps the lowest point in modern Pakistan’s Test history.
In the previous 47 months they played nine Test series and won none – the longest winless run in their history. No batsman but Younis Khan had averaged over 45, no bowler had averaged under 25. The glimmers of hope – a new-ball pair who could rule the world, a captain who could bring stability – had been removed, Eeyore might have been deemed too optimistic in Pakistan at the time.
Five years later they hold the longest unbeaten home run in Test cricket. That too has to be taken into context. Their fortunes till then had been rather different to those of their Asian brethren. At the start of this run by Pakistan, Sri Lanka had lost two of their previous 19 home series; India had lost two of their previous 34 series – one each to Australia and South Africa. Pakistan, meanwhile, had lost nearly as many Test series (nine) as they had won (eight) at home over the previous 15 years, losing to six different Test nations. If you had told Pakistani fans that five years from then they would all be complaining about being dominant at home, they’d have called you a madman – and then probably accepted the notion, since satisfaction has never been part of their dictionary; they only feel at home in elation or misery.
Yet Pakistan’s away record is different from what popular perception might say it is too. They have won half (five) of their away series in this period, or as many as they had won in the 11 years prior to the start of this run.
Is it really the team’s fault that their board has neither the clout nor the vision to give them the sort of opportunities their record deserves? Are they to blame for not touring any of the big three in this period, or is it the fault of their board, or of the condescending triopoly that rules cricket right now? Is it their fault that every time the Test team starts to get into their groove, they have to face months on end without a single Test match?
Perhaps their greatest achievement, despite what the crowd attendance in the Emirates might argue, has been to do with interest in the longest format. Test cricket was slowly becoming an irrelevance in Pakistan – perhaps best illustrated by them going a calendar year, 2008, without playing a single Test. Five years of success later, the TV network broadcasting the Pakistan-England series can proudly call the ratings from the Test series record-breaking. It’s amazing what a winning team can do.
But all good things must come to an end. In the most likely scenario of there being no Tests in the India series, which is in any case unlikely to take place, Pakistan will go at least seven months without a Test. Misbah might be gone by then; Younis’ Indian summer will almost certainly be over. The players who are around will either be more in tune with the shorter formats, or (in the case of the Test specialists) out of tune with the international game. The Sharjah Test might be our last look at an under-heralded team.
So appreciate them while you can, because a decade from now, a bunch of hipster writers certainly will. After all, nothing pleases their narrative as much as a Pakistani team from days gone by.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag