No limit on spirit
The spirit of cricket is open to interpretation. Idris Baig, the Pakistani umpire, debagged and doused with water by a touring MCC team, might not appreciate the term. The history of Pakistan cricket in England is a catalogue of conflict, right up to the last tour and the abandoned Hair-Inzamam Test match at The Oval. Australia against Pakistan is similarly loaded, with Lillee-Miandad and Malik-Warne evoking painful memories.
Yet the spirit of cricket strikes the right note for this series. The ECB has turned over part of its summer schedule to the irritants from Pakistan. Cricket Australia has crammed another series into a tight international calendar, already saturated with victories over Pakistan. Lord's and the MCC are welcoming Pakistan cricket in its time of crisis. A fresh wind blows optimism into the hearts of Pakistan supporters.
After an appetising pair of Twenty20 matches, a sterner challenge awaits Shahid Afridi's team. Australia will be unforgiving opponents in Test cricket. Ricky Ponting will return to reassert his team's authority, and the trivial matter of consecutive Twenty20 defeats will be enough incentive to prove a point. The spirit of cricket will be put on hold when the Lord's bell tolls on Tuesday morning.
This might not be the formidable Australian team that strutted the international stage for over a decade, and how could it be, without Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. But it has punished Pakistan on home turf. Incredibly, Pakistan were on the brink of victory and levelling the series in Sydney but calamitous captaincy and worse batting destroyed Pakistan's ambitions.
A new mood, however, grips this Pakistan team. Afridi is an energetic and enthusiastic captain, a diametric opposite to the stand-in Mohammad Yousuf, whose method was ill-suited to Pakistan's firebrand play. The coaching combination of Waqar Younis and Ejaz Ahmed, while lacking experience, looks comfortable with its young charges. Two victories against Australia have added legitimacy to the new management team, and it matters little for Pakistan's psyche that those wins came in Twenty20 internationals.
But Australia are capable of extinguishing every hint of optimism. Michael Hussey was merely stating the obvious when he identified Pakistan's inexperienced batting order as a weakness. To embark on perhaps your most important summer of cricket with a novice middle order smacks of stupidity. Salman Butt and Umar Akmal are the leading lights, a scenario that sends shivers down my spine.
Pakistan needed Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf for this dual challenge. Experience in Test cricket and English conditions are essential requirements for tackling two of the strongest teams in world cricket. While Yousuf looks to have cut himself adrift, Younis's exclusion has now become vindictive. Has a player ever been punished more for putting honour first?
Their replacements will need to become instant heroes. Yasir Hameed is one of many Pakistan batsmen whose careers have been mishandled. A free scoring right-hander, too free in that he is usually the master of his own dismissal, Yasir might have grown into a regular international cricketer. Will his fate be better second time around? Of the rest, Umar Amin is the brightest prospect but Australia know how to ruin fledgling careers.
In short, Pakistan's batting order is deep-filled with inexperience and inability at Test level. Shoaib Malik and Afridi, the two most senior players, have huge question marks against them in this format. Little wonder the selection of this touring side attracted outrage when it was announced. Afridi and Waqar have since done little to hide their concerns about the selection. A learning experience, is how Waqar has chosen to describe it. But so much hinges on the cricketing and commercial success of this summer that Pakistan's batsmen will have to learn fast.
As ever, Pakistan's salvation is in bowling. Mohammad Aamer is a revelation. Mohammad Asif, the last revelation, is back in a favourable environment for his seam bowling. Umar Gul, Twenty20 hero, needs to discover a method that achieves consistent success at Test level. And Danish Kaneria will be the premier spinner on display in the series, but with many points still to prove.
While Australia will respect Pakistan's bowling, they will be far from overawed by it. Indeed, the bowling also boasts a superficiality that will not tolerate poor form or injury.
The beginning of this historic series fills me with anticipation but also some concern. Australia will start strong favourites, and any success for Pakistan will be unexpected. If Afridi's Army do succeed in either match against Australia they will do so by playing with aggression and pride. Pakistan's supporters are aware of the limitations of their team but they are also aware that the only limits on spirit on a cricket field are self imposed.
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Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here