A demon banished
The Oval had been a happy hunting ground for Pakistan cricket, right up to the moment in 2006 when Darrell Hair accused the Pakistan team of ball tampering. When Inzamam-ul Haq’s players refused to take the field after the interval, I rang one of the Pakistan management to find out what was going on. “Wait and see,” he bristled with pride, “you will witness something incredible. We are not standing for this any longer.” The Oval 2006 had become Pakistan cricket’s Spion Kop, Dunkirk, and Panipat all rolled into one.
The Pakistan management played their part in the controversy but in my view, and I’m sure you’d expect me to say this, it was Hair who was the primary reason that the cricket world was plunged into crisis. No evidence of ball tampering was discovered. Hair had seized upon an opportunity to vindicate his past actions, except that he misjudged the situation horribly. His subsequent behaviour, especially his demand for a pay-off, lost him much sympathy.
For Pakistan cricket the incident at The Oval and its aftermath initially felt like a triumph. But, ironically, those days marked the collapse of the last respectable era of Pakistan cricket. Up to that tour of England, Bob Woolmer had expertly guided Pakistan’s return as a force. Yes, there was some way to go to complete the Woolmer project but a middle order of Inzamam, Mohammad Yousuf, and Younis Khan spoke for itself. It was the bowling that required development, much resting on the rookie Mohammad Asif.
Woolmer was supported from above and below by stabilising forces. Sheharyar Khan was the last worthy chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, as wise as Woolmer in his own diplomatic realm. The third prong of the triad was Inzamam, Pakistan’s captain and spiritual leader. His leadership style attracted criticism but he had the merits of leading by example and galvanising his chosen forces.
Sadly, in cricketing terms, the last England tour began in hope and ended in much disappointment. From that point onwards Pakistan cricket declined almost to the point of disintegration. Two factors, aside from the political environment, determined that decline. First, Inzamam and Woolmer drifted apart during that tour, their relationship, once greater than the sum of its parts, became damaging. Second, The Oval controversy was a battle too far for Khan, and he was replaced as cricket board chairman. Hair lost the battle of The Oval but the wounds he inflicted on Pakistan cricket helped to cripple it for the next four years.
The first green shoots of Pakistan’s recovery were glimpsed in England last year, as Younis' team produced an unexpected and exhilarating T20 triumph. Now, after a year of being battered in Test cricket, Pakistan have engineered two tense, stuttering, but dramatic victories. On both occasions Salman Butt’s team were written off in a series; on both occasions they came back with a surprising win.
There is something in this team, something to offer hope that Pakistan cricket can build for the future—and it is the bowling attack. There is, of course, a long way to go and the batting and fielding are still major problem areas, especially the positions of opening batsmen and wicketkeeper. But the team at The Oval was a better use of resources, a formula that made the most of the available youth and experience. Pakistan could add more experience yet in the form of Younis if the players and the cricket board can overcome their differences for the betterment of Pakistan cricket.
Ultimately, though, safe-guarding harmony and the progression of the cricket team, even a green-shoots squad like this one, is the sole responsibility of the Pakistan Cricket Board. This Pakistan team are nowhere near world beaters yet but they should not be lunging so dramatically between triumph and disaster. The performance curve might be edging gradually upwards, and the variation in performance should become less dramatic as Pakistan muddle their way to a successful formula. Yet, even at this moment of success, it is important to be mindful that until the PCB sees a change in personnel at the top, green shoots will remain green shoots, sporadic and a long way from blossoming
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Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here