New Pakistan revive the old school
Is any cricketer bigger than Pakistan? Imran Khan, the man who came closest, held a political rally yesterday in front of Pakistan's monument to liberty, Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. Up to 200,000 people came to listen to Imran urge his country to return to the ideals of its founders. Whether or not you agree with Imran's political views, you could never accuse him of believing himself to be bigger than his country.
At a time for noble deeds, some other Pakistan cricketers are awaiting the verdict of Southwark Crown Court in London. Their plight caricatures the ills of the cricketers who succeeded Imran as global ambassadors. If you could accuse any cricketers of considering themselves to be bigger than their country, it is the rogues who have tarnished the nation's image while on ambassadorial duty.
Against this conflicting backdrop Mohsin Khan, once known as the Eagle and now Pakistan's locum coach, reminded his troops that 'no matter how big a player you are, you aren't bigger than Pakistan.' Be honest, responsible, perform your duty, and deliver your best, urged the Eagle. To his delight, Pakistan's performance in the second Test against Sri Lanka was true to those sentiments. Misbah-ul Haq's team seized an early initiative in Dubai, built on it, and finished the job without undue drama; an old-fashioned Test victory unfamiliar to Pakistan's modern cricket fans.
Indeed, old-fashioned virtues were abundantly on display. Fast bowlers made crucial breakthroughs on the first day. Spinners expertly exploited helpful conditions in Sri Lanka's second innings. The batsmen applied themselves for a first innings lead gained at under three runs per over. Even catches were taken. This was a Test match to savour for anybody who has been making the case for a touch more tedium in Pakistan's cricket.
The lead comes from the captain. Misbah is a calm-sometimes-becalmed fellow, a stereotypical Test batsman whose personal performances have flourished with the responsibility of captaincy. For players who have captained more than twice, Misbah's batting average is currently second only to Donald Bradman's. Some solace for a man maligned for past high-profile defeats to India.
Pakistan's batting order is populated with similarly pragmatic spirits, of whom Azhar Ali's journey to a maiden Test century created the greatest thrills. Azhar is an unhurried batsman with a simple yet secure technique who picks the ball up early. His unstinting application at number three ensures one wicket doesn't quickly become two. Azhar is a fighter--a trait much appreciated by Pakistan supporters--and he is the batting find of the last 18 months.
Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez have also been prominent in Pakistan's resurgence since last year's England tour. These players have performed their duty and delivered their best even before the Eagle launched into his coaching assignment with the same gusto that he used to launch into a cover drive.
Ajmal is a world class bowler. Hafeez, by contrast, has defied expectations to help shake his image as a bits-and-pieces cricketer. Pakistan cricket's 'professor' has now begun to establish himself as a player of substance and maturity, best demonstrated by his aggressive approach to the second innings run chase.
Yes, Pakistan are a work in progress with legitimate questions about selection and strategy. This Sri Lanka team is less formidable than past opponents. However, consistent performances throughout this series suggest that Mohsin the Eagle has reasons to be cheerful.
But as expectant as an eagle might be, a professor would urge caution, for the plight of Pakistan cricket remains complex and precarious. In the same moment that the Test team celebrates a thumping Test victory in Dubai, six Pakistan cricketers lift a trophy in Hong Kong, two others face a jail sentence in London, and the country's greatest captain spells out an agenda to save his nation from destruction in Lahore. Is this an exhilarating watershed? Is this is a devastating climax? This is Pakistan cricket: marvellous, mad, and mind-boggling.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here