Pakistan's unexpected fourth
South Africa's deserved rise to No.1 in Test cricket offered the world a lingering view of the new Test rankings. The top three were as expected, vanquished England sitting above Australia. But fourth place, let's admit, was a distraction. Only two summers ago, a Pakistan team that had lost the art of competitiveness in Test cricket also lost the heart and soul of its bowling attack. Yet today it sits a comfortable fourth in the Test rankings, an immense and unexpected achievement.
Pakistan cricket is a difficult subject. Witness the reluctance of any commentator to draw Pakistan's position into the discussion about the world rankings. How is it possible that an impoverished, disgraced and exiled cricket nation sits above, for example, the world's richest and strongest cricket power? How do you explain a phenomenon that, albeit aided by the complex statistical contortions of the Kendrix ranking system, appears to defy all expectation? How is it possible to even discuss the merits of Pakistan cricket without dredging up the murky depths of corruption that defiled the home of cricket as thoroughly as England's last stand honoured it?
What the next chapter of this remarkable story offers is anybody's guess? But for the moment Pakistan cricket has risen from the flames, like the phoenix that ended the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. Pakistan cricket has these cycles of rise and fall, of wounding and healing, of glory and ruin, although without periodicity or logic. Despite this fluctuation, the overall trend has been downwards, until the upward flick of the last two years.
It is six years ago, for example, that the team of Bob Woolmer and Inzamam-ul Haq was able to plan for reaching the top; the progress halted by another controversial tour of England. Twenty years ago, Pakistan cricket was an exciting enterprise with thrilling fast bowlers and swashbuckling batsmen, a team that Usain Bolt supported as a child. Today's team is an exercise in pragmatism that would struggle to enrapture the childhood of any sprint champion of the future.
Yet in the month that celebrates the independence of Pakistan, and spurs such contemplation on the purpose of its cricket, every true heart and soul turns to notions of realising the dreams of a nation whose cricket is the most visible barometer of its success on the international stage. Hence the mere sport of cricket remains important, despite the many slings, arrows and drones that are besetting Pakistan. The cricketers, at least those who are worldly enough, will understand the significance of even a minor scuffle against Australia in the United Arab Emirates. Few teams will place as much importance on success in the World Twenty20 as will Pakistan.
The underlying theme of the next cricket year, however, will be Pakistan's relationship with its noisy neighbour. India and Pakistan meet in a warm-up before the World T20 in September and in the Champions Trophy in June 2013; no major tournament, it seems, is feasible without a head-to-head between these two eternal rivals. In between, Pakistan's mooted trip to India may usher in another era of bilateral cricket, an essential fixture for the credibility of the international game and the distraction of both populations. Cricket diplomacy is a disputed concept but cricket is a high-profile example of the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan, buoyed by the simple hope that familiarity will breed trust.
You might call me a dreamer but I'm not the only one among Indians and Pakistanis worldwide. Cricket is an opportunity to begin the process of reconciliation, and we must seize every genuine opportunity. Take South Africa, for example. Vernon Philander and Hashim Amla are beacons of the lengthy reconciliation process that was started after the end of Apartheid. In these circumstances, only a successful Test series in South Africa can challenge the fascination of Pakistan's adventures with India. Win that unwinnable series and the next Usain Bolt might even begin to pay attention to the flickering star of Pakistan cricket.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here