Pakistan in South Africa 2013 February 19, 2013

The power of a few good men

Nobody except Rambo - and I don't mean Pakistan's and ESPNcricinfo's linguistic champion Ramiz Raja - ever won a war in isolation

Nobody except Rambo - and I don't mean Pakistan's and ESPNcricinfo's linguistic champion Ramiz Raja - ever won a war in isolation. We overestimate sport if we believe it is genuinely war minus the shooting, but on some occasions we don't overestimate it by much. Perhaps a televised rumble without switch-blades is closer to reality. For many reasons, Pakistan cricket is trapped in a perpetual rumble, its cricketers turning up their collars and striking a combative pose to take on the rest of the world--and just as often each other.

Adversity tends to prompt extreme reactions. Much of the world - and Pakistanis are no exception - expected Pakistan cricket to disintegrate after the calamity of the Lahore shootings in 2009 and the spot fixing scandal of 2010. The players might not have found love in a hopeless place but they seem to have discovered common purpose in an exiled space.

Instead of extinction, Pakistan cricket has adapted and emerged stronger after the cricketing equivalent of an asteroid strike or an ice age. In a variation on the theory of evolution, Pakistan's cricket is an example of survival of the least fit. Many Pakistanis, no doubt, will attribute this great escape to the power of prayer. By whatever mechanism, Pakistan cricket continues to engage, surprise, and fascinate, with no greater example than this year's tour of South Africa.

The upstrokes of these emotional variations can only occur because enough of Pakistan's cricketers, namely the bowlers, have a raw talent that defies environment. Ability, when all external issues are put to one side, isn't really a limiting factor in Pakistan's progress. The problem has generally been one of player development and leadership. Finding one leader has been difficult enough, finding several willing to pull in the same direction - the hallmark of successful sides of any era - is almost unprecedented.

When Pakistan's team has included several leaders, their main purpose has generally been to pursue their own agendas. Pakistan's fastest progress came in the 1980s under the partnership of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. Imran's popular image is as a dictator but the greatest trick the skipper ever pulled was allowing the King of Karachi a leading role beside him. Pakistan began that decade nowhere and, by the end, challenged the mighty West Indies, a team packed with leaders, for supremacy in international cricket. Imran's Pakistan never managed to topple West Indies, the greatest team I have ever seen, but a world cup win did follow in 1992.

The Imran-Javed axis or Pakistan's teams of the 1990s, which had many leaders but rarely one purpose, are hard for today's aspirants to match for quality. The achievements of the last two years are less in terms of international rankings, but after adjusting for prevailing circumstances you might argue the progress of Team Misbah to be superior. What the current crop lack in technique, especially in batting--even at times in bowling--they more than compensate for in tenacity.

Misbah-ul Haq is the boss but Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan, and Saeed Ajmal also contribute to the leadership effort. For Pakistan cricket, which, like the country, has generally fluctuated between iron-fisted dictatorship and disorderly rule, the sight of elder statesmen putting any differences aside and working together for such a sustained period is unheard of. It might even be the magic ingredient for the progress of the last two years?

Novel idea, leaders striving for the same goal: perhaps civil society might learn something from the senior pros of Pakistan cricket? What Team Misbah - the leadership team, that is - has demonstrated is that there is a different way for Pakistan teams to do battle on the cricket field, less divisive, often frustrating, but no less enthralling. They make mistakes, soldier on, and win friends. It is a war of attrition, peppered with blasts of inspiration, and it is compulsive viewing - even in defeat.

Misbah may not have much time left at the helm. Hafeez invariably struggles away from Asian conditions. Younis's career often seems to hang in the balance. Ajmal, in his doosra way, just keeps getting better. Team Misbah, these few good men of Pakistan cricket, have reached the autumn of their miracle. Enjoy it while you can.

Collars up, strike a fighting pose. Who's ready to rumble?

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here