January 26, 2014

The art of the chase

Over the years, Pakistan have time and again shown they possess the cricketing oomph to hunt down a fourth-innings target

Misbah-ul-Haq was both calm and adventurous during the final tricky stages of the Sharjah Test © AFP

Over the years I had become a little tired of the "unpredictable genius" tag being applied to Pakistan, for they had become predictable in some ways. Their batting seemed predictably weak, for instance. Well, with their astonishing chase against Sri Lanka last weekend, they confirmed that all the adjectives used to describe their cricket-playing - "mercurial" being the mildest among them - were justified.

Some 35 years ago, as an 11-year-old, I watched with admiration as a Pakistani team pulled off two brilliant chases against India. I was young, I was impressionable; in Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal and Javed Miandad, I was watching some of the greats of the modern game. That kind of cricket was bound to stamp its mark on me. And so, those two wins in Lahore and Karachi set up in my mind a classic template for exciting Test match wins: a chase completed in the dying overs of the fifth day.

In those days, the 20 mandatory overs were the signal that the final rites of a Test were at hand; Pakistan's chases meant I would always associate them with a last-minute, heart-stopping scramble for runs. The fielding captain could waste all the time he wanted; the bowlers could bowl wide of the stumps; the fields could be packed in the most bizarre fashion possible; but somehow a conjuring trick would be pulled off. Limited-overs chases do not come close to this sort of drama.

Because I wanted the Indian team to aspire to such heights too, it was unsurprising that nothing quite got under my skin as much as their failure to pull off similarly dramatic wins on the fifth day. Whether it was my bemoaning the panicky draw at The Oval in 1979, the bizarre, somnambulist stroll in Melbourne in 1985, or the pusillanimous offer of a no-contest in Dominica in 2011, a failure to drive on towards a win with a perfectly balanced combination of aggression, flair and cricketing nous always managed to induce apoplectic fits in me.

And there were, of course, all too many times when the Indian team did not even try to take a stab at glory when set bigger, more difficult targets that ostensibly required them to bat out the final day. Indeed, on occasion, hell-bent on merely batting out time, and not even indicating to the bowling team that they might chase, and thus force them instead on the defensive, they lost Test matches; Bangalore in 2005 and perhaps even Sydney 2008 might be regarded as falling into this category. Insult, injury, and all that. (India's wins in Chennai in 2008 and in Mohali in 2013 did mollify me somewhat.)

Pakistan's chase puts South Africa's failure to pursue victory in Johannesburg in even worse light. The worst that could have happened to South Africa was that they would have gone down 0-1 in the series; that is all. They would still have had a chance to come back 1-1, and there would have been no disgrace in the defeat had it happened while they were going for the win (as opposed to defending and blocking in the final overs); they would have lost bravely. Anyone who would have accused them of being chokers would have risked having his sanity questioned. The best? They could have pulled off one of the greatest wins in the history of Test cricket, they could have squashed the chokers tag, the team members would have written their names into the annals of Test cricket in no uncertain fashion. And did I say they would have won a Test? Yes, that too.

Pakistan were down 0-1 against Sri Lanka. A draw would have not changed that scoreline; a loss would have made it 0-2. So they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. There are some who might imagine that these sorts of considerations will explain everything there is to know about Pakistan's win, and that therefore the sort of comparisons I am making with South Africa and India are eminently unfair. But a team could be confronted with the series situation that Pakistan faced and still not react appropriately or execute the chase properly. That still requires some cricketing oomph.

So, once again, Pakistan, thanks for chasing on Monday.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here