March 28, 2014

Missing Pakistan

How has the team fallen off the sporting map so dramatically in a cricket-literate country like Australia?

The 1995-96 Sydney Test: Rashid Latif and Ijaz Ahmed look up at batsman Mark Taylor's skier. Pakistan won the Test by 74 runs but lost the series 2-1 © Getty Images

As ridiculous as it might sound in an era in which cricket is beamed around the world via satellite on an endless loop, I had the nagging feeling of being short-changed this last week. It hit me while I was watching Pakistan's World T20 clash against Australia. Quite absurdly, it was the first time the two sides had played each other in the format in the past two years. In that time it feels like Australia have played more internationals against England than they did in the preceding decade, though I realise my arithmetic might be out slightly.

In Australia, unless you've got satellite TV or a working knowledge of the internet's burgeoning wormholes of "streams", there's a fair chance that you haven't seen a hell of a lot of Pakistan's games in the last five years, a period in which they have toured Australia just once. Though it's fair to say they didn't exactly hold up their end of the bargain in that 2009-10 summer (Pakistan lost every one of their three Tests, five ODIs and one T20 on that trip) it's an unfortunate reflection of cricket's new world order.

Never mind that an entire generation of young Australian fans have barely seen Umar Akmal and Saaed Ajmal show their wares, on a selfish level I just really miss Pakistan tours. It's a product of my own childhood - being weaned onto cricket via Pakistan's one-day international clashes with Australia.

In my own cricket-watching sweet spot between the ages of five and 16, Pakistan toured Australia seven times. At the beginning of that stretch they visited three times in five summers between 1988-89 and 1992-93. It's why when you speak to Australian cricket fans in their thirties and forties about Pakistani cricket, they are much more likely to recall an obscure fact about Qasim Umar, Abdul Qadir, Ijaz Ahmed or Ata-ur-Rehman than they are to tell you much about Shoaib Malik, Ahmed Shehzad or Sohaib Maqsood other than the way they face when they bat, and even then… Pakistan's T20 captain, Mohammad Hafeez, could probably walk through Melbourne's Bourke Street mall without being recognised.

One of the most heartening aspects of the cricket blogosphere is the campaigning many of its key figures do to spread the word of global cricket, and the way they make as much noise as they can to shed light on cricket's developing nations. Watching Pakistan the other night, though, I wondered what hope there was for the real minnows if a cricket nation as rich in history and lore as Pakistan can fall off the sporting map so dramatically in a cricket-literate country like Australia.

Though nostalgia doesn't help that situation, it's at least a small comfort. On that note, here are the three things I most miss about an Australian summer of cricket as it used to be not that long ago, ranked in completely subjective order:

The arrival of a Pakistan squad containing at least two or three players I had never heard of before, players who nevertheless became instant favourites (Zahoor Elahi, anyone?).

The sight of West Indies in creams at Australian Test venues, playing a five-Test series (bonus points if they were actually half-decent, as was the case up until their 1996-97 tour).

The touring side playing actual first-class tour matches against the respective states (okay, I'm getting slightly esoteric now; I realise that's not feasible anymore).

****

On Sunday night Melbourne time, Pakistan rode the Umar Akmal wave to 191 from their 20 overs, a total that might have looked imposing from a 50-over allotment back when they toured Australia for the 1983-84 Benson and Hedges Cup series. Continuing on that theme, Australia put in the kind of fielding performance that recalled such a bygone era. Then something clicked - Glenn Maxwell and his swivelling, swinging blade, the lasting impression of which was the vague image of a kind of batting Edward Scissorhands. He sliced, slapped and hoofed the Pakistan attack to all corners.

At 2 for 126 in the 12th over, the Aussies seemed to have it in the bag and Pakistan had lost the plot. Bilawal Bhatti had been slammed for 30 from an over and it was all but over. Then something remarkable happened. Shahid Afridi grabbed the ball and not only removed Maxwell but his captain, George Bailey, piling on pressure as he did so. The most unpredictable of all cricket's loose cannons was acting like the mature one out in the middle.

Rudderless and expensive only moments before, the Pakistan attack tightened the screws and made their move. Umar Gul came back from the dead. Bhatti returned as the wickets tumbled, and took two of his own. It was mad and beautiful and the Australians didn't know what had hit them. To be more precise, they didn't know who it was that had hit them.

If you had grown up watching Pakistan's tours of Australia in the '80s and '90s, it was exactly the kind of thing you'd have grown accustomed to, but now it felt strange and new; wonderful even (if you can say that of your home country's abject capitulation). The thing is, though, it was a rare treat and one that won't be repeated often. Not with the way the cricket world is now. In the next five years Australians have a two-month window (December 2016-January 2017) in which they can see Pakistan up close.

Maybe we're lucky that we have so much cricket to watch. Sometimes though, it's not anywhere near enough.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here

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