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November 22, 2000
When I used to cover cricket as a reporter, there was the obligatory curtain-raiser, the scene and scenery and some weighty words on the wicket and how it was likely to play. I would go to the stadium and take a look at the wicket, prod it, toss a ball on it to determine the bounce. I would talk to the groundsman who would tell me whatever what ever I wanted to hear and I would appear solemn, as if I was some kind of an examiner. The fact was that I hadn't a clue and neither did the groundsman.
And in the curtain-raiser, I would play it safe and write that the wicket was likely to take spin on the third day. I never mentioned the grass on the wicket for it was likely to be shaved off.
When I became a senior correspondent, I was able to dispense with the curtain-raiser and thus did not have to go to the ground and prod the wicket. I don't want to make a sweeping generalisation but I suspect that there isn't anyone who can say with a measure of authority how a wicket will play just by looking at it.
The wicket for the first Test match at the Gaddafi Stadium was expected to be a minefield, was expected to be a square-turner and was likely to keep crumbling until the last day when it would disintegrate. It played best of all on the last day and it well into the second session of the fifth day that England began their second innings and 881 runs had been scored by then.
The ball did turn but so slowly that batsmen were able to wait for the ball to arrive and then place it wherever there was a gap. That's how Graham Thorpe accumulated his hundred. The fact that the ball turned didn't make it a spinning track for there was no pace and bounce which made both Mushtaq Ahmed and Ian Salisbury trundlers, pacifists in an army of fighting men performing non-combat duties. There was so much talk of the wicket before the Test started that England all but psyched itself into believing that it was walking into the spider's parlour.
Pakistan also managed to con itself and dropped Waqar Younis (or Azhar Mahmood) and play Qaiser Abbas for the added bonus he could bowl leftarm spin. Pakistan has never had the home advantage of preparing wickets of their liking because Pakistan lacks the expertise and for the future must leave well alone. I don't think the groundsman can be faulted. He is too lowly in the hierarchy and has to go along with what he is told to do. What the PCB needs to do is get a curator (as well as a fielding coach) from abroad, if necessary.
The Test match may have been drawn, thanks mainly to a truly great innings from Yousuf Youhana who alone, among Pakistan's batsmen realised that he was batting in a Test match but Pakistan has all but surrendered the psychological edge it had as the home team.
In the end Pakistan was able to make 401 but came perilously close to following-on but for a 127 run partnership between Youhana and Saqlain Mushtaq who had a dream match.
The young lad I really feel for is Qaiser Abbas. He dropped Graham Thorpe when he had only scored two. He came into bat when Pakistan were in the midst of a crisis and played a nothing shot that betrayed his nervousness and he was the one spinner among a clutch of them who did not turn the ball. The first Test of a series is the wrong occasion to induct a youngster unless that youngster happens to be a Bradman! Pakistan cannot afford youth over experience until a series has been secured.
The real contrast between the two teams in this Test match was in attitude. England, believing itself to be the under-dog came into the match in a positive frame of mind. They looked determined, they applied themselves and once the realised that the so-called spinning track was a blank cartridge, a dud, they asserted themselves.
Pakistan, on the other hand looked dispirited once they realised that there was no punch in the wicket for the spinners, particularly the leg-spinner and this showed in the fielding that was lacklustre and even sloppy at times.
England ran between the wickets splendidly because they found that Pakistan fielders were not attacking the ball and though there was a cluster of fielders around the bat, they did not seem to know the basics of close-in fielding.
The smiles on the faces of players of both teams suggested that it was a happy result. England had laid to rest the bogey of spin and Pakistan because they were able to squeeze an honourable draw out of the match. Both teams will go to Faisalabad for the second Test on even terms which means that England got more out of the Lahore Test than Pakistan.
Enough has been said and written about the Indian government's refusal to allow its team to tour Pakistan. I can only add my disappointment. It is a major setback for Asian cricket. To allow politics to interfere with sports is myopic. The Indian team would have received a royal welcome in Pakistan as the Pakistan team did when it toured India. A great bridge-building opportunity has been lost.
The PCB chairman had gone so far as to suggest that if India was unwilling to send its team, Pakistan was prepared to tour India. It's not cricket that is a hard game, it's politics. Politics is the equivalent of match-fixing at a different level. The loser, in both instances is the cricket public. And there is nothing that the ICC can do about it on both counts.
The more's the pity for the cricket calendar becomes only a declaration of good intentions rather than reliable fixture-list and we can't have any uncertainty hanging over international cricket like the Sword of Damocles.
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