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May 29, 2013
Pakistan's captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, has just turned 39 and he was asked at his side's introductory media conference ahead of the Champions Trophy how he would celebrate it. "Just going for practice," he said.
There have been more exciting birthdays, but there have been few more wisely spent. What Pakistan need more than anything is a quiet time in their first appearance in England since a spot-fixing scandal in 2010 ended with three of their players serving custodial sentences and their reputation once again dragged through the mud.
This is a tournament where for the sake of Pakistan's cricketing future they need to rebuild the respect of the many as well as excite the passions of their committed supporters.
Even as Misbah tried to give an impression of solidity, one of his greatest attributes since the day he took charge, the headlines were again suggesting that all was not well. As he sat down, attention centred upon the suspension of the PCB's chairman, Zaka Ashraf, by the High Court in Islamabad pending investigations of what Justice Shaukat Siddiqui called a "polluted" election process.
Once that had been digested, talk turned to Asad Rauf's protestations of innocence after he had been withdrawn from the Champions Trophy umpiring panel amid media reports in India that he was under police investigation as part of the IPL betting scandal.
Surrounded by all of this disruption, Misbah and the Pakistan coach, Dav Whatmore, strive to create a competitive side for the present and a bold vision for the future.
Pakistan's supporters must despair of better times. Their side will invariably possess volatile talent and their supporters can be expected to be out in force, especially in Birmingham, where they play two of their three group matches, against South Africa and India. Just for once, though, they would benefit from a lot less fun and a lot more sense. The fans deserve better.
Their warm-up matches have not augured well. They were rained on in Scotland and in Ireland they came perilously close to becoming the first Full Member nation to lose a series to an Associate. Ireland tied the first game thanks to Kevin O'Brien's blistering 84 from 47 balls in Clontarf and then seemed to have the second match won only for Kamran Akmal and Wahab Riaz to pull off a spectacular run chase.
Misbah, having experienced Ireland and Scotland, is probably the only Champions Trophy captain to arrive in England thinking that when it comes to the swinging ball things can only get easier.
"I think coming from Pakistan it's really difficult to adjust to the conditions, especially the weather," he said, "but we have played a game in Scotland and then in Ireland two games, so it really helped us to acclimatise here, especially now it's really cold here also.
"In Ireland especially, the ball was really moving in the air. So everybody has suggested that, and they're ready to just face those sort of conditions. I think in England especially it will be better than Ireland, so I think mentally everybody is ready and now getting ready for this tournament."
Misbah has been a solid upholder of the faith in such taxing times for cricket's itinerant nation. There is a staunchness about him that goes down well after the reign of Salman Butt, who initially charmed the English media with his sharp wit and well-modulated accent, but who became regarded as a latter-day snake-oil salesman after a tabloid newspaper sting led to the captain and two fast bowlers, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, bringing shame upon Pakistan cricket.
Birmingham's large number of Pakistan supporters should help them feel at home, their loyalty never wavering despite constant slights upon it. The final group match against India on June 15 sold out in three hours and, in a group also containing South Africa and West Indies, there is every chance it could prove critical to at least one of the side's chances of reaching the semi-finals.
"I'd say it's special for us because a lot of fans here are for the Pakistan cricket team," Misbah said. "I haven't played before here, but Pakistan really had a good record here. Even in the last series, Pakistan won a Test match and played really well. We're really looking forward to enjoying these games."
Pakistan's Edgbaston record is actually not remotely as spectacular as Misbah imagines. In all competitions, they have won six, lost nine and drawn three. They lost their last Test in Birmingham against England three years ago and also lost their last ODI on the ground in 2006. Misbah has never lost at Edgbaston - but then he has never played at Edgbaston.
He was right about his 39th birthday, though, even if the rain did affect his attempts to practice.
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