Blending style with substance November 21, 2005

The magic returns, Samba style

Reaching the pinnacle of international cricket takes discipline but it cannot be achieved without risk and it should be achieved with style. Pakistan have shown they have it in them to do that



Shoaib Akhtar: continuing the grand Pakistani tradition of flair, excitement, aggression, and passion © Getty Images

A touch of magic returned to Pakistan cricket at Multan. Once upon a time - when Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram were kings - you imagined that Pakistan's bowlers could defend any half decent total. More recently those achievements have become distant memories, stuff of legend and misty-eyed mythology.

Now Shoaib Akhtar and Danish Kaneria have relearned the spell, using a formula that propelled Pakistan to cricket's summit in the late 1980s and early 1990s: great swinging balls of fire coupled with the mesmerism of spin. It was a perfectly timed riposte to many Pakistan cricket fans - including me - who were beginning to despair at the dullness of Bob Woolmer's team. Let us be clear, though, that the jury is still unable to reach a verdict. Pakistan stunned England with an exquisite final day performance at Multan, one of Pakistan's finest ever, but it came after England bossed a Test in Pakistan in a manner that they have not achieved in decades. Pakistan's passionate final day followed too much plodding, soulless cricket. Shahid Afridi has thankfully carried that verve into Faisalabad.

Woolmer's tenure promised much but it had begun to deliver a sterile, defensive game without results as mitigation. Humiliation in Australia and a missed opportunity in West Indies were nobody's idea of progress - a tour of India delivered unexpected solace, although the home side was strangely off colour. Pakistan teams historically prosper by courting danger, through aggression and competitiveness. When Pakistan first began to seriously challenge the world's best teams in the 1980s it was because the players had an edge, an attitude - not the insipid fare that Inzamam appears to encourage unless the game has reached crisis point-Jeet lo dil was not on the agenda.

You see Pakistan's cricketing soul yearns for the sublime but sometimes produces the ridiculous - and I wish it no other way. Better to shoot for the moon and land in muddle than never risk your feet leaving the ground. There is a Pakistani way in cricket, abundant talent abundantly flawed, that leaves you holding your breath in anticipation of the next act and staring in disbelief if it comes off. If this was football, Pakistan would want to be Brazil, not the cricketing doppelgangers of Germany. The Germanic approach worked for Woolmer's South Africa but it is against Pakistan's instincts and can never free the team to scale the heights-and sometimes plummet the depths that it is capable of.

It may seem churlish to criticise but Australia didn't get where they are today by living as decadents. Their philosophy is a simple one: reward success and punish failure. Pakistan's selectors and captain, meanwhile, baffled the world by leaving out Afridi and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan in Multan. If you were to pick two players who richly enhanced their reputations in the last year, beginning with Pakistan's tour of Australia, an honest appraisal would conjure the names of these two brave combatants.



Shahid Afridi's performances in the last twelve months have been nothing short of stunning © Getty Images

Afridi's performances in international cricket have been stunning these last twelve months and it is hard to imagine a reasonable justification for his omission. Perhaps the memories of Afridi's earlier indiscretions are too numerous to allow Pakistan's selectors to think clearly? Yet Afridi today has become a responsible, dynamic, matchwinning cricketer. Similarly, Rana has emerged as an essential part of this Pakistan team. Swinging the ball at speed, both early in an innings and late, a rare skill among Pakistan's current cricketers, he became an able spearhead in Shoaib Akhtar's forced absence. Pakistan is lucky to have two such committed cricketers and equally unfortunate that they should have been dropped after being so successful.

Woolmer, though, deserves great credit for marshalling this Pakistan team into a disciplined, competitive force-and showing willingness to tame a couple of wild horses called Afridi and Akhtar - but my plea to him is not to strip away the flair, excitement, aggression, and passion that has been a hallmark of Pakistan cricket, traits that emerged so powerfully on the final day in Multan. The inclusion of Afridi and Rana immediately tilts the balance back towards daring do.

But the problems with Pakistan's approach are not manifested in selection alone. They are further exemplified by preparing a pancake of a wicket when your best bowlers -speedsters and spinner - would prefer a pitch with a little pace and bounce. This failing is not one that can be laid at Woolmer's door, it is twisted logic that has become enshrined in the code of the Pakistan Cricket Board like a commandment - "We might not win and neither shall you," a mindset that killed Test cricket as a spectator sport in Pakistan until its rebirth during this tour. Preparing lively pitches will also attract more fans, without whom Multan's revival and Faisalabad's first day surge would not have been possible.

Reaching the pinnacle of international cricket takes discipline but it cannot be achieved without risk and it should be achieved with style. Pakistan, for sure, will never become the Germany of cricket - it isn't in our genes, heads, or hearts - but Brazil, maybe. That may be a fool's dream. At the very least this is the week that a little magic returned to Pakistan cricket and created a much needed earthquake of happiness.

Kamran Abbasi is the editor of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine