Hope floats after hoodoo ends
In Pakistan losing every single Test for nearly 15 years to Australia a broader story was being written than just one country's complete owning of the other. In that time Australia have built decisively and maintained ruthlessly a dominance of the game almost unequalled, which is only now beginning to rust. More or less in the same period - but more pointedly from 1999 onwards - Pakistan's years have been dark ones, with them struggling to build anything they haven't themselves taken down immediately. Australia have prospered; Pakistan have flourished, struggled, flourished, struggled and then struggled more.
In a way, the Headingley result actually says as much about Australia's continuing descent than it does about Pakistan. Not only has Ricky Ponting now overseen two Ashes losses, after all, he is also the first Australian captain to lose a Test to Pakistan since John Howard became PM. It can be argued that if anything is a true indicator of their decline, it is this; that no side quite as ludicrously inexperienced as this one has beaten Australia for many years is merely the salt.
No opponent has had as tight and brutal a grip over Pakistan in the modern age as Australia; no opponent has so exposed Pakistan's vast spectrum of frailties physical and mental; no opponent has so taunted Pakistan with the dictum that talent alone is nothing; no opponent has stuffed down their throats as forcefully the truth of sport today, that triumph has a collective, not individual, imprint.
In its own quiet way, shed of the jingoism of Pakistan-India, of the age of the Ashes, and of the ego clashes of Australia-India, Pakistan's modern contests with Australia (to call it a rivalry is to denigrate the notions of equality inherent in that) have also been compelling for what they have revealed about each country's approach to sport.
Until the end of that 1995-96 series, there was a degree of equality about their jostling; Pakistan had won 11 to Australia's 14 Tests. Since then they only ever came close to not being thrashed three times, and each time they lost, in Hobart in 1999, in Colombo in 2002 and in Sydney in 2010, it broke them that much more. By the time of Michael Hussey's semi-final escape in May, they had long gone over the edge: a whole generation of cricketers had come and gone believing, behind the press-conference platitudes and public statements, that Australia cannot be beaten.
How crippled they are by Australia was evident in this chase. Forty to get with seven in hand, last night in Pakistan, was an equation 50-50, and that was an improvement from the opening day when Australia were 88 all out. The way they went about it this morning, possibly the players thought they had less of a chance. At one point you would've put good money on John Howard's longest hops winkling out the lower order.
But just to provide a blip in that equation is cause for some celebration - and there will be an outpouring in Pakistan. No matter that they collapsed at the finishing line only to stick one pinky over. In its own individual way, as the win that halted that run, it will be difficult to forget.
The optimist will draw greater significance, not least from this being a second win in 19 Tests against all sides. Pakistan chased a small total to win, which is precisely what they haven't done on three occasions in the last year alone. The nature of the chase suggested they're far from getting it down pat, and Pakistan have forever been poor chasers of small totals. To expect that to change overnight is to be a fool, but finding a way to win, experiencing a big win, can do telling things to young players.
Elsewhere he will see the arrival of Azhar Ali and the immediate calm he brings to the top order and feel that here is something out of which a solid one-down can be moulded. He will look at an opening partnership that has provided three century- and five half-century stands in 11 Tests, even as he scratches his chin to wonder how Imran Farhat has contributed to that. Friday was the Farhat of Lahore against India in April 2004, an opener of promise and patience in a four-hour hundred, not the ICL-jigged chancer. He will note that not a single catch was dropped in the outfield over two Tests or by Kamran Akmal. The potential of the bowling attack, meanwhile, will compel even the pessimist to rejoice alongside him.
He'll also say what a fine way to start a captaincy this has been. Few would've imagined Salman Butt to be the man to break this hold but few second-guess Pakistan cricket correctly. Butt had his moments here; some nice hunches, some level-headedness but some scary, panicked moments too.
He should not, though, see the win as some definitive triumph of youth over age and rule out a return of Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan. The middle order has promise but nowhere through the two Tests has it been sturdy enough for Test cricket. It needs the kind of mentoring Inzamam-ul-Haq's presence in the middle provided earlier this decade to both Yousuf and Younis.
The pessimist will simply wait till the end of a still long summer.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo