January 20, 2012

One of Pakistan's greatest victories?

Under Misbah, the batsmen have raised their game to match their bowlers' efforts. If they extend their advantage over England, it might be the start of something big

After Pakistan's imposing victory in Dubai, England's No. 1 Test ranking is not the only thing under threat. There is also the record for the largest number of Test wins by a Pakistan captain - jointly held for the last two decades by Imran Khan and Javed Miandad with 14 apiece - which Misbah-ul-Haq, with his current trajectory appears headed for.

Another vulnerable target is Pakistan's notoriety as the underachieving bad boys of world cricket, which Misbah and his men are all set to overturn. There are also the reservations from last year that Pakistan had not been tested against top-notch opposition, which will be dealt with if Pakistan can capitalise on their first-Test victory and win the series.

Then there is the spot on the pedestal where Saqlain Mushtaq sits as Pakistan's most hallowed offie. It might be too early to say, but Saeed Ajmal is now threatening to elbow his way on there. Ajmal has come to the party quite late, having made his international debut in 2008, and played his first Test the following year, when has was almost 32. For a while he was considered good only for containment, and therefore a limited-overs specialist. As recently as during the build-up to the 2011 World Cup, he was described by Imran Khan as being better at choking runs than making strikes. But Ajmal, whose Test bowling average, strike rate and economy are all better than Saqlain's at the same stage in his career, is fast getting up there with the man he has idolised and yearned to emulate.

This series has been anticipated as a duel between Ajmal and Graeme Swann, but though Swann's career numbers are better than Ajmal's, the latter has drawn first blood, taking 10 for 97 in the opening Test compared with Swann's 4 for 107. Swann is deeply respected in the Pakistan camp, and with good reason, because his Test average and strike rate against Pakistan are better than those against any other country. Swann has an edge over Ajmal in being able to turn the offbreak more, and having better command of flight, while Ajmal's unique asset is the menacing doosra, which Swann can't bowl.

Until the start of this series, there was also a feeling that Swann's psychological arsenal is more potent than Ajmal's, but after the fuss over the teesra it seems their craftiness is perhaps evenly matched. Ajmal approached the Test in Dubai with an array of postures and pronouncements that recalled the way Bobby Fischer prepared for Boris Spassky in 1972. When these two chess legends met to decide the world title, Fischer's eccentricities spooked Spassky well before the first move on the board. England's capitulation in the first innings, from which they never recovered, was similarly abject. Tied in knots, they surrendered to the mere idea of the weapon. Does the teesra really exist? No, it doesn't. But - especially if you're an England batsman - don't take my word for it.

England may have been caught napping, but Pakistan will expect a backlash in the next Test in Abu Dhabi. Going one-up in a three-Test series is a firm advantage, but on one previous occasion - against Sri Lanka at home in 1995-96 - Pakistan lost a three-game rubber after winning the first Test. That, however, was a different era, rife with player politics and rumours of match-fixing.

With the team cleansed of corruption, and a culture of increasing discipline and focus under Misbah, Pakistan may be able to weather the storm England are planning to brew. Successful batting will be the key. The bowlers have been receiving much of the credit for Pakistan's resurgence - and deservedly so - but figures indicate that the real difference has been in the batting. Comparing the 13 Tests under Misbah with the 13 before them shows that Pakistan have conceded almost the same number of runs (7007 versus 6964) and taken wickets with a more or less similar average (29.07 versus 33.16), but the batting average under Misbah has almost doubled, from 24.30 to 41.80. In other words, Pakistan's bowling was strong before, and continues to be strong under Misbah, but now the batsmen are giving their bowlers enough runs to play with. The result is that Pakistan have won seven of the 13 Tests under Misbah, compared with three wins and eight losses in the 13 previous Tests.

The last time England toured Pakistan, they lost 2-0 in Tests and 3-2 in ODIs. It was the series in which Danish Kaneria and Shoaib Akhtar were on song, Mohammad Yousuf scored a match-winning double-hundred, and Inzamam went past Miandad's record of 24 Test centuries. Afterwards England complained of alien and unhelpful conditions that did not suit their style of play.

England are in a different situation now. They are ambitious about a long reign as the world's top-ranked Test side, which forces them to view Asia as the final frontier, not some exotic backwater. This time around, grumbling about the conditions won't wash. Indeed, excuses of any kind will ring hollow, as the reaction to Bob Willis' questioning of Ajmal's bowling action has already shown.

It would perhaps be hyperbole to suggest that this is one of Pakistan's greatest Test victories, but for now that is certainly the way it feels. If it is possible to be stunned with pleasure, that is what Pakistani fans are at the moment.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

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