A victory fashioned by the unsung
It is surprising how even seasoned observers of the game keep underestimating the potential of the fourth innings for psycho-drama. A stentorian voice announces that a target of 145 could not possibly trouble the world's best side. Another concurs, noting that 145 would be a routine ask in a T20; the chasing team would hardly bat an eyelid. There are some rebuttals but they are muted. You can't compare the two, someone mutters under his breath, explaining that in Tests there are neither field restrictions nor a limit on the number of overs per bowler. But most of all there is the unique psychology.
As compellingly demonstrated by Pakistan's victory in Abu Dhabi, going down the order in a fourth-innings chase is like plumbing the depths of the ocean. Pressure mounts exponentially, and it gets dark very soon. Low-to-medium targets are the hardest, because they tempt you like a mirage, until you fall, thirsty and desperate, grabbing at nothing.
If you want precedents, you could go all the way back to The Oval in 1882, when England failed to chase 85. Granted that was another era, with a different culture and playing conditions, but it happens to be the match that gave birth to the Ashes, and so casts a very long shadow. Since then there have been 13 other occasions when England have failed to chase a target of under 200.
Pakistan's name now shows up three times as the opponent on this list. In 1954 they prevented England from chasing 168 at The Oval. That, too, may have been another era, but it stands out in Pakistan's cricket annals as their most important victory. The second was in November 2005, in Multan, during England's last tour to Pakistan, when England were set 198 and dismissed 22 short.
There are certain similarities between that match and now, although there is also a vital difference. That England side too was basking in fresh Ashes glory, and comprised a star-studded touring party, with names like Flintoff, Pietersen, Strauss, Bell, Collingwood, and Harmison. Yet Pakistan's 2-0 win never drew much international traction. Now England are top dog, which in a sense imprisons them. Now all contests and all playing conditions assume equal significance, be it the manicured turf of a teeming English ground under heavy cloud cover, or an outpost in the desert, whose empty stands are baking under the sun. When you are the frontrunner, it doesn't matter how or where you get knocked off your perch.
Pakistan's gains from this victory are plenty. Most heartening is that the win was not fashioned by the usual suspects but by unsung honest triers who have mostly been labouring in the shadows. The match turned in the second innings, when Asad Shafiq joined Azhar Ali after Pakistan had lost four wickets without yet having erased England's lead. The stuffing had been knocked out of Pakistan's batting line-up, with both openers as well as Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, the two middle-order mainstays, gone. Shafiq and Azhar rode their luck, as you have to in these situations, but they stuck it out. Their partnership of 88 proved the key difference, being modestly in excess of England's eventual margin of defeat.
The bowling hero, too, was unexpected. With left-arm orthodox spin ruling this match, Monty Panesar and Abdur Rehman usurped the arena that general consensus had already ceded to Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal. Panesar and Rehman's six-fors in the second innings were both almost equally crucial.
The distinction was that Rehman's batsmen had given him enough runs to bowl at. Rehman made his international debut over half a decade ago, but has played only 14 Tests and 21 ODIs. Abu Dhabi is his first five-wicket haul, and only his second Man-of-the-Match award. He has been an undervalued player, never really seen as a match-winner, but those deliveries that kicked and spat out from the rough are going to change that.
Pakistan now find themselves in the rare position of being within striking distance of a clean sweep. Having come so far so quickly, and from rock bottom, carries an overpowering significance. Criticisms of Misbah's slow and steady approach should now be history, as should be any attempt to remove Mohsin Khan as the head coach, if the PCB has any sense. This series win has allowed us to better understand both men and their contributions. Misbah is the CEO, and Mohsin is the supportive and watchful chairman, standing steadfastly behind him. What they are doing together is not merely working, it is working wonders.
From here on, the challenge for Pakistan's cricket establishment is to create propitious circumstances that can help sustain such dramatic ascendancy. Far too often myopic administrators in Pakistan have unnecessarily fiddled with winning formulas, to the national side's unfortunate detriment. This Pakistan outfit is carving out a path in the sky. All that the PCB bosses need to do right now is to get out of the way. You really couldn't ask for a better deal.
Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi