February 8, 2012

Pakistan's finest hour

The whitewash of England is surely their greatest achievement in Test cricket to date

You can now include 2012 alongside the years 2009 and 1992 in Pakistan's cricket history. Few would dispute that a 3-0 whitewash over the world's best team represents their highest feat in Test cricket to date, just as the 2009 world championship win was the height of Pakistan's Twenty20 success, and the 1992 World Cup the pinnacle of their ODI success.

Prior to this triumph, Pakistan's greatest Test accomplishments were measured in individual matches, such as The Oval 1954, Sydney 1977, or Georgetown 1988 - each a unique and emphatic memory, but each also part of a drawn series. Even the landmark series wins in India and England in 1987, both inaugural and historic, came through single wins, in Bangalore and Headingley. Overpowering a premier and glittering outfit like England by three straight wins to none in the Middle East now surpasses all that has come before it.

Anyone predicting a 3-0 scoreline favoring Pakistan at the start of this rubber would have been laughed off. England had not lost a series in three years, and Pakistan - though on the upswing - were untested against elite teams. England were coming with method and momentum, a seam attack overflowing with riches, a world-class offspinner who had Pakistan's number, and three batsmen in the Test top ten, with a fourth ranked 11th. They were led by a captain with an outsized reputation and an imposing record. And they had a coach whose tenacity had taken them to the top of the world.

Pakistan entered the contest as a group of nomads forced to make the most of the cards they had been dealt. They came from a country described as the rogue nation of world cricket, and had ex-colleagues who were in prison. Their cricketing tradition was founded on instinct rather than method, and their administration was based - to put it mildly - on madness. They were led by a man who became captain by accident, and guided by a coach who was interim. Their batting was shaky, their fielding and wicketkeeping erratic. The only better-ranked team they had defeated was Sri Lanka, and that by 1-0, with two draws. The bowling too was on limited foundations, with only one reputed seamer, Umar Gul, and only one spinner who was a proven Test match-winner, Saeed Ajmal.

What truly distinguishes this series win for Pakistan is not so much the quality of the adversary or the crushing margin but the manner. Despite frequent setbacks they were relentless and never gave up. They just kept fighting. This was Misbah's creed: even if you have to die, it must be with sword in hand. Wickets were thrown away, crucial catches dropped, and numerous DRS reviews wasted. Yet whenever it mattered, someone took the initiative and stepped up to perform. In the first Test it was Gul, who ran through the top order in England's second innings and prevented them from setting Pakistan a serious target. In the second, it was the middle-order pair of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, who arrested a collapse and set England a fighting total. And in the third Test the magnificent combination of Younis Khan and Azhar Ali took the match away when England had started to sniff a win.

What truly distinguishes this series win for Pakistan is not so much the quality of the adversary or the crushing margin but the manner. Despite frequent setbacks they were relentless and never gave up

Most of all, of course, it was the spinners, against whose insistent penetration England's best defenses came undone. To paraphrase Michael Atherton, it was not so much the issue of playing spin but the excellent nature of Pakistan's spin bowlers. Both Ajmal (who took 24 wickets at 14.70) and Abdur Rehman (who took 19 at 16.73) have emerged from this series with reputations both heroic and fearsome. With their mirror-image chemistry, and working in tandem, they proved Pakistan's deadliest weapon. Ajmal turned it both ways and was often unreadable, while Rehman was lethal coming out of the rough. They were exceptional in softening prey for each other. As a friend of mine recently quipped, Ajmal's teesra was finally revealed, and it turned out to be Abdur Rehman.

In all the elation and celebration, there has also been something of an anti-climax for the fans because the rankings have not budged. Pakistan are still ranked fifth and England are still first, prompting the question from exasperated supporters: what more does one need to do? In fact, the ratings have moved; it is just that the system has a built-in inertia that resists rapid changes and benefits the leader. It also doesn't help that technically Pakistan played this series at home, where victory carries less weight. Still, Pakistan (who had 99 points before the series and are now at 108) are within touching distance of both fourth-ranked Australia and third-ranked India (each with 111), while England will be toppled from No. 1 if South Africa beat New Zealand 3-0 in their upcoming series. Nonplussed Pakistani fans should appreciate that the same system will work in their favour if and when their team claws its way to the summit.

There is also some nervousness at what appears to be the imminent replacement of Mohsin Khan as head coach. Ultimately the roots of Pakistan's astonishing revival must be traced to brilliant and effective leadership, for which captain Misbah-ul-Haq deserves the lion's share of the credit, with Mohsin a clear second. The PCB's search for a new coach has led them to Australian Dav Whatmore, but the tedious process has been badly overtaken by the circumstances of the whitewash. With contracts inked, those hoping for Whatmore to simply disappear are bound to be disappointed. It is now up to PCB chief Zaka Ashraf to come up with a clever formula that will retain Mohsin in some sort of key role within the set-up.

Much has been made of Pakistan not being able to play at home, but the record suggests that, if anything, it has been something of an advantage. This is not to say that neutral venues are preferred (they most definitely are not), but - at least for Pakistan - they are not as much of a liability as they might appear to be for other teams. Being away from home has probably helped the players bond together, and it has certainly minimised interference from politicians, and other bigwigs, who come out of the woodwork and insist on throwing their weight around when the team plays in Pakistan.

Perhaps the most compelling factor is that the UAE destinations feel very much like an extension of the subcontinent. At the same time, the arrangements and playing facilities are superior, and there are sufficient numbers of Pakistani expatriates who can attend and enjoy matches. Granted that attendance for the Test matches was thin more or less throughout the series, but it would not have been much different in Karachi or Lahore. In any case there are certain to be capacity crowds for the ODIs and T20s, as there would have been in Pakistan. It may be worth Pakistan cricket adopting the UAE as a permanent second home, enough to include a match or two there even after tours to Pakistan are restored.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi