Finally, Pakistan can focus on the cricket
Perspective is a handy thing. The last time Pakistan stepped out in colours, they were bowled out for 75 and it led to a change in leadership. The last time they stepped out for a Test match, terrorists attacked their opponents. A few days ago the world said to them, understandably, that they would not be coming to play for a while. So what importance an ODI and T20I series against Australia in the Middle East?
Au contraire, the context is precisely what makes this battle so significant. Younis Khan knows it and hopefully his team does too. This is more than just being the first ODI in four years between the two sides, the first contest of any kind in fact, other than a T20 game in 2007. Not testing yourself against the best regularly doesn't just possibly hamper development but it also says perhaps you aren't important enough to go up against them often enough.
This series thus provides Pakistan with a sliver of an opportunity to reassert itself as a proper cricket team and not a wandering freak show, a carnival, laughed at, ostracized and taken with as much seriousness as one might take Jim Carrey. If they do well, win a couple of games and maybe even the series, they say something serious to the rest of the world, something not about doping, or legal wrangles, or security concerns, or impending financial doom, or in-fighting. Simply, by doing well, they say we are around and we are not irrelevant.
Happily for them, it isn't just the first time in years they are playing Australia, it is the first time in years it may just be possible to hope they can pull something off. Admittedly, that takes into account more the phase Australia find themselves in than Pakistan. Until recently, they had plummeted - although briefly - to third in the ODI rankings. They are back to second, but consecutive series losses to South Africa, a tied series against New Zealand and nine losses in their last 15 games speak of uncertainty and weaknesses.
They are also without Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee, a robust spine if ever. They are still Australia, as Younis has pointed out, but not the Australia he remembers playing last. Nathan Bracken's case is an interesting parallel to the fortunes of Australia; for long the world's best ODI bowler, he has just slipped a touch. Sixteen wickets in his last 14 ODIs have come at nearly 40, conceding well over five an over. Mightier assignments lie in wait for them later in the year, so all eyes may not be on this one ball. Predictions are brash, but if you're a Pakistan fan or in the Pakistan camp, you might feel advantage can be taken.
What role will conditions and a new stadium in the Middle East play? The glib, comforting talk is that Pakistan feel like they might be at home but that isn't saying much given their recent home record. And isn't one of the reasons ODIs are said to be in trouble is that there has been such a standardization of pitches, in this region of the world at least? In most places an ODI pitch looks and behaves much the same as another: it gives up runs as easily as do porn stars their clothes. If pitches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are much different, it will only make for better cricket.
As much as can be said of a bilateral contest, this series really is more about one side: Pakistan. If it is on the one hand such an important series, it is also in a sense, one in which they have nothing tangible to lose. If they are defeated, it is expected and, given what is happening around them in cricket and life, not the end of the world. But if they win, it makes for a cheerier, more worthy story altogether: take off against Australia, Younis told his players, and you'll be difficult to bring back down again.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo