None more bleak
Of the many reasons cricket has thrived and sustained its popularity in Pakistan, one has been its regular ability to provide something positive, something worth celebrating when times have been rough. This year has been among the most tumultuous of the 60 mostly turbulent years of this country's existence, but sadly, cricket provided little respite. In truth, apart from a brief period in September, it only added to the suffocating sense of gloom.
Much happened this year, little of it good. No doubt, it being another year where eras clashed, a new order swapping places with the old, a little caution has to come into any analysis. Shoaib Malik and Geoff Lawson were the men entrusted with the batons Inzamam-ul-Haq and the late Bob Woolmer left behind. But by year's end, questions that emerged towards the end of the reigns of the latter two were being raised over the appointments of the former; of a different nature, but questions nonetheless.
Overridingly, of course, it was because of the dreadful numbers, which hid no truth save that Pakistan were very poor. They won only one Test match from eight (losing four), and a paltry eight ODIs from 23. They didn't win a single Test series, and only one, wholly inconsequential ODI tussle against Sri Lanka in May. Applying spin to those facts is as effective as applying spin against Brian Lara.
The graver problem was that Pakistan, in colours and whites, didn't look like winning anything, and rarely did it seem like any progress was being made, more so once Malik took over. Little of it was directly his fault; indeed had Younis Khan said yes to the captaincy, as many hoped, expected and wanted him to, after the World Cup, Pakistan might have prospered from their first-ever successful, smooth leadership succession plan.
It didn't help either that all of Malik's fast bowlers - Pakistan's one strength - spent more time with doctors than they did bowling. Shoaib Akhtar had a typically infuriating year, and the spectre of injury never really let go of Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul. Like Inzamam before him, Malik never had a full, fit complement to choose from (though his faith in spin in his very first series in charge was both naïve and misplaced).
The other bits that constitute his team's spine also wobbled. Opening remained troublesome, and Kamran Akmal survived another spectacularly poor year behind the stumps, in which every catch he took was a relief. Aggravating the problem, Pakistan stubbornly refused to explore new options in both categories. Danish Kaneria, their leading Test wicket-taker, took wickets too expensively and infrequently for them to really matter. But most worryingly for Malik's own future, questions over his place in the Test side remained unanswered.
It all looked worse, because in hindsight this wasn't really a new era after all. The only major change was the captaincy and perhaps the loss of Abdul Razzaq. There was no major culling. The one sort-of-new face, Misbah-ul-Haq, was actually the most successful, and his second coming arrived during the only real bright spot in Pakistan's year. That a gallant runners-up place at the World Twenty20 was their only highlight, actually highlights just how poor the year was.
Bob Woolmer's death at the World Cup brought to an unfortunate close a phase of Pakistan cricket, at the end of which, ultimately, they seemed no healthier than when it began. But as the year ended, this quasi-new phase already seemed to be stagnating, so that the only real good news from Pakistan's 2007 was that it should be over shortly.
New man on the block
Misbah-ul-Haq. Though calls for him to be made captain by year's end were premature and ridiculous, there can be no doubting his impact. A surprise recall for the Twenty20, he was Pakistan's (nearly) man of the tournament. With an outstanding series in India, he successfully began the job of filling in the largest shoes in Pakistan, those of the other ul-Haq, Inzamam. And he was doing it as unflappably and calmly as Inzamam.
Abdul Razzaq. Having once been the most promising allrounder in the world, this year Razzaq only played seven ODIs, in which he was largely ineffective, and no Tests. Miffed at missing the World Twenty20, he retired, joined the Indian Cricket League, renounced his retirement, and was subsequently banned from playing domestic or international cricket. The future is bleak.
As a proper start to Malik's captaincy, the run to the Twenty20 final promised much. Typically, it was conceived in a Shoaib Akhtar controversy, but Umar Gul, Sohail Tanvir, Shahid Afridi, Misbah, and the captain himself represented big gains all the way to the final. Pakistan looked at home with the format and Malik in tune with the game's requirements. But for one paddle, they might even have won it.
Getting knocked out by Ireland was low enough, but the death of Bob Woolmer after it threw Pakistan cricket into depths unseen (and it has seen some). That the loss of one of cricket's true devotees was so keenly felt by the entire cricket world, and not just Pakistan, was of little consolation.
What does 2008 hold?
Some pretty tough challenges, not least of which might be - at least currently - to host international contests. If and when the situation stabilises, however, the toughest challenge in cricket comes knocking in the shape of the first Australian tour in a decade. Thereafter, the Asia Cup and the ICC Champions Trophy beckon, and a tougher initiation as captain Malik will not find. Any progress at all, from this year, would do nicely.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo