Pakistan December 26, 2017

Turn it upside down

In recent years, Pakistan were good at Tests, not so much at ODIs. No longer, it would seem

Easily the highlight of the year © Getty Images

Picture being a Manchester City fan on May 13, 2012. The day they beat Manchester United, their biggest rival, who always seemed to come out on top, to a prize they had coveted for long - the English Premier League title. Imagine then being asked, at the end of the year, to assess the previous 12 months as a whole.

You would do well to simply understand the question. Nothing else mattered outside of that moment on that particular day; there was no year to sum up, there was simply that day, and the moment that Sergio Aguero made the net bulge. The rest was irrelevant.

That, essentially, is what Pakistan cricket will remember when they look upon 2017 in the years to follow. There was a chastening defeat against India to kick off the Champions Trophy in England, and the real prospect of elimination in the group stage. There was a lucky win against top-ranked South Africa with a bit of help from the DLS method, followed by a nail-biter against Sri Lanka to sneak into the semi-finals through the back door.

Those were followed by perhaps two of Pakistan's most commanding limited-overs performances. Hosts and tournament favourites England were brushed aside in the semi, as Pakistan set themselves a showdown against - who else? - India. Then, laughing in the face of history, they blew their biggest rivals away, surging to an astonishing 180-run win. If this was a movie script, any director worth their salt would have rejected it for being too clichéd. As it stood, this was Pakistan's Lagaan.

The year simply reaffirmed the fact that if you think you understand Pakistan cricket, you don't understand Pakistan cricket. It had long been believed that Test cricket was Pakistan's strongest suit; they had held the mace just last year. The country's limited-overs philosophy, on the other hand, appeared to have caught the Y2K bug, never quite making it into this millennium.

Pakistan's post-Misbah-Younis Test era is looking grim © Getty Images

And yet, what is most noteworthy about the year is Pakistan carrying a nine-ODI winning streak into 2018, their Champions Trophy heroics followed by a whitewash of a listless Sri Lanka. It is hard to attribute the turnaround to a particular factor; even their batting coach, Grant Flower, admitted to being surprised by the turnaround since the loss to India in Birmingham. Their ODI record for the year until that point - three wins and six losses - wasn't unsurprising; they began the year with a 4-1 series defeat against Australia, and only just managed to beat a severely weakened West Indies 2-1. That was the Pakistan ODI side we all knew. We're still coming to grips with the leviathan of the last six months.

It is tricky to read too much into the side's T20 form, encouraging though it is. Pakistan won eight of the ten T20Is they played this year, though they were hardly pitted against the stiffest competition. They won 3-1 against a West Indies side that bore little resemblance to the 2016 World T20-winning squad. There was a 2-1 series victory in Lahore that came against a World XI team where the main qualification for being counted among the touring side was a willingness to play in Pakistan. The 3-0 whitewash over Sri Lanka could largely be attributed to the fact that most of Sri Lanka's top players pulled out of the series, unwilling to play the third T20, scheduled as it was to take place in Lahore. These are encouraging results for Pakistan, though it's hard to say what one can learn from them.

In a complete reversal, the Test unit appears to be in alarming freefall, a sad, rapid descent into mediocrity that looks to have undone much of the good work over the seven years that saw them reach the top. They finish the year ranked seventh, above only West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. The year began with a predictable loss in Sydney that sealed yet another home whitewash for Australia against Pakistan. Pakistan's first ever Test series win in the West Indies was their second brightest moment all year. It came in dramatic fashion too, with Yasir Shah getting rid of No. 11 Shannon Gabriel with just six balls in the last Test, ensuring Misbah and Younis Khan finished their careers on a high.

The shoes of those two don't look nearly like being filled yet. The first series Pakistan played in the absence of the stalwarts will have reminded them of the fact: it was their first Test series loss in the UAE for the first time since it became their permanent home, a 2-0 reverse against Sri Lanka that meant Pakistan won two and lost four Tests this year. Going further back a little, they have come up second best in nine of 11 Tests, and ideas to buck the trend are few and far between.

Losing to a struggling Sri Lankan side in UAE, where Pakistan had not lost a Test series since 2010, was a hard blow © Francois Nel/Getty Images

But another ray of positivity can be gleaned from the incipient return of international cricket to Pakistan - well, to Lahore at least. It started with the PSL final, where Peshawar Zalmi's entire foreign contingent, including players such as Darren Sammy, Dawid Malan and Chris Jordan came to Lahore. The ICC-sanctioned World XI playing three T20Is at Gaddafi Stadium was a massive feather in the PCB's cap, what with the likes of Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Morne Morkel taking part. Security is still at the forefront of players' minds, though; nearly Sri Lanka's entire first team balked at the prospect of coming to Lahore, while a tour by West Indies was also postponed to next year. Surely no one thought it would be anything other than a long, painful process.

High point
Forget Sharjah, it is one of England's oldest cricket grounds that deserves to be called Pakistan's home away from home. Their first historic triumph came at The Oval, all the way back in 1954, and the zenith of Pakistan's 2016 came when Misbah-ul-Haq's side beat England there to secure their spot at the top of the Test rankings. This year arguably tops the lot.

Sarfraz Ahmed's team put together a virtually perfect ODI performance in the Champions Trophy, making a mockery of perceptions along the way. They put paid to the idea that they lacked the power-hitting necessary in modern cricket, totting up 338 in the final. They shrugged off the criticism that they hadn't been able to find a decent pair of openers since the 20th century - Fakhar Zaman and Azhar Ali put on 128 for the first wicket. Most of all, they, once and for all, buried the notion that big game plus India equalled defeat. This match had been played millions of times in the minds of Pakistan fans. That day, the fantasy came to life.

Low point
If you've been paying attention at all recently, you may have noticed Sri Lanka aren't having a terribly good time of it. Pakistan, on the other hand, are really rather good in the UAE, never having lost a Test series since relocating there permanently.

Fast bowler Hasan Ali has transformed Pakistan's limited-overs fortunes © Getty Images

As such, to lose 2-0 to Sri Lanka in the UAE really went to show how grave a rut Pakistan's Test cricket was in, particularly now that Misbah and Younis are no longer around. The first Test was so classically Pakistan, it was banal, featuring a fifth-day collapse where they fell short by 21 runs chasing 136. In the second Test, they managed to turn in an even shoddier performance, with Sri Lanka comfortably securing a 68-run win. A Sri Lanka side, mind you, that was halfway through a 16-match limited-overs losing run, and whose only other Test wins all year were a tense four-wicket victory against Zimbabwe, and one against Bangladesh that helped secure a 1-1 series draw.

New kid on the block
Not just a young player for Pakistan to nurture and look forward to, but already a contender for ODI Player of the Year. Since making his debut last year, Hasan Ali has seamlessly transitioned into ODI cricket in particular. He has 63 wickets from 29 matches across formats this year - at an average of 18.85. Hasan was the leading wicket-taker and the Player of the Tournament in the Champions Trophy, taking 13 wickets in five matches, including three in each of the four games Pakistan won en route the title. His T20I record this year - 12 wickets at 21.41 - isn't bad either, and if he can keep himself clear of injury and controversy, he could be a fantastic limited-overs asset for Pakistan for several years to come.

What 2018 holds
Pakistan have flipped around their form in each format within the space of 12 months. Who's not to say they won't do so again? And that makes one particularly wary about making predictions about Pakistan cricket; they do not age well. Sarfraz, now Pakistan's captain across formats, will look to consolidate his position by maintaining their limited-overs form and rediscovering the formula that made them so successful in Test cricket, but all that is easier said than done.

The year begins with a limited-overs tour of New Zealand, which threatens to expose Pakistan's ODI and T20 prowess of the last six months as a mere flash in the pan. There is a T20 tour by West Indies scheduled in March, with the games to be played in Lahore, which should bring ample excitement. Pakistan will also take on Ireland in the latter's first Test match (expect a green track and a possible banana skin). That is followed by a two-Test tour of England, which looks a much tougher assignment than it did in 2016. Tours to Zimbabwe and South Africa round out the year. With Pakistan lurching from one extreme to the other over the past two years, stability and consolidation will do just fine for them come December 2018.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000