Two fallen sides battle
What a contest this once was, the greatest side ever seen by some, up against the greatest sides produced by Pakistan. Over three series, from the mid-80s onwards, not one inch was given by some of the greatest cricketers the game has seen, led by the two greatest cricketers the game has seen. In Guyana on Thursday, Misbah-ul-Haq and Darren Sammy will lead their sides out, not one truly great name among the 22. No disrespect to either but that is some comedown.
It is pointless, if not harmful of course, to dwell upon the past too much but one reason Pakistanis and West Indians do so is because there has been consistently so little to look forward to in the future. Both teams have forever been stuck in the process of rebuilding and yet, years and years after their peaks, they lie sixth and seventh in a nine-team sport; in a league this would be a mighty relegation battle.
In those very circumstances they meet again, rebuilding, blooding youth, looking ahead, nervous not at the size of the project ahead of them, but at its fragility and their tenuous places within it. Favourites is too strong a word for it but Pakistan come in with better recent form, if better was to mean less bad. West Indies have won one of their last 19 Test series, Pakistan one of their last 11. That one was their last assignment, in New Zealand, which for Test wins is as close as you can get to a sure thing for Pakistan.
A first-ever Test series win in the Caribbean - you almost wish they could do it in better circumstances - is nevertheless a realistic aim. Under Misbah, Pakistan has sometimes felt an inherently defensive side though given the resources at his disposal, who is to blame him? And accounting for the circumstances in which he took over, perhaps an on-field style is only as important as off-field stability and clarity.
Still there are things to look forward to. With Younis Khan out, an entirely new middle order is unveiled, in far more conducive environment than when Pakistan last tried it, in an overcast England last summer. In earnest the post Inzamam-Yousuf-Younis era begins now and Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, and Umar Akmal - resolute, smart and explosive - are promising candidates.
Elsewhere, a post-Kamran Akmal era may also be beginning - though you never know when he might return so in denial have managements been to his deficiencies. Mohammad Salman has impressed behind the stumps, his glovework as quiet and unnoticed as his chatter is loud and repetitive. In a busy-ish year ahead, with Tests against Sri Lanka and England, Adnan Akmal - unjustly dropped - will remain in contention as will, it is hoped, Sarfraz Ahmed whose energy and general cheeriness ought to be recognized and rewarded.
But what quality cricket there will be in this series will come from the bowling. The day Pakistan stop producing quality fast bowlers will be the real day of mourning in this country; in Umar Gul, Tanvir Ahmed and especially Wahab Riaz, they are well-served. Given his successes in the ODI series and the trouble he caused the West Indies, Saeed Ajmal will surely have a role.
For once though, the hosts - for this task at least - have at their disposal, a potentially dangerous attack too. If they can find a way and the will to play Kemar Roach, Fidel Edwards, Ravi Rampaul and Divendra Bishoo - and it is Sammy's presence as an allrounder that spoils this possibility - they could prosper. Edwards has torpedoed a stronger Pakistan before, in 2005, and both Roach and Rampaul are wicket-taking bowlers.
But it is Bishoo, that wonderfully ballsy, smart and gifted legspinner who must be watched, if for no other reason than that he is the first genuinely attacking spinner the hosts have had in a while. He has a touch about him, an ability to bring about moments and on suitable surfaces, can really break a ball. Frankly Pakistan are awful against most kinds of spin and only Misbah seemed to play him with any comfort. His tormenting of Salman in the third ODI was more reflective of how Pakistan struggled against him; beware the zippy flipper that eventually did for Salman in that game.
Otherwise West Indies' rebuilding has a wonkier feel to it than Pakistan's. Their administrative disputes with players haven't attracted as much attention as the ones in Pakistan, but they are probably of greater harm, because they don't produce as much talent to replace those players as Pakistan tends to. The one with Shivnarine Chanderpaul looks the pettiest of a long list of scraps between WICB and WIPA, though he should at least be a part of the side now. Much - perhaps too much - will still be expected from him, that bewildering underperformer Ramnaresh Sarwan and the stodgy Brendan Nash. If Darren Bravo relieves any of that burden, it will be an attractive bonus.
There's no reason, though, to reconcile ourselves to the prospect of a dull series. A battle between flawed sides compete can be as pleasing to watch as one between high-quality sides. In one aspect at least the West Indies are ahead. With the release of 'Fire in Babylon' they have at least a vivid documentation of their greatest years, a tribute to history. The fall has been steep enough for the film to be heavy with resonance. Pakistan haven't regressed as sharply from their peak years but any film of their best years will be at least as compelling a watch. We can only hope.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo