Pakistan add method to madness
Four wins, three losses in nine Tests, on paper, doesn't a great year make. For sure, Pakistan has had better years for results. But statistics will not fully reveal the promise much of 2005 held for Pakistan. By the year's end, a joyous series win over England completed, the promise turned to significance.
As Pakistan hadn't won a home series in two years, the year became unique in recent times in any case. But the comprehensive manner of their triumph held a special allure and provided a fitting finale to the progress they had grafted for. As they did through the year, Pakistan took on England with a togetherness, discipline and commitment historically alien to them. By hanging on in Multan for four days, they encapsulated in miniature, a spirit of twelve months evidenced most vividly among the intimidating environs of Bangalore and Jamaica.
Patterns have not been replete in Pakistan's cricket but one has now emerged. This year they fought. In India they fought to draw a series not many expected them to; in the Caribbean they fought to draw a series many expected them to win and against England they fought to win a series not many expected them to. Significantly, each time, there was collective gumption in their performances. Just recall those players who have had good years; Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Danish Kaneria, Kamran Akmal, Salman Butt, Mohammad Yousuf. It is as large and diverse a cast of heroes as Pakistan has had.
Tangibly three factors bound them together; in no order of priority, Inzamam, Bob Woolmer and religion. Not only did Inzamam approach the absolute zenith of his batting prowess - Brian Lara apart, few matched him globally - he looked with nearly each passing day, the type of benevolent, caring patriarch purpose-built for a young, insecure team. He staunchly, and publicly, supported players, those like Mohammad Sami, who had fitful years and those like Afridi, who generally need support. By the end, even a rapprochement with Shoaib Akhtar had come. When he wasn't there - as in Barbados - the team collapsed, also the scene incidentally, of a bust-up between Afridi and Younis.
Woolmer's part was also vital; that he carried no agenda with him when he came in, only cricket and a fresh outlook for players was change enough. Most players in the team speak glowingly not only of the technical input he has provided but of the confidence he instills. Nowhere has his work stood out more than in Pakistan's ODI performances this year. In an arena that has long showcased, perfectly, their Jekyll and Hyde, Pakistan has acquired a scary professionalism. By not losing their customary flash, instead bolstering it with method and precision, Pakistan can look to the next World Cup with considerably greater optimism than they could the last.
And finally, in a year that saw Yousuf Youhana become Mohammad Yousuf, no review could be complete without touching on the growing piety within the team. Of course, with utmost conviction, how it has affected the team cannot be measured, especially as it remains so obviously a private matter. But as Rameez Raja and Woolmer have publicly said (and Woolmer has experience with South Africa's mid-90s Christian core), it has clearly glued the team in some way.
The most ringing endorsement, though, came from Shoaib Akhtar; after his rehabilitation during the England series, he spoke openly of this new culture in the dressing room, attributing the role religion has played. He hinted too at the part religion has played in his revitalization into the team and as a player, which is arguably a more startling transformation than even Yousuf's.
In time to come, this series may well be remembered as a watershed in Shoaib's career. Similarly, in time to come, this year may also be remembered as one for Pakistan.
New man on the block
Although he made his debut two years ago, this was Kamran Akmal's first year uninterrupted as Pakistan's first-choice wicketkeeper. With five international centuries and mostly accomplished work behind the stumps, it promises to be the first of many. More than anyone else, by keeping out Moin Khan and Rashid Latif, Akmal signified the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Narrowly beat out the likes of Salman Butt, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Shoaib Akhtar circa England 2005-06, who given his revamp, was arguably a new man altogether.
Openers in general; Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat and Yasir Hameed all had either non-existent (the first two) or frustratingly staggered (the last) years. The jury is veering towards guilty on the unsuitability of Shoaib Malik as Test opener and although Salman Butt alleviated some of the concern, finding him a partner became increasingly difficult as the year progressed. The stock of an opener has never been lower.
A three-sided coin please to decide between Bangalore, Multan or Lahore. In different ways, each performance was exhilarating and spoke of a team in progression, but each win sparked equally chronic goose bumps.
The failure to win a Test series in the Carribean; a shambolic host and their own confidence meant it was Pakistan's best opportunity to win a series there for the first time. The bust-up between Younis and Afridi also held a whiff of old Pakistan.
What does 2006 hold?
Despite the England win, as the management concedes, Pakistan are still unused to Test matches. They are improving and this year, a busy schedule ahead of them, that progress will be tested. India is already upon them, a series that never lacks in importance regardless of context and a return tour to England will provide further indication of where Pakistan stands as a Test side. For good measure, both series sandwich a tricky but frustratingly short jaunt to Sri Lanka. Conceivably, by the end of next summer, Pakistan could be among the top echelon of Test sides again. A dress rehearsal for the World Cup - the Champions Trophy - awaits in October and Pakistan will take the opportunity to develop their bench strength and finalise a playing XI for the World Cup 2007.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo