In the fall of 1999, Pakistan went to Australia with what they believed was the most talented squad they had ever had. They were barely six months removed from having lost a World Cup they thought was their own, and the series was thus presented as a time for revenge. The Test team had been plagued by inconsistency over the previous five years, but they could always put that down to infighting and to being led by sub-par captains. Under Wasim Akram, by contrast, Pakistan's record was exemplary. Since losing in Australia four years earlier, he had taken charge of five Test series - winning four and "drawing" one. Even the lone drawn series, away to India in 1999, could be classified as a success, with the third Test of that tour being a victory on course to winning the Asian Test championship. The confidence they had going to Australia wasn't misplaced.
A decade earlier Pakistan's greatest Test team had gone to Australia having not lost a single one of their previous ten Test series - including two against the uber dominant West Indies. They returned with a one-nil loss. Surely this time it would be different?
It was. But not the way they imagined it would be. Pakistan lost nine of their first ten matches on the 1999-2000 tour. That streak, which included all three Tests, began with their inability to play a 50-year old Dennis Lillee and ended with them being blown away by Australia's second-tier attack. For the first time in over a decade Pakistan realised that even their best might not be good enough against the best.
That has been the story of Pakistan's tours to Australia. They have only ever won four Tests there - the last two in dead rubbers. The last time they won a live Test in Australia, the top three music acts on the Billboard charts were Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees and Rod Stewart, and Margaret Thatcher was still the leader of the opposition in England. No team has held sway over Pakistan quite like Australia has done.
For a country and a fraternity that prides itself on being different and innovative, Australia presents the biggest challenge. Pakistan, after all, is the place where, despite having taken nearly 500 international wickets, Saqlain Mushtaq is still defined as the inventor of the doosra: innovation trumps achievement. And yet, however different they might present themselves as, there is an ideal they wish to emulate.
"The last time Pakistan won a live Test in Australia, the top three music acts on the Billboard charts were Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees and Rod Stewart, and Margaret Thatcher was still the leader of the opposition in England"
Think of everything that former Pakistan cricketers, pundits and the majority of fans consider to be components of the essential character of Pakistani cricket. Words like "mercurial" or "unpredictable" do not feature; those are used by foreigners when referring to Pakistan. When Pakistanis project their best selves it is by describing the team in vaguely masculine terms. The belief in sheer pace, in the importance of legspin; the unhealthy obsession with aggression; the belief that all that matters is confidence; the sense that every inkblot in a Rorschach test is bound to be a moustache - these are borrowed from Australia. The reverence for these qualities has only increased since that fateful winter over the turn of the century. Quite simply, Pakistanis want their team to be Australia, or rather to approximate to their own interpretation of Australianism.
Pakistan have attempted to learn from Australia too. Pakistan's solutions after that tour of Australia in 1999-2000 were predictable - they set up a national cricket academy. Tauqir Zia sent Colonel Shujauddin to Australia to compile a report on how Australia became what they were at the time, and his solution was that academy. Every time a former player decries the state of domestic cricket, the solution he offers involves following the Australian model - fewer teams, more club cricket, and varied pitches. Never mind that England and India have done pretty well with big first-class systems, nor that the population or sports culture of Pakistan is a complete inversion of Australia's; the solution is always to follow Australia.
It makes sense too. Every desi kid has that one relative or family friend - the phupho ki beti (aunt's daughter), if you will - who is presented as the model of what they should aim for. Considering it's a desi family, the taunts and lectures mostly have to do with academics. The phupho ki beti is presented as the contrast to you - if only you studied as much as her, if only you were as obedient and courteous as her, if only you were her. Pakistan cricket is that rebellious kid who wants to create his own world. Australia is the phupho ki beti who will always hover over him like the sword of Damocles.
And that's why Pakistan's upcoming tour of Australia is so fascinating. Australia, at least until one Test match ago, found themselves in an identity crisis, where they began to question their beliefs. For once, even they wondered aloud. Meanwhile Pakistan were - at least until three Tests ago - the most successful team the nation has had in over two decades, despite all the problems they've had to face, and they became that team by rejecting the pursuit of Australianism.
Thus, this series becomes a fight for the soul of cricket - if Australia prevail, as they always do, the doubts of November will give way to a return to la-la land, where everything is rosy and the world doesn't change. But if the unthinkable happens, well, we might have to question everything we've ever been told. The most likely outcome, though, is that neither of those things will happen - something far worse, something we can't even imagine right now is going to take place. After all, it's 2016.