Barely has the dust settled on the county season and the England team are in the Middle East. Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow spent good time at the crease and Adil Rashid had some fun with the bat too, if a dry old time with the ball. The dust over there is a very different challenge. It is sad that England are not in Pakistan but we know why and wonder when. Pakistanis have cricket in their blood. Fostering the game is increasingly difficult without local exposure, but still exciting players emerge who will push England hard. Thankfully the passion remains.
International cricket is a mad, mad world and Pakistan plays its part in that. It is five years since Mohammad Amir was punished for his teenage greed. Those who led him down the path must find it hard to look the game they are supposed to have loved in the eye. By all accounts Amir is on track for a feisty return. Thank heaven for that. Were he to pull on the colours of his great land once more, there would be cause for celebration. With clear thinking and careful guidance, he can be an inspiration to others. Everyone, young and old, deserves a second chance.
The county game produces players of method and type. Partly this is the weather and the pitches and partly it is the system. Cricket in Pakistan is utterly different and, thus, the players produced are very different too. In England, you are first taught the virtues of a forward-defensive stroke and of line and length. In Pakistan both are a byplay to the ability to use the wrists and manoeuvre the ball into gaps, and to using the fingers and wrist to make the ball talk. In general, Pakistani cricketers have the greater talent and Englishmen the greater discipline.
English pitches allow English cricketers to prosper - ask the recent Australians - but most around the counties would be useless on the pitches in Pakistan, which are baked dry and lifeless. They are similar to those in the Middle East: surfaces that appear to suck the air out of the ball. England were humiliated on these pitches four years ago and some of the players are back to try and sort it out.
Surprisingly, Mahela Jayawardene is back there too, in an England shirt. What a smart signing. England will have to adapt to the tempo of the game in the UAE, a tempo far removed from Trent Bridge and Edgbaston last summer. Mahela was master of tempo, often creating his own. He could soak up an opposition and then spit it out in the most delightful way. Few players of any era have set themselves up so well. He and his pal Kumar Sangakkara are among the greatest batsmen exactly because of their ability to adapt in various conditions and apply their capacity for attack and defence as required. Mahela should seek out Ian Bell, or perhaps Bell has already moved. They have similar skills but different mindsets. Some time spent together will benefit the Warwickshire man greatly. The England bowlers will be fascinated by Mahela too. What would he least want them to do on these pitches? What would he most want them to do? Unravel these mysteries and Cook's travellers will begin to understand the plot.
"In England, you are first taught the virtues of a forward-defensive stroke and of line and length. In Pakistan, both are a byplay to the ability to use the wrists and manoeuvre the ball into gaps, and to using the fingers and wrist to make the ball talk"
Pakistan gave the world Javed Miandad, perhaps the most marvellous improviser of them all. In form, Javed took the mickey out of all but the very best. And like so many on the subcontinent he was a ferocious competitor. The 1970s, '80s and '90s were a glorious era for Pakistan cricket. Brilliant players appeared with astonishing regularity and their desire to win shocked the old school of the game. Imran Khan, who was chosen by Richie Benaud in his all-time favourite team, became their leader, and though his own powers had waned by the time the World Cup was won in 1992, he had knitted together something of a team. Imran played a huge part in the recognition and development of both Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, encouraging them to bowl fast or be damned. He taught them about swing and insisted they search for weaknesses in batsmen. Imran could smell physical fear and quickly detect technical flaws. He watched hands and feet and looked into eyes.
One of the most enthralling passages of play in the recent World Cup came in the quarter-final match between Pakistan and Australia at Adelaide Oval, when Wahab Riaz sniffed his opportunity against Shane Watson. Quickly, this became an epic confrontation between a truly fast bowler and a fine batsman pushed to breaking point. That they got in each other's face was a given. That the ICC fined them for breach of conduct was plain stupid. Rod Marsh referred to this in his Cowdrey Lecture, pointing out that the players should not be policed to within an inch of their contracts. Such head-to-heads are the food of the game and if emotion takes a hold over them, so be it. Far from bringing cricket into disrepute, these two players enhanced it and ensured that the game was on the front pages in the morning for the right reasons. No one will have enjoyed that more than Imran, a cricketer who clearly appreciated the spirit we often refer to and frequently mistake.
During that spell, Wahab might have been Wasim, Waqar or Imran himself. He, and it, was that good. Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan are other potentially lethal left-arm pacemen at the selector's disposal. Amir has much to do if he is to catch them. We pray he does.
It is typical to be derogatory about Pakistan cricketers. Captaining Hampshire, I once behaved like an idiot against them myself. Yes, they get under your skin, but there is little point in bleating about it. A strong argument goes that the English and Australians taught them all they know about the main chance. Away from the field of play, Wasim et al are amongst the most splendid friends. The white line merely fuels the passion inherent in their play.
Both current captains appear to have a tight rein on their men. Misbah-ul-Haq is coping immensely well with an assignment that has left many before him at the mercy of those on high. To his credit, Pakistan have been singled out by the ICC for good behaviour of late. Misbah has calmed these erratic, emotional cricketers and channelled their gifts. Not that this group is as gifted as those gone by, just that they have the same fierce ambition to justify themselves on the world stage. Cook, meanwhile, has a stroppy few to keep a close eye upon. They know who they are and seemed to toe the line for the greater good against the Australians. Long may it last, though not without the raw shows of desire that captivate the viewer. International sport should neither be a place for the faint-hearted nor a theatre without animation.
In the period since 1983-84, Pakistan have won all but one of the series played between the sides in Pakistan and the UAE. A famous triumph came for Nasser Hussain's team when they won the final Test of three in Karachi in 2000-01. Chasing 176 in 42 overs as darkness descended, Graham Thorpe, among others, kept wonderfully calm. To win again would be a fine achievement by Cook's team. Not so glamorous as the Ashes but as worthy in its way. For Pakistan, winning is paramount. There is a nation to inspire, albeit not from home turf.
The ICC must continue to watch over Pakistan and ensure that pastoral and fiscal help is at hand. It is expensive and destabilising to play home games abroad. Zimbabwe's recent visit to Pakistan was a success, as were trips by Kenya and Afghanistan. The next move should be for a representative ICC team to tour the country, a World XI if you like. The global game cannot afford to rest until Pakistan is fully incorporated again. We need this land of warrior cricketers every bit as it needs us.