How important is the England tour for Pakistan?
It just might be their most significant series in years - not that you could tell by the way they've gone about preparing for it
In the halcyon days of autumn last year, Pakistani cricket was in a state of optimism. Pakistan had once again held the fortress - their home away from home - in Test cricket, and seemed to finally have picked themselves off the floor in limited-overs cricket. The PSL was just around the corner, and a new era was about to dawn.
In the midst of this, plans were made for the summer ahead. The Test specialists, the likes of Shan Masood, Zulfiqar Babar and the experienced middle order would all go to England early to prepare themselves for the mega tour. There was even talk of them getting county contracts. Pakistan's successes in England have traditionally involved teams filled with players experienced in county cricket, and perhaps even half a summer could help in cutting down the gap they needed to make up. In fact, the rise and fall of Pakistani cricket can pretty much be traced back to the involvement (or lack thereof) of their players in local cricket in England. Of course, this being Pakistan, the plans of men did go agley: in the end, none of it came to be, even with Misbah-ul-Haq's almost desperate appeals for a county gig.
The small solace that they do have is the fact that they'll be arriving in England four weeks before the first Test - unheard of in modern Pakistani cricket, and even that supposedly took far more effort than such a thing should.
Optimism really isn't a currency Pakistan as a society deal in any more, and even when they try, they often mistake delusion for it. But it's not just the optimism of six months ago that has drained away; even that of a fortnight ago no longer survives. Mudassar Nazar has finally returned to the PCB but his work really doesn't affect the immediate future. And while Inzamam-ul-Haq now controls and oversees far more than previous chief selectors did, the sense of reform that he championed has all but perished. His calls for seaming tracks to be prepared for the "skills camp" before the team's departure were never heeded. In fact, that skills camp was pretty much an embodiment of perfunctory change, in that it was a glorified series of net sessions, with players questioning why they didn't even have enough Dukes-manufactured balls for their drills.
We were told that this was Pakistan's most important summer in half a decade, but to look at the work for it, you would consider it business as usual.
Inzamam himself hasn't got off to the greatest of starts. Fourteen of the 17 players announced for the squad pretty much picked themselves. While choosing Sohail Khan over Ehsan Adil might be more beneficial than it first appears, the selection of Iftikhar Ahmed raises questions; Iftikhar, after all, has never scored a first-class hundred outside of the 2014-15 season. Picking him over the likes of Babar Azam and Fawad Alam is debatable, to say the least. He has neither the pure potential of the former nor the weighty resume of the latter, but Pakistan will hope they don't need to call on him at any time during the tour.
The selection of Sami Aslam deserves a whole article in itself. Not because he doesn't have the numbers to back him up (below-par last season aside), but the fact that there were reports that Inzamam wanted Azhar Ali - the established No. 3 - to be promoted to the opening slot, because the chief selector wasn't sure the third opener he had picked was good enough to open in England! It says a lot about the current state of Pakistan cricket that a completely independent selection committee doesn't believe that one of the men it chose is just not good enough.
Of course none of this should really matter. The Test team over the past six years has established itself as the best sports team the country has had this century (although that distinction is much like being king in the land of the blind) and thus have earned the right to do as they wish. They've earned the benefit of doubt that no entity or institution (apart from one) in Pakistan gets.
Their achievements, which I have previously waxed lyrical about, mean that their legacy will live on regardless of results in England or elsewhere. Still, this is their most important series since England toured the UAE in 2012.
The reason is simple: the cricket fraternity in Pakistan refuses to believe in the importance of success at home (or at a neutral venue in this case). The narrative-makers - from journalists to ex-pros, from those who believe (and thus act like) they are living in 18th-century England to those who consider sophistication a dream not worth pursuing - require a win or two in England for this team to be considered worthy of praise and of taking a selfie with. Perhaps it's a postcolonial mindset, or maybe it's the way Pakistani society is geared, but until there is approval from the West, is anything really worth lauding? The Hebrews might sing "Dayenu" but Pakistan's cricket opinion-makers will forever be Lin Manuel Miranda's Alexander Hamilton: never satisfied.
And yet the importance of this series far exceeds their approval or acceptance. Considering how different the world of the Pakistani cricket team was in the '80s and '90s, a win in England this year might even be considered the greatest in the country's history. A big series win would leave Pakistan within touching distance of being No. 1 in the ICC rankings. (Even in the backdated records, the only time they achieved that was for a brief period in 1988.) Thus, in popular imagination this series could be the difference between them being considered charlatans or being lauded as legends.
No pressure on them, I guess. At least they prepared well.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag