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Kamran Abbasi

Misbah's band of pragmatic dreamers

Pakistan's rise to become the No. 1 Test team is a story of triumph in the face of adversity unlike that of any other side

Kamran Abbasi
Kamran Abbasi
Misbah-ul-Haq's team may not have Olympic gold medals, but they are Olympians in the heroic sense of the term  •  PA Photos

Misbah-ul-Haq's team may not have Olympic gold medals, but they are Olympians in the heroic sense of the term  •  PA Photos

Anybody who spent this last fortnight watching the Olympics might not realise that sport is played in Pakistan. The sum total of Pakistan's Olympic achievement since 1947 is ten medals. Eight in hockey, including three golds, one each in wrestling and boxing. Pakistan haven't won a medal for 24 years. Worse, Pakistan is the most populous nation to fail to win a medal in Rio. This isn't the performance of a country that values sport. Still, there is sport outside the Olympics.
Hockey is Pakistan's national sport. A World Cup was Pakistan's idea, and the trophy for it was made by the Pakistan army. Scheduled for Pakistan in 1971, the first hockey World Cup was moved to Spain, a neutral venue, because of a regional conflict that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Despite the upheaval, Pakistan won. They won it three times more up to 1994, a record of four wins that is yet to be matched by any other hockey nation. After 1994, with the popularity of artificial surfaces and modern fitness techniques, Pakistan are winless, and now struggle to compete. Pakistani sport, though, is more than hockey.
Squash is the sport Pakistan have been most successful in. Between 1982 and 1997, first Jahangir Khan and then Jansher Khan won every British Open, the premier tournament in the world game. Pakistanis in squash, the toughest of racket games, looked invincible. Since 1997, five years after Pakistan's last Olympic medal in any sport, Pakistan's superiority in squash is no more. Like the Olympics and hockey, squash has nothing to showcase since the 1990s. Despite all this, Pakistanis love sport.
And then, there is cricket.
Cricket is Pakistan's most popular sport. In 1992, Pakistan won the cricket World Cup and could justifiably claim to be the best one-day cricket team in the world. It was no flash in the pan. They might easily have won in 1987 too, had it not been for a heartbreaking home semi-final chase against Australia. Pakistan were well fancied in 1996 but lost a quarter-final to India. In 1999 they were so good for much of the tournament that it was bewildering how they collapsed in the final. Such is the scale of the decline since then that Pakistan are now ranked ninth in international one-day cricket. Thankfully, one-day cricket is just one form of the game.
T20 cricket is the most Pakistani sport. When T20 cricket took hold, it seemed to be made for Pakistan with its pinch-hitters and death bowlers. Pakistan narrowly lost the first final, in 2007. Two years later, in England, a team led by Younis Khan and starring Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Amir delivered what seemed inevitable, a T20 World Cup. Pakistan were the best T20 team in the world. It was fun cricket. A nation of artists had found its art. Within a year, by a quirk of scheduling, they had lost their title. Pakistan are now ranked seventh in international T20 cricket. This T20 fun cricket is no longer fun.
Test cricket is now Pakistan's sport. Don't take my word for it, look at the rankings. Pakistan are No. 1, the best in the world, as judged by cricket's governing body. Pakistan aren't No. 1 at anything else. There is no Olympic medal or hockey World Cup. Squash is done, and they're not exactly shining in the shorter formats. There is no blossoming sports culture or lottery money to promise a better tomorrow. There is only Test cricket. A population of 200 million has become a one-trick pony.
Misbah is rivalling Imran Khan as heroic leader, although Misbah's leadership comes with greater measure and an icier cool
But what a trick. How did Test cricket defy the ravages of modern times, the odds of war and conflict, of politics and nepotism, of corruption and incompetence, of unprofessionalism and mismanagement? Let's be in no doubt, the same decline hit Test cricket that destroyed all other sports after the 1990s. The spot-fixing scandal of 2010 simply hastened the end, putting us out of our misery. If anything was to survive that disaster it was to be the thrash and crash of limited overs. Not Test cricket. That would die.
Except, some people weren't prepared to accept that fate. They saw the end and vowed to defeat it. They were dreamers but they dreamt a pragmatic dream. They dreamt of giving their nation some succour from the ravages of this tortured age. They would achieve it through unfashionable hard work and integrity. Even in exile, they wanted to be a beacon of hope and a promise of something better.
Chief among them is Misbah-ul-Haq, the architect of this triumph. Perhaps the greatest ever achievement of the Pakistan Cricket Board was to make Misbah Test captain after 2010, narrowly followed by its decision to leave him in charge for the next six years. The PCB got those epoch-making decisions right, Misbah did the rest.
Misbah's captaincy works because of simple virtues. First, he has a clear plan of how he wants to set his team up and how he wants to win. This might be too defensive for some people's tastes, too slow-burn, too patient, but Misbah knows how to make his plan work.
Second, he leads by example, whether it's how to approach the game and the distractions that come with it or how to make the most of your talents.
The power of role models is a strong theme in Pakistan cricket. Misbah is rivalling Imran Khan as heroic leader, although Misbah's leadership comes with greater measure and an icier cool.
Third, Misbah is pragmatic, never looking too far ahead or setting unachievable goals. On first impressions he is inscrutable, but he is a deep thinker on the game, a student of cricket. None of this comes with bombast or hyperbole. The art of understated determination is perfected in him.
Misbah has an ideal accomplice in Younis Khan, a world-class batsman hungry to leave his mark on the game but imbued with the same conviction and integrity. The final Test, at The Oval, perfectly captured the partnership of Misbah and Younis. Misbah's best laid plans were unworkable without Younis' brilliance. If Misbah is the architect, Younis is his master builder.
Another Younis, Waqar, shouldn't be forgotten. Nor should Dav Whatmore or Mohsin Khan. They all built the victory too. Coaching Pakistan is difficult. The media, the players and the board will quickly make you the scapegoat when much remains outside your control. One-day failures can distort and overshadow success in Test cricket. Nonetheless, Waqar persevered through hard times, particularly improving Pakistan's current generation of fast bowlers.
That challenge now rests with Mickey Arthur, a highly skilled, no-nonsense coach. He finds a team in ruder health than when it arrived on England's shores. Arthur will require much longer with the team for his influence to be properly felt but his hand was evident in the tricky, but correct, decision to drop Mohammad Hafeez for the final Test.
Arthur's assessment of the squad will be mixed. As the new world No. 1, this Pakistan team is far from a finished work. It is a work in progress, evolving before us, which adds to the fascination of Pakistan's new-found status.
Hafeez aside, the batting impressed in England. Sami Aslam played with commitment and patience, as a proper opener should. Azhar Ali grew into the series, and improbably fixed a technical problem in the process. Asad Shafiq looked ready for greater responsibility and for Pakistan's No. 3 spot. Sarfraz Ahmed knew how to make an impact. But perhaps most pleasingly, the old stagers, Misbah and Younis, seemed far from done, ready for more runs, more press-ups, more salutes.
The bowling underwhelmed to a degree. Amir wasn't quite the wicket-taker we imagined, but he played his role, taking on much of the pace bowling burden and hinting at a brooding threat to come. Wahab Riaz was sensational in bursts but needs to turn those thrilling, adrenaline-infused breakthroughs into conclusive spells. Rahat Ali was as steady as Sohail Khan was sensational. Yasir Shah's potential and influence is clear but he felt the effects of no fifth bowler with long, fruitless bowling stints in the middle Tests.
Encouragingly, then, Pakistan have scope to improve as they assume their status as the world's leading Test team. They will need that improvement to see them through series in New Zealand and Australia. Australia, in particular, is the measure of any would-be world champion.
But the top spot is fully deserved. Consider Pakistan's political environment. Consider the alarming decline in sport - and the multi-factorial circumstances that contribute to it. Consider the failure in limited-overs cricket. Consider six years of exile in the UAE, and no home Tests for six years. Consider an international game designed for the Big Three - who now all sit immediately below Pakistan. Consider the outsider, the nomad, the unwanted guest, spoiling that party thanks to the determination of a few good men.
Some people will begrudge Pakistan this moment, highlighting the peculiarities of the Test ranking system. They shouldn't. The rankings are worked out consistently for all teams, whatever you think of the method of calculation.
Some people will ask: where are the wins in Australia and South Africa? They shouldn't. No. 1 isn't to be confused with all-conquering. Only a few teams in cricket history were all-conquering, the others, the vast majority, merely made it to the top despite failing in certain places.
Some people will bemoan the fickleness of the weather and the inadequacy of Caribbean ground preparations. They shouldn't. Yes, this is bad luck for India, but cricket is a game of luck - and Pakistan need all the luck they can get.
Indeed, a Pakistan team has never appeared more worthy of good fortune since the Test rankings were launched in 2003. If the rankings are extrapolated back to the 1950s, Pakistan were briefly top only once before, in 1988, to break up a decade of domination by the greatest West Indies team. Then we guessed at Pakistan's status. Nobody else went so close against those phenomenal cricketers.
In 2016, though, we don't need to guess. Pakistan are the world's leading Test team. They are top - and they earned it. The players didn't have it easy. Nobody did them any favours other than the rain gods of Port-of-Spain. They did it with grit and bloody-mindedness. They also did it with talent and some exceptional performances in England, Sri Lanka and UAE. They did it for the people of their country and for pride in a nation that they still believe in. They did it to show what Pakistan can be.
Misbah's men might not be at the top of Test cricket for long, but that doesn't matter. The symbolism of this moment is enough. To rise from nothing, against all adversity, and reach the pinnacle, that is a dream that is as powerful today as it has ever been. These men of Misbah lived that dream.
Test cricket is now Pakistan's sport. It is something to be cherished and celebrated not just by Pakistan supporters, for the romance in Pakistan's glory touches the heart of cricket lovers of all leanings.
Olympians are marked by their heroics, their endeavour, their struggle against the odds. Pakistan has no Olympians of note, yet the achievement of Pakistan's Test team, the team of Misbah-ul-Haq, is worthy of the greatest Olympians. It is a story of heroism. Of endeavour. Of struggle against the odds. Above all, it is a story to inspire the pragmatic dreamers of the world.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. @KamranAbbasi