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A chance for Pakistan cricket to make the most powerful off-field statement

For too long it's appeared as if touring Pakistan is the last thing a Western cricketing nation wants to do; this series has the power to change all that

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Take a stroll through the streets of Lahore, Islamabad or Karachi, and the eye test bears out what the numbers tell you. Young people throng the streets, choke roads, shops and public spaces in their thousands. There's a vibrancy, but, inevitably, also a kind of chaos that can oscillate between uplifting and panic-inducing. Pakistan is, after all, one of the faster-growing countries of the world, the population rapidly approaching a quarter of a billion. It is also among the youngest, with the average age under 23.
That may carry all sorts of demographic implications, but for cricket at this present moment, one of them is startling: most Pakistanis weren't alive the last time an Australian cricket team arrived on these shores to play international cricket.
That might explain the unique atmosphere the arrival of a side led by Pat Cummins in Islamabad appears to have generated. It was in 1998 that a Mark Taylor-led side last came to Pakistan to play a three-Test series, one that's taken on a larger-than-life form in the imaginations of those old fogies - by Pakistan standards - who still recall that somewhat drab affair. By the end of that series, it felt like Pakistani spirits had been all but broken, even if Sir Donald Bradman's record somehow wasn't.
The world has changed dramatically in the intervening 23 years, and Pakistan even more drastically so. The country's population has grown by nearly 100 million people. A new format of cricket has been invented, and subsequently, become dominant. It is so long ago, for heavens sake, that Shoaib Malik hadn't even made his debut then, and Shahid Afridi made his Test debut in the third of that series. It's practically ancient.
Cummins himself alluded to the notion that his side's presence here was about a little more than just cricket. "The whole previous generation of Australian teams didn't get to experience Pakistan so we feel really lucky and fortunate that we are the first team to be back playing in Pakistan," he said in a candid, self-aware reflection to the media. "It's great that we are playing over here. I think this will be a tour at the end of our career we'll look back on and think that was really special. As much as anything the way we've been looked after with the security presence, we'll probably never experience anything like that in our lives. Great life experience, really proud and happy to be experiencing Test cricket over here. Hopefully there's plenty more of it in the future."
It is perhaps tedious to rehash the off-field significance of a touring side visiting Pakistan, but it remains pertinent because, frankly put, it's appeared for too long as if that's the last thing a Western cricketing nation wants to do. Less than six months earlier, New Zealand were here in this very same city to play a landmark tour of their own, only to pull out citing security concerns on the day of the first game. Australian cricketer Ashton Agar's partner received a threat, ultimately dismissed as a hoax, in the last few days, and the security presence around the Australian team hotel is extensive.
But all that only establishes the dazzling opportunity this is for Pakistan cricket to make the most powerful off-field statement since 2009. Australia were the only side to reject a tour to Pakistan even before the terror attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team.
In 2002, war was raging in neighbouring Afghanistan and drawing ever closer in Iraq when Australia decided they didn't want to tour Pakistan. It was Australia then who set the template for what would be Pakistan's home post-2009, when they dragged Pakistan out to the UAE. For those young enough to remember the UAE as something of a Test fortress for Pakistan, that 2002-03 tour was a different world. The nadir of that truly dismal two-Test series was a two-day Test, its brevity failing to compensate for its horror as far as Pakistan were concerned. It would be immortalised in two numbers for a generation of Pakistani fans: 59 and 53.
If the current incarnation of that Australian side now sits in the heart of Islamabad - replete with first-choice superstars - gearing up for a full, three-format series, Pakistan may genuinely begin to believe the low of 2009 and the war on terror may, at least, be consigned to the past as far as this nation's cricket is concerned. This visit of Australia kickstarts what should be a bumper home year for cricket in Pakistan, with New Zealand and England, two sides who pulled out last year to much criticism, set to visit in the autumn. Pakistan has not seen a home year like this since the 1990s.
The relatively unfamiliar Pakistani conditions for the visiting side add an extra layer of intrigue to a series Pakistan has been clamouring for since as long as they can remember. At a time when Test cricket repeatedly wrestles with existential crises every time there's a dull session in England or a wicket turns too much on the first day in India, Rawalpindi is officially sold out for all five days. There's a panoply of angles that should make this series particularly delicious viewing, and cricket afficionados may rightly point out the quality of the cricket should, stripped of all context, be enough to justify these levels of excitement.
But, with the vague, unreliable memories of the five-year-old that I was in 1998, I can recall the stifling drudgery with which Mark Taylor plodded along towards his triple-century, and Australia racked up 599 for 4 in 174 overs sitting on a 1-0 lead in a series they would go on to win by that very margin (until that point, only Pakistan's third home series loss since 1980). 1-0 scorelines can be just as dreary in cricket as they are in football sometimes, so I'd insist I have it on good authority that a visit of Australia doesn't magically make for exciting cricket.
But a lot of growing up can happen in 23 years, especially if you happen to spend them in Pakistan. That's why, as the newly minted Benaud-Qadir trophy shimmers on the eve of the series, Pindi, in unison with Pakistan, pulses with cautious excitement. Who knows if the cricket will really be good, but Pakistan knows that the fact there's any cricket at all is very good indeed.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000