There was no morning television in Pakistan in the 1970s, but early on January 18, 1977, TV sets throughout the country were switched on to catch a satellite feed from Sydney. Thirty-five years later, any reference to that moment still stops people mid-stride. Their eyes grow distant and you can see they have been transported into a trance.

The picture is grainy and fleeting. There is a throng on the Hill chanting Lillee's name. Majid Khan is taking guard; you can't see his face, but there is the unmistakable stance, and atop his head the threadbare floppy hat that he will later bestow on Lillee as a prize for knocking it off. Two Pakistan wickets have fallen, but Majid has also lifted Lillee for six. The target, in any case, is only 32 - too slim to be defended, even by Lillee's venomous arts.

How Pakistan found themselves in this position encapsulates their cricketing ethos. Bruised after a fight with their cricket board, and stung by what some thought was an indifferent reception in Australia, they were determined to make an impact. They ended up with a Test win that transformed their psyche and altered the course of Pakistan's cricket history.

Imran Khan was not yet the Imran Khan of legend. He recently recalled a green wicket, helpful conditions, and a deep itch to win. "That victory represents a watershed moment for Pakistan," he said, emphasising each word in his signature manner. "It was very important for me personally, because I became recognised as a genuine fast bowler."

Indeed, this was Imran's metamorphosis, when he entered a medium-pacer and emerged a fast bowler to be reckoned with among the best. Debuting in 1971, he had been an intermittent presence in the team, and this was only his 10th Test. His incoming record was 25 wickets at 43.52. Considering that the origins of an entire fast-bowling dynasty are embedded in his 12 wickets in Sydney, it is ironic that Imran's ambition at the time was merely to cement himself as the new-ball partner alongside Sarfraz Nawaz.

There was a special significance to the turn of the year in 1976. Test cricket's centenary, it was aggressively promoted in Australia as their 100th home season. Australia's captain, Greg Chappell, was recognised as the national sportsman of the year, beating out stiff competition from compatriots who were Olympic heroes and world champions in other sports. Later in the season there would be a series against New Zealand and a landmark Centenary Test against England in Melbourne. But first, the Pakistanis had to be tackled.

The tour almost didn't happen. A month before departure, Pakistan's top players confronted the cricket board chief, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, demanding better salaries. Controversy erupted on a dramatic scale, resolved only through the intervention of a cabinet minister. An unforgiving disciplinarian, Kardar never got over it. During the opening Test in Adelaide, after some of the dissenting players fell for low scores - including a second-ball duck for the chief spokesman, Asif Iqbal - he sent the team a telegram mocking their efforts. "We left for that tour in a bitter atmosphere," recalls Asif. "Kardar had made us feel small for demanding better pay when all we wanted was more dignity, which was important for the future of Pakistan cricket."

Kardar's sarcastic prod may have been an important motivator, though it was not the only one. Pakistan's previous tour to Australia had left scars; Sydney had been the venue of a particularly bitter defeat. Since then, a number of Pakistanis had excelled for various county teams in the English summer. Pakistan had succeeded in winning their first overseas rubber, in New Zealand in 1973, and the following year went through an entire tour of England without a single defeat - which hadn't happened since Bradman's Australians did it in 1948.

In the autumn of 1976, Mushtaq Mohammad took over the captaincy from Intikhab Alam and immediately led the team to an emphatic home series win over New Zealand. By the time the Pakistanis arrived in Australia, they felt they could win and were dying to prove it.

"We wanted to shake off our sense of inferiority," says Imran, echoing the feelings of his team-mates and millions of compatriots.

Several accounts of the Sydney Test have appeared over the years. Mushtaq, Imran, and Javed Miandad referred to it in their autobiographies, as did Dennis Lillee, who wrote in Menace that he found Pakistan with "a much tougher attitude, more aggressive in every area". A particularly full sketch is present in Greg Chappell's The 100th Summer, an absorbing record of that season. Pakistan's heroes from that match recollect the contest proudly but in broad strokes - the kind of memory you might have if you go through a seminal experience without knowing that one day it will be mythologised.

Pakistan's heroes from the match recollect the contest proudly but in broad strokes - the kind of memory you might have if you go through a seminal experience without knowing that one day it will be mythologised

Even before the first ball was bowled, Sydney's mottled pitch raised many eyebrows. Mushtaq wanted to bowl first and was surprised when Chappell opted to bat. Chappell's reasoning was that Australia would avoid batting in the fourth innings against Pakistan, whose bowling line-up included three spinners. He wasn't worried about Sarfraz and Imran, thinking them medium-pacers who Australia would weather through the morning, after which the wicket would ease up.

Minutes into the match, Sarfraz had opener Alan Turner caught behind. Sarfraz kept a steady fourth-stump line, finding movement both off the seam and in the air. He remembers the wicket as helpful and lively. "Imran and I kept talking to each other and encouraging each other between overs," he says. "Australia's batsmen came under pressure and that kept us going. Imran bowled with express pace."

At the other end, Imran was certainly producing hostile speed and bounce. The pounding in Wasim Bari's gloves told him he had never before collected deliveries of such velocity. Imran kept hitting spots on the pitch from where the ball reared up at the batsman's throat. He and Sarfraz bowled unchanged for a long spell. They were eight-ball overs, but the steady fall of wickets kept them going.

In Pakistan, fans were electrified when Australia were dismissed for 211. After a fighting draw in Adelaide and a one-sided defeat in Melbourne, suddenly there was a beam of hope.

In reply, Pakistan started briskly, but soon wobbled at 111 for 4. Both openers were gone, in addition to captain Mushtaq and the in-form Zaheer Abbas.

Time and again Asif had displayed an ability to be sharply focused in adversity. Here he put his head down and crafted yet another recovery. With substantial help from Haroon Rasheed, who made 57 on debut, and Miandad, who had struggled thus far in Australia but now fought his way to an impressive 64, Asif made an unforgettable century to pull his team ahead.

"It was an innings notable for extreme concentration and application," Chappell wrote. Asif's memory of that knock is dominated by the need to get past Australia. "I had already got a big hundred in Adelaide to save the match," he says. "Now everything was about taking a big lead. I didn't know Haroon then, but he played well. I had more faith in Miandad; he played well too. Playing with these youngsters lifted me up."

Despite a lead of 149, anxiety prevailed in the Pakistan camp. There was fear of an Australian backlash, and the worry that the bowling success in the first innings might have been a fluke. Such worries were short-lived. Sarfraz produced his away movement and dangerous off-stump line again, while Imran had passed into another dimension altogether, from which he would never look back for the rest of his career.

Pakistan's fielding too touched new heights. Bari took seven catches behind the stumps in the match. Zaheer even broke his glasses diving for a sharp chance, and substitute fielder Wasim Raja fired in a throw that ran out Rod Marsh. "The dressing-room atmosphere was of comradeship," remembers Bari. "In order to do well on a tour you have to be enjoying yourself, and we certainly were."

Success in Sydney infused Pakistan with self-belief and a vision. It also unearthed for them an authentic fast bowler, a necessity for any great team, and which up to that point had seemed biologically implausible from the subcontinent. Most important was the shift in mindset. "Top-level cricket demands great physical skill, but 60% of it is psychological," notes Imran. Sydney provided Pakistan with that inner mental advantage, an x factor.

If you track Pakistan's win-loss ratio in Test cricket through time, it forms what scientists call a J-shaped curve. After success in the 1950s, the line dips into a disappointing trough of defeats through the '60s. As you get into the '70s, the team stops losing, which arrests the decline, but since there are few wins, the graph stays flat. It is after Sydney in 1977 that it starts sloping upwards - a trend that has continued into modern times, giving Pakistan the third-best cumulative win-loss ratio in Test history, behind Australia and England.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi