Pakistan were not at their best or their sharpest. There was a batting collapse in all three matches of the Super Challenge Series. Their fielding was at best patchy, and so was the bowling, more so in the first game. With Abdul Razzaq and Saqlain Mushtaq adding weight to their bank accounts by preferring to feature in county cricket than play for their country, it was not a full strength team either.
Furthermore, they had an elite and an Australian umpire to contend with too. At least three decisions went against them in the second game. The situation was even worse in the third, as the vast majority of verdicts quite inexplicably went against the visitors. So repetitive were the mistakes, regarding them all as cases of human error would require lots of imagination.
Yet the Pakistanis emerged victorious, beating the best team in the world quite convincingly in the third game to make it 2-1. So convincing was the win that with 31 overs still to go, the Aussies were down and out. Reduced to eight for 83, they didn't have a ghost of a chance. Before the last rites, they reached 165 but not without their highest scorer, all-rounder Shane Watson, benefiting from the umpires' largesse and two dropped chances. Ironically it was substitute Shoaib Malik and Younis Khan - otherwise the best of Pakistani fielders from the quartet that includes Imran Nazir and Shahid Afridi - who spilled the catches.
But it didn't matter. With the run rate spiralling up quickly, the Pakistanis were under no threat of losing the match and with it the series. Their grit had got them through in the second game, and in the series decider, despite some moments of madness especially while batting, they were all over Australia.
This series win is significant, in more ways than one. Pakistan have beaten indisputably the best team in the world, in an away series. They have done it in a manner, despite so many chinks in every department, that was quite impressive. Secondly, since the '99 World Cup final, the green shirts had lost all crunch games to Australia. Indeed, they had not just been defeated in those games - the 2000 World Series Cup finals and last year in the NatWest Trophy at Lord's - they were humbled and humiliated. It was not their skills that were in question, but their mental strength.
In the third, decisive match of the Challenge Series they handed the Aussies a dose of their own medicine. Needless to say, it wasn't very palatable for the hosts, but it should bury the bogey of Pakistanis lacking mental strength for quite some time to come. Especially if the doses are repeated in the three-nation one-day tournament and the Test series that Pakistan has to play against the Aussies later this year, though where these would be played, if at all, is a point of conjecture at the moment.
The best thing about the win, however, was the teamwork and the never-say-die spirit. They came from one match down, a bruising defeat that hurts the ego. In both the matches they won, Pakistan's wickets fell in a cluster. Yet Pakistan went on to win the second tie, though it went down to the wire, and post a highly competitive total in the third, and then bowled the Aussies out of the match well before the midway stage in the second innings.
While Younis Khan proved his tenacity and class once again at Melbourne, only one innings of substance was delivered by three of Pakistan's leading maestros - Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana and Saeed Anwar. That said, in the context of the result of the series, Youhana's 65 off 85 deliveries was quite important, and he atoned for the two run outs he engineered to nearly complete Pakistan's collapse by doing a neat job on running out Adam Gilchrist.
Akram played a superb cameo, a 32-ball 49 which included two sixes off Glenn McGrath on successive deliveries in the penultimate over to take Pakistan soaring to 256. It was one of Akram's most memorable innings, and it reminded all of the 19-ball 33 which had decimated England in the '92 World Cup final as much as his two wickets in the middle of the innings then. And Akram's bowling too must have silenced quite a few doubters. He literally made the ball talk to set Pakistan on course to leveling the series in the second game, and got the first breakthrough in the third.
In both of Pakistan's victories, Shoaib Akhtar started skimming through the Aussie order once Akram and Younis were pulled out of the attack. Unarguably the best first change bowler in the world now, Shoaib's pace and accuracy was too hot to handle. Other than Jason Gillespie, four out of his five victims were top batsmen; three were either bowled or leg before. A testament to his precision. And the way he got Michael Bevan, shuffling back to freeze at the crease and guiding the ball to the 'keeper, reflects the awe he inspires even in the best batsmen.
Then, as if that trial by pace was not enough, there was Afridi wheeling away his fastish leg spin, enjoying the bounce off the wicket, not giving away many runs and winkling out wickets to boot.
All in all a super team effort; one which Waqar and his charges deserve to savour for a while. More so because it would go a long way in re-igniting faith and self-esteem in themselves.
A word on umpiring.
If one recalls Sunil Gavaskar's comments made to Tony Greig regarding Australian umpiring following Sri Lanka's controversial tour in 1997, it would not come as a surprise that umpiring down-under has arguably evolved into one of the most biased in world cricket. In both matches that Pakistan won, the umpires, both the Australian and the third-country one from the ICC's elite panel, gave decisions clearly not fitting the highest level, though this did not prevent the world champions from crumbling in face of a characteristically fierce bowling performance from the touring side.
Saeed Anwar was adjudged caught at first slip off his pads, Rashid Latif was adjudged caught behind after playing through the air. Similarly, when bowling, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi all came to grief because of the umpires' decisions, despite replays showing there was not much doubt to cloud their judgment. A fact acknowledged in most cases by the Aussie experts too on the TV. We also had the case of Inzamam being declared not out after he had cut a ball into the 'keeper's gloves.
These incidents could be passed as oversights if one did not bear in mind the unfortunate history of recent umpiring and the quality of the 'elite' too. It would be going too far to suggest umpires could resort to foul play merely to keep one side or the other at the top, but one can understand how such suspicions surface. Such incidents, even recently in the West Indies, not only undermine the professionalism of the teams but also project an image that hardly becomes any team.