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Ghosts of glorious pasts haunt a West Indies-Pakistan classic for the new age

On Sunday, the cricket at Sabina Park echoed some of the very best West Indies-Pakistan contests there have ever been

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Jayden Seales and Kemar Roach, the last-wicket heroes for West Indies  •  AFP/Getty Images

Jayden Seales and Kemar Roach, the last-wicket heroes for West Indies  •  AFP/Getty Images

Port-of-Spain, 1988. Curtly Ambrose has just got rid of Javed Miandad for 102, Viv Richards taking the catch to deal a potentially lethal blow to Pakistan's hopes of a stunning fourth-innings chase. Soon after, Malcom Marshall traps Wasim Akram in front. Richards removes Saleem Yousuf, and it's down to the last man Abdul Qadir to survive the final five deliveries. He keeps Richards, soon to be declared the Player of the Match, out. Pakistan have drawn a classic in Trinidad, in what will go down as one of the classic series of the era.
The Sisyphean task of following those two divine cricket sides has been a ball and chain around West Indian and Pakistani necks in the decades since. The decline of what were then cricketing behemoths has been well-documented and, for dramatic purposes, sometimes overblown. Players from both sides of that era relish opportunities to dig the boot in, making unfavourable comparisons between their teams and the pale imitations that have followed in their footsteps. West Indies will shrink into cricketing obscurity for a while, and Pakistan descend into farce. They might be on opposite sides of the world, but somehow the sun has set on these two giants simultaneously.
Thirty-three years later, the sun rises once more. Not in the Caribbean, nor in Karachi, but where it never used to set. Lord's, 2021. The traditional home of cricket is at the centre of the cricketing world's attention, not just because of England, but the team they host. India leads cricket's attention economy now. It's an absorbing Test match in its own right, in a packed stadium, and when old memories begin to stir 5000 miles away in Jamaica, barely anyone notices.
West Indies and Pakistan are playing Test cricket once more, empty stands their backdrop. That might be because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the days of full crowds and global attention for West Indies-Pakistan contests have long gone anyway. With quiet dignity, West Indies are trying to reignite the dying embers of the Fire in Babylon, while Pakistan, equal parts inspirational and cack-handed, search for stability and try to steer themselves back to something approaching that 1980s unit.
There are no Marshalls or Imran Khans here but only those held hostage by nostalgia would insist the denouement at Sabina Park wasn't worth watching in its own right.
Babar Azam is crucial for Pakistan at the start of the final day, West Indies sniffing menacingly at the tail. But the vagaries of Test cricket kick in. Early in the day, a Kyle Mayers delivery hits a crack nowhere to be found for the remainder of the day. It grows big on Babar, and goes to slip. Jayden Seales, far from being alive in 1988, was not even born when, in 2001, a Jimmy Adams-led West Indies side stole a one-wicket win over Pakistan in Antigua. He runs through the tail, casually tumbling over an Alf Valentine record in the process.
Pakistan set a target of 168. Forget 1988: this is the same target Abdul Hafeez Kardar's team had set in 1954 at the Oval. The total that Fazal Mahmood defended for him exactly 67 years ago to the day, running through England in England to produce perhaps the most inspirational origin story in Test-match cricket. The baton has now passed to Babar and Shaheen Shah Afridi, each born more than four decades after that triumph.
History can weigh you down, but Afridi seems uplifted. He tears through the West Indies top order. Jermaine Blackwood, born in Jamaica, comes to the crease. He's been under pressure because of his ostensibly cavalier approach to Test batting; many of the traditional old guard might almost view it as iconoclastic. But in a low-scoring match, quick runs are gold dust, and he gets 55 of them.
The shadows lengthen, the skies darken, and the sun really does begin to set. It's perhaps setting on the West Indies, a middle-order collapse having left the last three surely too much to do. But Kemar Roach is raging against the dying light. The most experienced player out there for West Indies, he will later say it was the first time he'd found himself in such a situation.
It doesn't show. As the runs tick on and Pakistan begin to panic, the ghosts of Antigua are hard to dismiss. There was much bitterness from Pakistan after West Indies' one-wicket heist on that day, fans to this day adamant it was the umpiring that cost Pakistan the game. There was some truth to that, and had that Test been played with DRS, both Adams and last man Courtney Walsh might not have survived to hit the winning runs. But Pakistan, as ever, had their own chances too. A couple of run-outs, farcically missed, meant it needn't have come to that at all.
In the present, in Jamaica, Pakistan are playing without DRS once more, having frivolously burned all their reviews. But with the game coming to an excruciating end, both sides are having trouble holding their nerve. Roach goes after a short ball and sends it straight down Hasan Ali's throat at midwicket. Hasan drops it. Pakistan might have blamed the umpires in Antigua, but they have only themselves to castigate here.
Roach repeatedly trusts the teenager Seales with plenty of the strike, and much as Walsh kept Akram out in Antigua, Seales is up to fending Afridi off. It's down to the last rites now. Hasan to Roach is not Marshall to Akram, but it's difficult to imagine the viewing could have been more compelling. An edge evades a desperate dive from Mohammad Rizwan, and scampers away for four. A few minutes earlier, Rizwan had bucked the trend of Pakistani fielding ineptitude, sprinting half the length of the ground at a pace that might have impressed Jamaican sprinters, taking a sprawling catch close to the boundary. But against this West Indies side, one moment of magic wasn't enough, and Pakistan desperately needed him to pluck that nick out of thin air, too.
Roach knocks off the final runs, and this West Indies side has done what Richards' men failed to do in Trinidad all those years ago. In an empty stadium, the groundstaff, the production crew, make no pretence to neutrality, bursting into yelps of glee as the West Indian players storm the pitch. Hasan sinks to the ground, his eyes beginning to shimmer, and Roach reaches out and helps him back up, enveloping him in a warm embrace. There's no crowd to be heard, but you can feel the roars across the Caribbean filling your ears, the perfect soundtrack to nigh-on the perfect Test match.
The sun sets, and the world's attention, for the most flickering of moments drawn to Jamaica, will invariably switch to London overnight. But in crystal twilight at Sabina Park, two cricketing nations tethered to historical successes have broken free to produce a modern classic fit to stand on its own.

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