/ 24 December 2018

Pakistan is either good or ghastly

Pakistan's Mohamed Amir celebrates taking the wicket of England's James Vince.
Pakistan's Mohamed Amir celebrates taking the wicket of England's James Vince. (Paul Childs/Reuters)

Perhaps no cricket-playing nation conjures the vicissitudes and vagaries of the game quite like Pakistan. Or as many synonyms for “unpredictable” – that essential nature of cricket being so intricately woven into how Pakistan play.

They plumb the depths of desperation when losing after unfathomable collapses, like their capitulation on the last day of the final Test against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, handing the visitors the three Test series. Pakistan required 280 to win but failed to bat out the final day. Babar Azam top-scored with 51, while captain Sarfraz Ahmed’s 28 was the second highest score as only two other batsmen, opener Imam-ul-Haq and Bilal Asif, reached double figures, 22 and 12, respectively.

They scale vertiginous highs when engineering incomprehensible victories. Think about their 2017 Champions’ Trophy win in England, which was engineered when there appeared more chance of British Prime Minister Theresa May working out a Brexit deal than Pakistan making their way out of a group that included India, Sri Lanka and South Africa to qualify for the knockout stage. This after a 124-run loss in their opening game against India in which the players demonstrated all the focus and application of a herd of myopic elephants fighting their way out of a giant fondue.

Moody. Inconsistent. Playboys and believers. Aesthetes and Ascetics. This is Pakistan.

Lumbering man-mountains of yore, such as Inzamam-ul-Haq, defying the rules of fitness to score centuries. Whippet-fast bowlers such as Shoaib Akhtar defying curfews and night club exertions to skittle batting orders. Saeed Anwar, who was a cavalier when batting, and a Roundhead in the locker room, entrenching the moralistic rigidity of the Tablighi Jamaat in the team. Left-arm quick Mohammad Amir, the great hope of Pakistani fast bowling, who returns to the Test side for this summer’s series after a five-year ban for spot fixing.

This is Pakistan. Apparently.

Prepare to be confounded and exasperated over the summer, as Pakistan tour South Africa, playing three Tests, five ODIs and three T20 internationals. Prepare to have your breath taken away by the sublime and wrenched away a second time by a sucker punch to the stomach. The unforgivably stupid. This is Pakistan.

The promise of inexperience

The team will be as green as the uniforms they don for the limited-overs matches, with captain Sarfraz Ahmed one of only three players to have toured South Africa previously.

Among the youngsters is 18-year-old left-arm quick Shaheen Afridi, who made his Test debut during the series against New Zealand, having played only three first-class matches. South Africa’s seamer-friendly pitches will provide an indication of whether Afridi has the potential to emulate the great Wasim Akram, who made his debut way back in 1985 after, similarly, playing only three first-class matches. Or Yasir Ali, who debuted for Pakistan in 2003 having never played a first-class match, going on to take two wickets against Bangladesh then slipping back into journeyman obscurity.

When the first Test starts on Boxing Day at SuperSport Park Centurion, Afridi is a selection option from a pace quintet including Amir; Mohammad Abbas, who returns to the squad after a shoulder injury; Hasan Ali; and all-rounder Faheem Ashraf.

Leggie Shadab Khan also returns to the squad from injury, joining Yasir Shah in the spinners’ stable. Shah now holds the record for reaching 200 Test wickets in the quickest time, in just his 33rd match for his country during the New Zealand series. He edged out Australia’s Clarrie Grimmett, who took 36 Tests do achieve the record way, way back in the 1920s.

Life after Younis and Misbah

The visitors will be most concerned about how their brittle batting order will adjust to South African conditions, and the continuing rebuilding following the retirement of mainstays Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq last year.

Khan was Pakistan’s all-time greatest Test run scorer, accumulating 10 099 runs in 118 matches with an average of 52.05 and a strike rate of 52.12. His highest score, 313, was against Sri Lanka in Karachi in 2009.

Misbah-ul-Haq was Pakistan’s bedrock after the spot fixing scandal in England in 2010, captaining and rejuvenating the team from that low point to a 3-0 clean sweep series victory over the Poms in 2012, then the top-ranked Test side in the world.

Both were consistent where team-mates were erratic. Both are sorely missed since their simultaneous retirement last year, something that ignited the #MissYou hashtag. Before their retirement, Pakistan had lost only four matches in 24 at their “home” in the United Arab Emirates. Since then, they have lost four out of seven there.

The form of Sarfraz; Azhar Ali, who has previously toured in South Africa; and Babar Azam, the middle-order batsman who scored prodigiously against New Zealand recently, will be vital to filling the void created by the loss of Younis and Misbah, and adding some steel to an often listless and supine Pakistani batting line-up.

Glorious unpredictability

When Pakistan tour, it is almost expected that they will take on the short-ball as if family pride depended on it. They will hook and pull, sans restraint, to glory or defeat. They are more likely to crumble without resistance than bat a team out the match.

But when Pakistan tour, there is always the possibility that every stereotype and cliché about them, and cricket, can be upended. There is always the joyful potential for cricket lovers to be re-acquainted with the basic principle that the elements of unpredictability and contradiction are what makes cricket the game it is, rather than national traits, racial characteristics or sociological “truths”.

After all, they are touring a country whose cricket team contrived to draw that 1999 Cricket World Cup semifinal against Australia (Allan Donald’s lost bat and all) sending the latter through to the final to eventually lift the coveted trophy. Pakistan will find themselves in a country with its own share of religiosity and hypocrisy; of a team purporting to do only what “Jesus would”, guided by the greed of their captain, Hansie Cronje. We too have had teams of playboys and believers. Of aesthetes and ascetics. Of match-fixers and match winners.

Test squads

South Africa: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock (wk), Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn

Pakistan: Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Sarfraz Ahmed (c, wk), Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Yasir Shah, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Abbas, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir, Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Afridi — New Frame