How high do the highs have to be for the lows to be numbed?
When, on August 22 2016, Pakistan officially became the top-ranked Test side in the world, they had never known a high like it. Well, they had, but back in August and September 1988 nobody knew they were the best side in the world. They might have thought it, and if they did, they could only say it and hope no one argued back. They couldn’t prove it by holding a mace and pointing to a table.
The real high – and on field the culmination came a week earlier at The Oval, when Azhar Ali thumped Moeen Ali into the stands at long-on – was in the journey. No, really. Pakistan had worked their way up to this. They didn’t suddenly decide to turn it on and upturn the order of the world. They had arrived in England undefeated in five series. They were smartly prepared for this tour, so smartly that at The Oval they were able to rebound from, in turn, one old-school crushing loss and one old-school traumatic one. This was progress. This was process. This was a high unheard of and hitherto unfelt. And it actually felt sweeter for it.
For a month and a half, Pakistan were exultant. They didn’t actually play a single Test in that time but it was the best time of their lives. These players were path-breakers. It took a month for the ICC to get a mace to Misbah-ul-Haq – so long that a fortnight later he was not the rightful holder of it, as India took over in October.
That little period, it turned out, was not the light at the end of the tunnel but a passing one within it. When will come another one, if it comes at all? After getting to No. 1, Pakistan forsook what took them there. They prepared poorly for a home series against West Indies, became complacent, and from some angles, were fortunate to win it.
They didn’t prepare at all for New Zealand, and maybe even took it for granted ahead of a bigger series with Australia. Nearly chasing 490 and not lasting two full sessions on the last day of a Test on a blameless surface is, even by Pakistan standards, not straightforward. But just like that, five Tests in a row lost, in the year they became No. 1; a 4-7 win-loss record in the year they became No. 1. How high is high enough?
Can it have masked the horrors of their limited-overs year? They ended up losing only one ODI more than they won, and won more T20Is than they lost, but if there was ever a case to be made against win-loss records, this was it. Pakistan turned up at the 2016 World T20 playing 1992 World Cup cricket; they were that out of date. It was no surprise, given their captain was closer to that generation than to this one. Had they not sent any fielders out, they might have fielded better; they were powerless with the bat; with the ball they were out of ideas. It was, frankly, embarrassing.
They turned up for a 2016 ODI series in England playing a brand of cricket that might have won them a few games in the heyday of the 60-over Gillette Cup. Those defeats, and especially the 444 at Trent Bridge, were the wake-up-and-smell-the-napalm moments Mickey Arthur and his men needed; this was a side in free-fall.
In light of which, perhaps a significant moment came earlier in the year with the first Pakistan Super League (PSL). Eight years in gestation, several false starts behind it, it would have been a relief that it was staged at all. That it went ahead with good crowds, a gaggle of international players mixing with Pakistan’s, and some new names, was a bonus. The cricket wasn’t great but it turned heads and it turned a profit. At last, Pakistan had joined the party cricket had been having since 2008. Now, time to catch up with everyone.
a) The Oval
b) The Oval
c) a) or b)
So many past Pakistan sides could have fallen apart under the combined weight of defeats at Old Trafford and Edgbaston. Instead, Pakistan put together their performance of the year, a performance for the ages. It was classic Pakistan: one batting masterclass, pace bowling of all sorts, and quality legspin. And it had a sense of occasion, arriving on August 14, the anniversary of the birth of the country, in tribute to the passing of a master, Hanif Mohammad, and a golden sun washing over it all.
A bumper year. The World T20 was a disaster. Trent Bridge was carnage. Losing to West Indies in Sharjah will not be forgotten soon. Batting collapses littered the year. But, and this may be too soon, it will be difficult to eclipse with darkness Pakistan’s last cricketing act of the year: the fall at the MCG. This series was Pakistan’s best chance for a result in Australia. They were buoyant after Brisbane. There have been far better Australian sides. And still to lose by an innings a Test in which they first declared on 443, and in which nearly two full days of play were lost? This was one for the ages, not least because it heralded the end of Misbah.
New kid on the block
New is not the word exactly, but Mohammad Amir Mark II may as well be a new man altogether. For a start, five years since he was last on this scene, he is no longer a teenager. The locks have gone, the face has hardened a little and he is married.
The bowler? Thirty wickets in ten Tests doesn’t sound too hot, but neither does at least 12 catches dropped off his bowling. And remember, he had done almost no bowling at all for four years. Across all formats, he has consistently been Pakistan’s best bowler, the one man you can rely on to bring some control, some smarts and no little effort. Plus, from afar, he seems to have reintegrated himself into the side diligently, and a to possess a sense of duty.
What 2017 holds
A future without Misbah and, resultantly, some uncertainty. Who will take over from Misbah, though, given Azhar Ali’s performances as ODI captain do not make a great audition (and that the PCB chairman is happy to publicly say so)? The case for Sarfraz Ahmed is growing, by dint of Azhar’s perceived weaknesses as much as by Sarfraz building an emphatic case.
This will be their first real period of transition in many years, and Pakistan are hardly expert at negotiating those. Throw in, as the wildest card, the future of Younis Khan and, well, Misbah might not be gone five minutes before they start missing him. Pakistan wouldn’t, it should be said, like to lose both simultaneously. A credible chance for history beckons with a tour to West Indies, where they have never won a Test series. Even in their current trough, Pakistan start favourites. According to the FTP, there is an away tour to India at the end of year. Solemn advice: don’t hold your breath.