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Power to Pakistan

10 February 2010.

They have long been among cricket’s most compelling teams, and though the current turmoil in the country bodes ill for the game, there is hope yet.

Pakistan is a team struggling for direction, from a nation batting for identity. Ever since the tragic death of its founding father soon after independence had been attained, the country has been at the mercy of a fickle political climate. Arguably the country has become as much a political as a geographic entity. Pakistan has been driven by its passions. Whereas India tends to calm down after a while, its northern neighbour can simmer. Volatility has been its hallmark.

Inevitably the wider turmoil has been reflected in the way Pakistan has played its cricket. It is hard to build structures and stability where neither exists in the society at large. It’s difficult to assert authority when the holders of high office themselves are constantly looking over their shoulders. It’s hard to make a plan when the nation itself has no such confidence. Factions and friction are the inevitable result of all these unsettling forces. Everything is transitory.

Pakistan has many faces. At once it is a powerful nation with a large and fitfully growing economy and also a perilous place in a fractious neighbourhood. At once it is a religious state and yet also a place where new television stations open almost weekly, where The Vagina Monologues was staged not so many years ago. It is the land of Karachi, Lahore and the rugged mountains of the North. It is a country Westerners rarely visit, and yet, when they do, often return surprised and impressed from.

No country can be put in a little box. Iraq has an ancient culture. Iran counts amongst the most literate places around. Zimbabwe’s schools are second to none. Australia has a television station, SBS, given over overwhelmingly to immigrant communities. Pakistan too resists caricature.

Over the decades Pakistani cricket reflected the forces evident in wider society. At times in the early years the local game was dominated by anglophiles from wealthy backgrounds determined to prove that they could be as respectable as their former rulers. For a long time the subcontinental teams were the most sporting anywhere, though the West Indians ran them close. Only Australia found its voice from the outset, but then it was not a conquered land so much as a place for outcasts and opportunists. And so the Aussies did not walk on cue or talk politely or pitch the ball up.

Even in the years before independence, the region had been known for its fast bowlers. From its earliest days on the international stage, Pakistan cricket contained many fine players, not least bowlers like Fazal Mahmood, a handful on any track, and lethal on the matting wickets that prevailed till groundsmen were instructed to lay down grass surfaces. Although he did not stand alone, Hanif Mohammad was the first great batsman to emerge from the country, and his epic innings in the West Indies is recognised as amongst the finest ever played. Hereabouts, though, the team lacked depth and did not always travel well.

Not until the 1970s did Pakistan field a side that was able to hold its own against any opponent anywhere in the world. As a youngster growing up in England, I was dazzled by the wristy brilliance of Zaheer Abbas, the valiant displays put on by Asif Iqbal, the round-faced contributions of Mushtaq Mohammad, and the grave skill produced by Majid Khan. For that matter, Intikhab Alam was around, sending down his cheery legbreaks. Even then he had the air of a man able to take life’s vicissitudes in his stride.

Ever since, Pakistan has been regarded as amongst the most powerful of the cricketing nations. Next, the emergence of two great players, arguably the greatest in their history and amongst the best the game has known, pushed them along. Between them, and in their contrasting ways, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad drove their country’s cricket onwards. Imran was the imperial leader, able by size and force of character to hold the team together and to forge it in his image. Under his commanding captaincy Pakistan fought back from the brink of early elimination to take the World Cup. When victory arrived the players gave thanks to their God. Already Imran had arranged for the spoils to be given to charity, a gesture that did not please all his subjects. His sincerity could not be doubted. In retirement he devoted his life to serving his nation and building cancer hospitals. Not even the most towering cricketer, though, not even a World Cup winner can win elections without an organisation.

Miandad was the hustler and bustler of the Pakistan side. Blessed with a brain at once provocative and calculating, and a sharp competitive instinct, he was a formidable and canny batsman. Most particularly he was able to pace his innings to meet all requirements and to score runs against all sorts of bowling in all types of conditions. Probably he has been his country’s most resourceful run-scorer. Always he had an eye for the main chance. That he could be disruptive was part of the package. Over the years he captained the side a few times and coached them a few times and always spoke his mind and always seemed unlikely to last long.

Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq were to have as much impact on Pakistan cricket as their illustrious predecessors. However, they were mixed blessings. Akram was a dashing batsman and supreme speedster, able to swing the ball both ways at will but he was also a little inclined towards temptation off the field.

Wasim Akram of Pakistan

Wasim Akram celebrates taking his 500th one day international wicket after bowling Nick Statham of Holland for a duck during the ICC Cricket World Cup match between Pakistan and Holland, held on February 25, 2003 at Boland Park Cricket Ground in Paarl, South Africa. Pakistan won the match by 97 runs.
Photo © Clive Mason/Getty Images and Zohaib Ali Master / Flickr.

Inzamam looked amiable and was initially assumed to be harmless. At the crease he could belt the ball around with aplomb and from the outset counted amongst the most feared one-day batsmen around. In every respect he was underestimated. Closer inspection revealed a shrewd operator with a dry wit and a fondness for shortcuts.

Both players were popular at home and abroad, but both left the game nursing dented reputations. With every passing year the team became not so much a statement of national intent as an expression of individual ability. Matches and series were won because Pakistan had players, and especially bowlers, of exceptional talent. But the centre was not holding. To the contrary, it was under intense pressure.

Waqar Younis’ emergence as a sturdy, fast and skilful pace bowler meant that Pakistan had the most dangerous new-ball attack in the game. Thanks to the same bowlers they also had the most lethal old-ball attack. Both speedsters swung the old ball late and prodigiously, and all manner of mutterings ensued. Not that Pakistan relied entirely on pace. Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosra and Mushtaq Ahmed’s googly confused opponents in about equal proportions.

However, it was not all sweetness and light. Hereabouts scandals followed the team around, with talk of ball-tampering and latterly, match-fixing. Investigations exposed murky dealings with bookmakers undertaken by some unscrupulous captains and players. On and off the field, Pakistan cricket suffered from a lack of accountability. It remained at the whim of politicians and players. All too often players were taking more than they were giving.

Nothing much has changed. Captains and coaches continue to come and go. Defeat in Australia put the incumbents in the spotlight. Of itself, losing to Australia was not a calamity. It was not even a surprise.

Nothing much has changed. Captains and coaches continue to come and go. Defeat in Australia put the incumbents in the spotlight. Of itself, losing to Australia was not a calamity. It was not even a surprise. Rather it was the manner of the loss in Sydney and the subsequent collapse that told the tale. Pakistan no longer believed in themselves, no longer had the swagger, the ability, the downright cheek, to beat powerful opponents. Somewhere along the way they had lost their nerve. The team spent a long time on the road, too long, and did not survive the journey.

Even the chairman of selectors felt obliged to tender his resignation. One recently resigned captain returned to play in the ODI series. Another took over the reins in the Twenty20. Yet another led the side for a few matches only to be banned for two matches after mistaking the ball for a sandwich. The aged coach was told that, though he had not been sacked, he was not accompanying the team on its next trip. Meanwhile the official vice-captain was dropped for a combination of poor form and loose tongue.

None of it boded well. All of it told of a nation whose institutions were failing. It told of a cricket community that does not know what tomorrow might bring and so divides against itself. In such circumstances it is impossible to build a team or make plans. However honest, no words can be relied upon, because hold on office is tenuous.

It tells of a community unable to entertain and impress its own supporters. The attack on the Sri Lankan team bus removed the last hope of a home series in the near future. Even sympathisers no longer blame players for staying away. To make matters worse, the Pakistan players were kept out of the third season of the IPL. Obviously they were not considered safe choices. IPL officials ought to have admitted as much. Instead they tiptoed around the truth.

If any hope can be found it lies with the dignity of some remaining players and the promise of youth. Pakistan cricket has much to commend it, not least Mohammad Yousuf. And this most mercurial of cricketing nations did include two players of high potential in Mohammad Aamer and Umar Akmal. And the Under-19 side did reach the recent World Cup final. Something has been retained, the rare ability, the glint in the eye, the sense of destiny.

Inescapably Pakistan cricket will rise and fall with the nation itself. It is the fate of the current generation of leaders and players to hold the game together. Nothing more can be expected. There is a time to dig in and a time to attack. It is an unexciting challenge, and unavoidable. Pakistan cricket is worth saving because it has provided such rich entertainment and produced so many extraordinary players. Over the years the team has not always been the most attractive but it has often been the most compelling. Long may it last.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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