January 3, 2011

Small mercies

As has become routine, Pakistan had another year full of saga and turmoil. On field the results were oddly good, considering

Recent history says Pakistan cricket should operate by the Chinese calendar: 2006 was the Year of Hair; 2007 the Year of Woolmer, 2008 the Year of No Test and 2009 the Year of Lahore. In that line 2010 can only be known as the Year of the Spot-Fix.

Ultimately this year was a dirty triumph for the paranoid. All the creeping growth of rumour and speculation and confusion over the last decade, relentlessly soundtracked by Sarfraz Nawaz, found release in three no-balls in August. Now every slog, wide, no-ball, dropped catch, run-out, loss, win, any and every thing will forever fall under a scanner of revitalised paranoia.

And the spot-fixing scandal didn't just deprive Pakistan of three vital players although the loss of a potential long-term captain and arguably the world's best new-ball pair cannot be oversold. It also pushed Pakistan to the very precipice of cricketing existence.

The PCB's initial reaction to the News of the World sting operation was typical of this administration: a bumbling, incoherent self-denial. Noises were made about conspiracies before outrageously incendiary accusations were hurled at England, a lone ally. It left Pakistan friendless and homeless, and at one stage - make no mistake - suspension of their membership or at least that of their chairman, was a very real outcome.

Since those critical ICC meetings in October, however, the PCB - with much steering from the ICC's reconstituted task force - has pulled itself back a little. Ijaz Butt has stopped talking publicly so much and a raft of anti-corruption and disciplinary measures have been or are being implemented. But as the flight of Zulqarnain Haider shows, calamity is never far. And other, equally grave, problems remain. After the summer's shenanigans, England can, for now, not be considered a home. The UAE remains geographically feasible but logistically and financially not so much.

That there was at least enough on the field to occasionally distract from all the troubles was some consolation. There still wasn't a Test or ODI series win - Pakistan haven't had one of the former since November 2006 and an ODI series win since November 2008 - but there were plenty of moments to reaffirm that cricket without Pakistan would be a less colourful arena.

Test wins over Australia - the first in 15 years - and England in England, a drawn series with South Africa and a semi-final run in an ICC event are fair collections in any year; in one that began with a dysfunctional whitewash, and for the duration of most of which four top players were banned and then three more were lost, it is actually remarkable.

Indeed it is frightening to think what may have been achieved had Pakistan managed to synchronise their bowling riches from the English summer with the batting growth seen later in the year in the UAE. Or if they'd had one Test captain rather than four; or one coach; or one chief selector. It has ever been thus. Most importantly, that strange, uncontrollable collective spirit was still present, evidenced in outstanding ODI comebacks against England and South Africa. After four of the worst years any side could have, there is deep comfort in that knowledge.

High point
It should've come in Sydney in the New Year, but a first Test win over Australia in 15 years was no less sweet when it arrived in Leeds in July. They nearly fluffed it of course but on the first day Pakistan's attack proved itself to be among the best in cricket. Given the regular flux of their performances, however, the result ultimately said more about Australian decline than it did about Pakistani rise.

New kid on the block
Azhar Ali's emergence at one down was as necessary as it was uplifting. Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf apart, Pakistan have lacked men to bat long and stabilise matters but in Azhar they have one. Only five times in 16 innings did he bat less than an hour, and his five fifties have all been patient affairs. His technique just about held in a tough initiation in swinging England and it bore sweet reward on flatter surfaces in the UAE. His arrival made up for the disappointment of Umar Akmal's decline, though Azhar needs a Test hundred to break through.

Fading star
Captaincy, ban, retirement, return, hero, axe - so has gone the strangest year of Mohammad Yousuf's career. At no stage has he looked out of form (and his returning fifty at The Oval was technically the best Pakistani innings on that tour), but in 18 international innings this year he crossed 50 only twice. With the emergence of younger middle-order options, the axing from the Test squad to New Zealand at 36 had a ring of finality about it.

What 2011 holds
The World Cup is the biggest challenge, and if they can continue the run in which they have reached at least the semis of the last four ICC events, it will be a win. Thereafter, a first tour to the Caribbean in six years brings with it the possibility of a drought-breaking Test and ODI series win. Worryingly there isn't much else on the calendar after that for now.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo