January 1, 2013

A heart-warming resurgence

Pakistan had a satisfying 2012, but the year ahead is one of transition

Pakistan cricket continued its redemptive path in 2012, notching up a spectacular Test triumph against England in the UAE, bagging the Asia Cup title in ODIs, and earning a creditable semi-final finish in the World Twenty20. Of equal if not greater significance: the team also managed to steer clear of the kind of controversies and scandals that bedevilled them between 2006 and 2010.

This is not to suggest that things are rosy. The wicketkeeping position remains unsettled, the batting top order continues to be brittle, and the team is unable to call on its two best seamers, who have been banned because of spot-fixing. Meanwhile ageing stars like Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Misbah-ul Haq, and Saeed Ajmal are approaching the twilight of their careers; their departure threatens to leave a vacuum, because younger faces have not fully consolidated themselves. In terms of governance, PCB chairman Zaka Ashraf has steadied the ship with a calm and commonsensical hand, but given Pakistan's security troubles, a cloud of stigma and uncertainty still hangs overhead.

Seen within the context of these limitations, Pakistan's journey of resurgence that began in the wake of the 2010 spot-fixing crisis continues to be impressive and heart-warming. They are ending the year ranked fourth in Tests. In fact, over the nearly two and a half years since the end of the ill-fated tour to England in 2010, Pakistan's Test win-loss ratio is the best in the world. If they are not ranked higher, it is at least partly because - with the exception of England - they have not played the toughest of opponents.

The situation is less encouraging in limited-overs, where Pakistan are currently ranked sixth in both formats. Still, there is the noteworthy performance in the World Twenty20, and while in ODIs Pakistan lost all three bilateral series (against England, Sri Lanka, and Australia), there is at least the Asia Cup, which was reclaimed after 12 years.

New kid on the block
When 20-year-old Raza Hasan was asked to open the bowling in Pakistan's crucial contest against South Africa during the World Twenty20, he delivered three dot-balls to Hashim Amla, and even induced an edge that Kamran Akmal failed to hold. His second over, to Jacques Kallis, was a maiden, and it proved a chokehold from which South Africa never recovered. Four days later Hasan was asked to bowl the second over of Australia's innings in another do-or-die match for Pakistan. He found himself facing Shane Watson, who was on a firm trajectory to become Man of the Tournament. Hasan began with four dot-balls, and delivered a wicket-taking ball in his second over that trapped Watson in front. His eventual tally of 2 for 14 from four overs fetched him the Player-of-the-Match award.

Hasan possesses length, direction, turn, and temperament. Anticipated as being a potent weapon on the tour to India, he was sadly sidelined by injury. He has yet to play any ODIs or Tests (his T20I debut was in September this year, during Pakistan's series against Australia in the UAE), yet one can already see in him the makings of a future Pakistan star.

High point
Clean-sweeping England 3-0 in a Test series surpasses all of Pakistan's previous Test accomplishments. That the victories came on neutral turf and against what was then the world's top-ranked outfit made it all the more special. Prior to this feat, Pakistan's pantheon of Test achievements away had been limited to individual match wins, such as The Oval 1954, Sydney 1977 or Georgetown 1988. Even the inaugural series triumphs in India and England in 1987 were each based on a solitary Test win. The crushing demolition of a powerful and professional England side in 2012 represents a new level of Test success for Pakistan.

As with any seminal triumph, a number of potent and synchronised factors contributed towards it. The captain, Misbah, and the coach, Mohsin Khan, enjoyed an efficient mutual chemistry that motivated everybody to perform according to plan; the batting came good at crucial moments; and England might also have underestimated Pakistan's skill and resolve. The most crucial difference between the two sides was the lethal quality of Pakistan's spin combination of Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, who between them picked up 43 wickets at an astonishing average of 15.60 and a punishing strike rate of 38.88.

In the build-up to the series, Ajmal had threatened to unveil a teesra or third kind of weapon, in addition to his doosra and the stock offbreak. No one is quite sure whether he did or didn't, but the DRS - which overturned some critical lbws initially deemed not out - emerged a strong contender for this role. It played havoc with England's batting mindset and destroyed their footwork as the series progressed.

Low point
In addition to the three ODI series defeats, there was also a Test series loss in Sri Lanka, and a number of defeats in T20s that Pakistan had been favoured to win. The year's most stinging disappointment, though, came off the field, in the form of Ajmal's exclusion from the shortlist for ICC's Cricketer of the Year, an award that recognises achievement across all international formats. The only bowler in the final list of four was South Africa's Vernon Philander, and Ajmal had taken more than twice as many international wickets as him. The oversight is glaring enough to call into question the procedures of the ICC, which relies on a private ballot by a 32-member voting academy for picking the names. Ajmal shrugged off the snub, but it has been an acrid pill for the fans and won't be soon forgotten.

What 2013 holds
The coming year can be expected to be one of transition for Pakistan. As a few old hands edge towards retirement, young blood will be expected to step up. There is impressive reserve strength in seam and spin bowling, but batting remains a worry. At the top of the order, Pakistan are still struggling to find openers of world-class quality. In the middle order, despite some exciting performances from Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Umar Akmal and Nasir Jamshed, there is still uncertainty whether the newcomers can adequately fill the shoes of Younis Khan, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf. Although the captaincy is unlikely to change hands, provided Misbah and Mohammad Hafeez can retain their places in the side, replacing either will be a headache because there are no obvious and risk-free candidates.

There is no dearth of challenges ahead. Pakistan's international commitments will be almost doubled from 2012, with away series in South Africa, Zimbabwe and West Indies, followed later in the year by home encounters against South Africa and Sri Lanka, with perhaps a Test rubber with India - a long shot at the moment, but you never know - to be slotted somewhere in between. In the middle of the year there is also the Champion's Trophy in England. If the current limited-overs series in India is any indication, Pakistan appear hungry and motivated for success heading into the New Year, and this bodes well for the immediate term.

The larger question of where Pakistan cricket is headed is much harder to answer. General elections are due in early 2013, and there is still no end in sight to the home-grown cancer of militancy and terrorism. The PCB keeps making noises about a commercial T20 league with foreign players, and is also valiantly trying to organise a full-scale tour by Bangladesh. Even if either of these materialises, it will do little to improve Pakistan's security perception, and it is virtually guaranteed that the tours by South Africa and Sri Lanka scheduled later in the year will be relocated to the UAE. The brief for the fans is to stay positive and keep up hope. For the foreseeable future, there is no option but to remain mindful of the bigger picture and to take things one day at a time.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi