x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pakistan defy logic in their own way

Osman Samiuddin captures the state of mind Pakistan cricketers go into ever so often – like they did against England in Abu Dhabi – that makes them unbeatable.

Abdur Rehman, arms raised, took six England wickets in Abu Dhabi yesterday and could seemingly do no wrong.
Abdur Rehman, arms raised, took six England wickets in Abu Dhabi yesterday and could seemingly do no wrong.

There comes a time, and admittedly that time comes more often with Pakistan, when trying to rationalise what you have just seen is, like a circle, effectively pointless.

We could talk until sundown of England's frailties against spin, the Decision Review System (DRS), the forward press or the sweep as a strategy, about Saeed Ajmal's doosra, about Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, about Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Hafeez and Misbah-ul-Haq's captaincy. But really none of it matters just now.

Only history matters and history says that this, what Pakistan have done to England in this Test and more specifically what they did on Saturday, is what Pakistan do, time and again. No matter the decade, the captain, the players (I mean, Abdur Rehman? How often has left-arm spin won anything for Pakistan?), the strategy, the weapons or the rest of the off-field guff.

In these moments – the moment being such that Pakistan comfortably defended 145 – it cannot be about cricket as much as it is about a state of mind, one that often (but not always) sharpens just when it most needs to and that is usually at the very last.

Usually it happens with the ball in hand. Defending on Saturday, their bowlers were even more accurate than they had been through this Test. And it was when they took the wicket of Ian Bell that even far up and away in the press box, you could hold in your hands the frenzy that had just then entered the air.

In this frenzy, wickets begin to fall in a cluster: thrice they took two wickets in one over and each time it seemed a logical conclusion to the spell of play.

Almost every ball brings an appeal, not many outlandish. Their fielders start hitting the stumps: evidence Abdur Rehman's pick-up and direct hit of his own bowling at one point to try to run out Jonathan Trott.

Even take the final catch Umar Gul took to seal the win, or the catch that was not given that Azhar Ali snaffled off Andrew Strauss. In other situations and times, we can easily imagine them, or any other fielder, dropping it.

In such sessions, Pakistan's players are at their most elemental, and seem to be replicating the hurried games they and millions of Pakistanis play with a taped tennis ball, tattered bat and a mango crate for a wicket on whatever road has the least traffic.

Former players, when asked about such moments, speak of them understandably in rational terms. They point to a long history of individual players who can win games single-handedly. After this win, Misbah-ul-Haq – the ultimate rationalist – spoke of the pressure all batsmen regardless of nationality, face in any fourth innings chase.

These are perfectly sensible explanations but I prefer one that draws from Sufism (and this may sound overblown at first and probably is even on reflection but we will stick with it). In these moments, they enter a state of Haal, a kind of temporary state of a different consciousness to the state normally inhabited.

They walk and act differently, with greater urgency and settle upon some central figures around whom they all whir in unison towards one central purpose. The captain can be important; in Misbah's case his unflappability probably helps keeping a loose lid on whatever his players are boiling up. But many times it makes little difference.

An altogether lighter, cruder way to capture the approach, especially in this Test, is to refer to the old bad joke about the man who pronounced ‘R’ as ‘L’ and was asked to bring back supplies from somewhere. Like him, Pakistan lurked around a corner for all of it and then jumped out at the end and shouted “Surprise!”

And accordingly were surprised not only England but probably the rest of the world. Again. Three things are clear, though: only they do it quite like this, only they have done it as often and only they will keep doing so until the end of time.