x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pakistan give cricket fans reason to rejoice

A draw with South Africa made a good gift to the nation as the players, and the world, celebrate Eid al Adha.

Pakistan have had a successful run against South Africa amid much turmoil.
Pakistan have had a successful run against South Africa amid much turmoil.

On Tuesday, as more than a billion Muslims around the world performed the rites of Eid al Adha and indulged in its festivities, a group of men from Pakistan were battling under the sun, away from their family and friends, for the pride of their nation.

Their task for the day was to provide a gift to fans in their embattled country, bring a smile to their lips. In the end, their cause and determination prevailed.

Younus Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq saved the first Test against South Africa at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium and the captain promptly dedicated the performance to the country.

"It is a great gift for us [on the day of Eid al Adha] and also for the nation that we played very well in this Test match," Misbah said. "The team did really well and they have given a good gift for everyone."

The Pakistan captain was drawing up plans to celebrate the festival with his team, though finding time between the travelling, training and cricket makes free time a luxury.

"Let's see, we are not doing anything [at the moment], but maybe we go somewhere. We have three days to celebrate Eid."

The Pakistan cricket team arrived in the UAE on October 23 under the grim shadow of the spot-fixing saga that erupted in England. Speculative allegations and insinuations have continued to appear in the media throughout their stay here.

For a young cricketer, not used to such constant media scrutiny, such an atmosphere could be a harrowing experience. Zulqarnain Haider, the Pakistan wicketkeeper, was one of the men to succumb.

On the morning of Pakistan's fifth and series-deciding one-day international (ODI), he took flight to England, claiming threats to his life and adding to the shock-value of Pakistan cricket. He never spoke to a single member of his team - player, coaching or administrative staff - about these threats.

Intikhab Alam, the team manager, described the Zulqarnain episode as "embarrassing and unfortunate". Its impact on the players, though, can only be imagined.

Misbah, Pakistan's fourth Test captain of this year, has been trying hard to keep their minds free of negativity through different team-bonding excursions, including a visit to the cinema hall next to the team hotel to watch the Indian comedy Golmaal 3.

"It's really difficult to find free time on cricket tours," he said. "Training, team meetings and playing cricket take up most of your day.

"Still, we have been trying to take time out and enjoy ourselves. It is important to take your mind off cricket at times. So we have been sitting together regularly, chatting and try to have fun. We go out for dinners and enjoy ourselves."

Cricket, however, seems to be the greatest balm for players in these difficult days. No team in world cricket has ever been through the horrifying times that Pakistan have seen over the last couple of years.

International cricket in Pakistan came to a standstill following a militant attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore last year. The security concerns then robbed them of the right to co-host the 2011 World Cup. A harrowing tour of Australia followed and then came the News of the World exposé to bring the ghosts of match-fixing alive.

Pakistan lost three of their best cricketers - Salman Butt, the then Test captain, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer - to provisional suspensions, and reports of other players' involvement refuse to die down.

Given their situation, most teams would have struggled to stand up to a side as good as South Africa. But Pakistan never cease to surprise. After losing the two Twenty20s tamely, they took the ODI series to the wire. A bowler short, they fought memorably to draw the first Test.

"We need Test matches like these because we were not playing a lot of Test cricket in the last two or three years," Misbah said. "Now we are playing Test cricket again and gaining in confidence. If we play like this against such good teams - South Africa are one of the best teams in the world - we can really take a lot of confidence from it. We can believe we can do it."

Muddasar Nazar, a former Pakistan Test opener and now one of the coaches of the International Cricket Council's Global Academy in Dubai, has certainly not been surprised by their performance on this "home" tour. "It has become part of Pakistan's psyche," he said.

"The players, they come through it. One day they are fighting against each other, giving statements against each other, the next day they are fighting against the opposition.

"Walking out of The Oval Test match [in 2006] and things like that, getting caught or being accused of match-fixing … the very next day they turn up and start winning matches. So it doesn't bother them.

"You look at what has happened in England. They probably should have won the one-day series. Logic defies that. Any other team would have gone down with all the accusations flying around. But it doesn't matter to these guys.

"I have seen that in the 1990s. Aamer Sohail or somebody else would give a statement against the captain, or the rest of the team, yet the very next day they would be sitting in the same dressing room and go on to win the match for the team.

"So this is a crazy team. It has been going on for the last 20-odd years. It didn't happen before, but this has now become a part of the team. They just get on with it."

Their battling cricket also brought the fans out in great numbers. Angry crowds had greeted the team on their return home from England. Nobody bothered to show up for their early-morning arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Once the cricket started, though, they came through the turnstiles in the capital to support their side and the trend was expected to continue in Dubai. Still, Macky Dudhia, the general manager of Dubai Sports City's sports business department, was almost taken aback by the record crowds that turned up for the fourth ODI.

"I did an interview before Pakistan came over and somebody asked how the Pakistan community would react with all the goings-on," Dudhia said. "I think they have shown themselves. In the ODIs we had over 50,000 people attend the three games. The Friday, November 5, was totally outstanding. We had 24,000 people here.

"It was unbelievable. We were overwhelmed with the Friday turnout. It was way beyond expectations and with the limited resources we had out there, we managed to deliver the event.

"The atmosphere in there, you had to hear what some of the South Africa players had to say. They have not experienced the kind of electric atmosphere that was at the venue. "

Administrators in Abu Dhabi will be hoping for a similar atmosphere and turnout when the second Test starts on Saturday. The Zayed Cricket Stadium will join the group of Test-hosting venues and you can expect Pakistan and South Africa to make the occasion memorable.

Pakistan cricket is on the upswing and as Misbah said, "we can build on this [the first Test] and only grow from here".