x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Pakistan's high noon in English summer

Butt's young team have thrown the Australian monkey off their backs and they have the resources to pose tough questions to Strauss and Co.

Pakistan celebrate last week's win over Australia. England are likely to provide a sterner test over the next five days.
Pakistan celebrate last week's win over Australia. England are likely to provide a sterner test over the next five days.

It is hard to tell what was the most curious aspect of Pakistan's remarkable three-wicket win over Australia on Saturday. Was it the fact that Pakistan had finally won a Test against Australia after 15 long years, that this inexperienced, talented but erratic team led by a novice captain in Salman Butt had outclassed Ricky Ponting's gnarled old professionals? Was it the sheer passion, raw talent, surprising maturity and cricketing intelligence displayed by their teenage prodigy Mohammad Aamer? Or was it the surprising discovery that one of Pakistan's most memorable Test wins of recent years was, for the most part, played in front of empty stands at a neutral venue?

Firstly, the magnitude of the win simply cannot be over-stated. Those who have followed Pakistan cricket over the years often refer to this team as "unpredictable" or "mercurial". However, while those adjectives might suitably encapsulate Pakistan's performances in the shorter forms of the game, they fail to do justice to Pakistan's recent Test record, in particular against Australia. For more than a decade, Pakistan have been poor in the Test arena. Far from being inconsistent, their performances against Australia have actually been remarkably consistent over many a year; consistently bad. Since 1998, and up to the Lord's Test in England earlier this month, Pakistan lost 13 consecutive Test matches to Australia - a world record for consecutive losses against any opposition. Undoubtedly, there have been many close-calls over the years. The most extraordinary came at Sydney earlier this year, where a 206-run Pakistani lead in the first innings still led to an ignominious defeat.

Pakistan's problem against Australia over the years has not been a question of ability or talent, but of mental fortitude and temperament. The aura of Australian invincibility had permeated the psyche of recent Pakistan players. It took a very raw and inexperienced team, one that is unscared by all the history of this encounter, and a young captain leading in his very first Test, to overturn those 15 years of hurt and finally break the Australia hoodoo.

No wonder there were raucous celebrations on the streets of Lahore and Karachi after the win, with hundreds of people out in the searing heat to dance in joy and chant "Pakistan Zindabad". They are aware that the relative youth and inexperience in the team bodes well for the future, and for the tough series against England starting today. Pakistan's middle order had two debutants, Azhar Ali and Umar Amin, batting at the crucial No 3 and No 4 spots, the first time ever for any established Test nation in recent years (barring one-off instances of player strikes). And the great batting hope, the man expected to replace Mohammed Yousuf and Younus Khan all by himself, is 20-year-old Umar Akmal, who had played a total of six Test matches going into the series. These three youngsters and in fact, most of the other players too, can only get better with time and more Tests.

The most striking manifestation of this youth policy is Aamer. It is staggering how Pakistan manages to produce world-class fast bowlers the way other countries churn out melons. However, Aamer's case is truly unique; while talented teenagers excelling for sub-continental teams is not an unprecedented phenomenon, few, if any, cricketers in the history of the game have been as intelligent and innovative while just 18. From Wasim Akram to Michael Holding, legends of the sport speak with awe about this kid's ability and maturity. Genuine greatness beckons provided his feet remain firmly on the ground. Now England await.

As if overturning history in his very first Test was not enough, Butt starts an even tougher assignment later today and leads out an inexperienced team on the first morning of a demanding four Test series against a formidable home side at Nottingham. Getting the Australian monkey of their backs after 15 years is one thing; challenging or even competing with a very experienced and thoroughly professional England line-up quite another.

The Pakistan players are up for the contest; everyone from Butt to Aamer have spoken positively of their chances, but they are all aware that they start the series as underdogs. They are hoping their inexperienced batsmen can face up to their sternest Test yet, but they may struggle against a potent English pace attack of Steven Finn, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, with support from Graeme Swann, the best spin bowler in the world. Finn's height and exaggerated bounce, Anderson's swing and Swann's unerring accuracy and guile will pose significant challenges, all of them exacerbated by the absences of Yousuf and Younus.

Pakistan will be relying heavily on Aamer and on the wily craft of Mohammad Asif to make inroads into England's batting and provide them with an edge. However, the English batsmen traditionally handle swing and seam movement much better than their Australian or Pakistani counterparts, so pace alone may not be enough; Danish Kaneria or even Saeed Ajmal, the best exponent of the doosra, will have to step up to the plate if Pakistan are to have a chance. As with all Pakistani cricket, only one thing is certain: this series will be dramatic and eventful, no matter what the outcome. Yasser Alvi is a writer at PakPassion.net