x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pakistan's time for a little focus

It is a wonder that Pakistan's cricketers can even bat and bowl amidst all the distractions that have swamped them.

Shahid Afridi, left, the Pakistan captain, talks with his teammates at Lord’s, England, in September. The team will look to get back to their winning ways as the world watches.
Shahid Afridi, left, the Pakistan captain, talks with his teammates at Lord’s, England, in September. The team will look to get back to their winning ways as the world watches.

Distil all the commotion to a human level, and the Pakistan national cricket team could spend the next 32 days providing one enthralling dissertation.

In the ceaseless struggle of human sports teams versus very-human distractions, few if any teams have spent a single calendar year encountering such abundant and noisy cross-currents.

All the teams in all the seasons in all the countries facing all the distractions have made the word "distractions" a cliche, and so much of the essence of sport lies in the masterful concentration required to disregard them.

In that sense, Pakistan approach Abu Dhabi and Dubai and nine matches with South Africa - two Twenty20, five one-day internationals, two Tests - with issues but also with uncommon opportunity.

Thriving here would qualify as feat not just in cricket but in life, for the swirl through the year has been so considerable that just studying it for a few hours can leave a reader drained and craving a nap.

The hubbub somehow has occluded even the lingering fact that beneath all of it, here is a team that cannot play at home because of security fears born of the attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in March 2009 in Lahore.

Even as UAE-based Pakistani fans will do their best to replicate home, replicating home is impossible. People like home - most do - and athletes are people. Home field or pitch or ice or oval has proved an "advantage" for so long that there goes another cliche.

So that could be distracting enough, but here is more: The players still navigate the shadow of the most recent tour (in England), which featured three teammates suspended from the sport for allegedly accepting money from a naughty British tabloid to spot-fix a match (the practice in which players agree to perform a certain way on a certain ball so that in-the-know wagerers can profit). That and, by the way, losses in all three cricket formats.

And here is more: Two of the three suspended players - 26-year-old batsman Salman Butt and the fast-bowling 18-year-old prodigy Mohammad Aamer - will make their appeals before the International Cricket Council (ICC) in Doha on October 30, smack amid the Pakistan-South Africa series.

And then this: Pakistan's players will play amid a 30-day ultimatum from the ICC demanding that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) demonstrate progress in combatting corruption.

They will play after receiving and signing a point presentation about corruption. They will play after the formation of a seven-member, anti-corruption committee headed by Ijaz Butt.

They will play a month after Butt, the PCB chairman, caused a ruckus in England in September by insinuating aloud - before later retracting - that English players had fixed matches.

And then this: They will play just after their overseeing manager while in England, Yawar Saeed, stepped down and Ijaz Butt named as replacement Intikhab Alam, who coached the squad to its first Twenty20 World Cup title in 2009 and also during a terrible tour of Australia at the turn of the year that led to hearings that told of runaway infighting.

"I will make sure that the players are disciplined during the tour," Alam told The News International of Pakistan. "With the eyes of the cricket world on us, they will have to be at their best behaviour and prove Pakistan's critics wrong."

And then this: They will play after a hullabaloo over the selection of the players for this tour, one that crested with the coach, Waqar Younis, and the limited-overs captain, Afridi, noting they had managed to go somehow un-consulted in the selection process.

And still this: Just last week Younus Khan, the 32-year-old former captain who had retired from Twenty20 and who last spring had incurred a controversial ban for intra-team conflicts, re-emerged for this tour after a much-reported meeting with Butt. "I am eager to resume my international career and playing for Pakistan is always a big honour and I will go all out to justify my inclusion," Younus told reporters in Karachi.

And then, this: His return cracked open memories that here is a team that way back at the outset of 2010 played an uncommonly horrific tour in Australia, with nine losses in three formats, one inquiry thereafter and multiple swirling stories of frothing dissension.

And then, just one more thing: Waqar, the coach, hopes the South Africa series can reveal some improvement in fielding.

Given all the other, that sounds quaint to the point of lovely.

Now, among this pile of distractions, none alone rates as profoundly unusual upon a turbulent, oft-corrupt sporting planet full of players coming and going and club officials wrangling over influence and blame. Tally up the sum, however, and you can get almost a sense of wonder that the athletes in question even can so much as bowl and bat.

Yet bowl and bat they will, and in the age-old battle of human beings versus distractions, amaze they could.