x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Zimbabwe’s hunger acted as a tonic against Pakistan in Test series

Zimbabwe’s win over Pakistan was refreshing as it showed inequal contests are not given, writes Osman Samiuddin.

The Zimbabwe players showed more hunger than Pakistan. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP
The Zimbabwe players showed more hunger than Pakistan. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP

The really wonderful thing about Pakistan’s Test series in Zimbabwe was that it did not feel at all like it belonged to international cricket as we know it today.

These could easily have been two five-day games between amateur club sides, on a small, lush and beautiful ground somewhere, with just a smattering of spectators, which happened to be, through the wonders of modern technology and economics, broadcast around the world.

There was almost no interest in it to anyone from outside the two countries involved, so that it was as if you were tuning into a little secret every day.

The broadcast was financially – but not spiritually – hamstrung. There were, the director tweeted, “no speed guns, stump cams, Ultramo, Hawk-Eye, Hot Spot, less than half the cams of IPL, 1/4 of the no of replay machines”.

These days that is more like having no broadcast. The commentators mostly did not shout, choosing polite conversation to communicate. In Chishty Mujahid, an old-school veteran and popular broadcaster from Pakistan, the feel was that you were watching a series more suited to a radio from 1961 – unadorned, the cricket speaking for itself and viewers thinking for themselves.

But that incongruity did not prevent the most important moment of the series – and one that viewers rarely get to see – being captured on air.

That came just after Zimbabwe’s win in the second Test to square the series, when the broadcast did not cut away to ads or an immediate post-match discussion and ceremony, but went straight into the victorious dressing room.

There the cameras captured something truly essential – not just about sport, but about life as well.

Here were players who, frankly, had little chance in this series, who had not been paid since forever, who get paid a pittance in any case, and who do not know what tomorrow, or the day after, will bring.

But here were men who had created this moment of undeniable history and a grandness that neither they, nor anybody watching or invested in, will ever be able to shake off.

The scene inside the dressing room was so intimate and real you could almost feel the freshness of the glow that was engulfing the Zimbabwe players – like a documentary catching an on-the-cusp indie band backstage, exultant after that particularly epic and seminal concert that throws them into the mainstream.

The two-Test series has been a tonic, a necessary lo-fi response to the seriousness sports assigns itself and its ensuing cynicism, outrage, partisanship and jingoism, to its excessive commercialism and to its endless politics.

It was a reminder, too, that while cricket has changed dramatically in some countries and progressed (if making more money is a sign of progress), then it has remained stagnant, or devolved elsewhere, but that, often, this rootsier version is no bad thing.

It helped greatly that there was an equality to all elements, between bat and ball, and, more surprisingly, between the two sides. The importance of quality is sometimes overplayed in sport, because what guarantees a compelling contest is not quality as much as equality.

Where there was a difference was in hunger. It is always lazy and presumptive to talk of desire in sport, especially from outside looking in. But through this series it was impossible not to see that Zimbabwe were just that much hungrier.

Their bowlers sustained their verve over longer spells, their batsmen applied themselves better. In the field they made up for errors with enthusiasm.

They did not stop, or wilt, or flag at any of the many points weaker sides do in five-day contests. Every single delivery they fought.

They did not get lucky, either, or benefit from a Pakistan implosion: they outplayed and out-thought Pakistan and, but for a couple of poor sessions in the first Test, could dream of a series triumph.

Sadly, no bigger meaning can be derived from the result, right now. Zimbabwe have had to postpone a forthcoming Test series against Sri Lanka because of financial issues. According to the Future Tours Programme they do not play another Test until next August.

Pakistan? This is easily the biggest loss under Misbah-ul-Haq’s leadership and one that has been building for some time.

It is the culmination of several factors – poor selection, a frayed and fraught batting order, and a grave lack of Tests among them.

They have played fewer Tests this year than even Zimbabwe, which, for single-format players such as Azhar Ali, who flopped, is an unsettling schedule.

Not that Misbah needed reminding of the particular extremes of Pakistan’s cricket but he is better wired than most to understand that he is leading a side that remains prisoner to its own history, a side as capable of this result as they are of a whitewashing of England.

Unlike Zimbabwe, they have a busy winter ahead. Though it feels now as if South Africa, the season’s first opponents, might chew them up, it would remain entirely in keeping with Pakistan’s patterns that the Zimbabwe loss comes to mean nothing for their fortunes in the UAE.