Pakistan; a resurgent cricketing nation
As the MCC Xi took centre stage in Pakistan in early 2020 there was a global shift in mentality as we all began to realise that finally cricket had returned to Pakistan. Of course there had been previous tours by Sri Lanka but this one felt special. The MCC is one of the oldest most sacred establishments of the game and for them to accept the return of cricket to the nation was monumental. We need look no further than Kumar Sangakkara who had been a victim in the terror attacks in 2009 and who captained the MCC side to see that progress had finally arrived.
From the MCC tour one image stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of meaning and resemblance; the photo of Shaheen Shah Afridi signing the autographs of desperate fans on the boundary edge was something that brought a smile to the face of numerous cricket fans worldwide. Fans who had for so long been deprived of the opportunity to see their local superstars prosper in the infamous grounds of Karachi and Lahore were witnessing it live and in the flesh. Pakistani cricket fans are some of the most entertaining in the world with the noise non stop and the hostility unbearable for the away team and now they finally had cricket back home. We speak a lot about the 12th man and nowhere is this more prominent than in a packed out Karachi- the environment would break even the toughest of skins. As the game carried on in the background the true story was obviously the true return of cricket in Pakistan. That day felt like a new dawn for Pakistani cricket.
Pakistan is an oddity in the modern world as it is one of the few countries in the world in which football is not the major national sport. Instead on the streets of Pakistan it is the game of bat ball and catch that captures the imaginative minds of the masses. The 22 yards are considered sacred, the willow the sword with which the mighty do battle and the ball? The ball is the king and those who master the arts of the object reign supreme. One who can spin the red leather miles or bowl at the speed of lighting is considered of highest value in Pakistan. A true speedster is the most valuable to the point where they have a seeming abundance of them each possessing something new and exciting to set them apart from the crowd. A magnificent tale is told of an ambidextrous seamer bowling 140k’s at the Lahore Qalandars trial day; whether or not this seam up wizard made the cut is something that I do not know but if we see him on the international stage in a few years please remember where you heard it first. The nation is entrenched in cricket and finally they have the opportunity to see their stars in the flesh and Pakistan has the chance to do something special.
What for the team itself? Pakistan cricket is in a position we have seen it enter many a time in the endless cycle of promise and disappointment. However this time something strange is occurring; there is a different feel to Pakistani cricket. The test side finally feels secure, something which it has not for a few years now. Even when they reached number 1 in the world rankings the classic thought process of 1 bad innings being 1 too many was still present. Yet under the leadership of Younis Khan it appears as though now Pakistan have finally accepted a back seat in world cricket whilst simultaneously releasing the tools to regain their throne are still there.
Talent flows through the current Pakistan test side in abundance. Babar Azam is one of the finest batsmen of his generation and if his career continues upon the same trajectory he shall finish as arguably Pakistan's greatest of all time. Whilst his overall test record is middling, his more recent one places him among the modern behemoths of the game and he is only getting better and better. Babar is well known for his beauty and poise but the application with which he has taken over the captaincy is truly astounding. As a skipper he appears not only tactically astute but also willing to learn on the job and trust the opinions of others, something which many captains have failed to do during their tenures. In Pakistan the hopes of the reborn cricketing nation now rest upon Babar yet this does not affect Babar and instead it seems to have elevated him to new heights and he slowly creeps up the ICC test match batsmen rankings where he currently sits in 6th. One of the captains most trusted sidekicks is vice captain Mohammad Rizwan. As Sri Lanka toured Pakistan Rizwan was in the side but no one could quite work out why and despite middling performances he was kept on. In a few months he was Pakistan's best batsman against England and captained the side against New Zealand. Rizwan is a batsmen of immense talent and over the past 12 months he has swiftly become the global cricketing community's sweetheart and is now one of the mainstays in Pakistan's side for what appears to be the foreseeable future. The admirable comeback stories of Abid Ali and Fawad Alam are also worth a mention with both proving that if you’re good enough you’re old enough works both ways.
Whilst the batting unit is filled with talent the bowling unit is where Pakistan truly shine. Shaheen Shah Afridi is the fulcrum of Pakistan's attack and at the age of 21 he has developed into one of the finest bowlers in the world when he is holding a white ball. With the red ball however his record is admittedly middling but the talent is there. Shaheen is undoubtedly the future of Pakistan's attack in all formats but in the longest form he still needs to find the consistency that has turned him into one of the world's greatest short format bowlers. The rest of the seamers aren’t bad either. Mohammad Abbas had a blistering start to his test career before he quite suddenly dropped off and was subsequently dropped however he will be back better than ever. Then there are the others. Hasan Ali made an emphatic return to his test career claiming a ten wicket haul vs South Africa. Haris Rauf is seemingly the next in line for a test debut whilst Naseem Shah has shown glimpses of what he is capable of and at 17 he can only get better. Pakistan has a revolving door of genuinely quick bowlers and the new dawn of Pakistani cricket will be one dominated by the aforementioned names. In Yasir Shah Pakistan have the best leggie since Warne and one of the great modern spinners. Yasir is the fastest bowler to 200 test wickets completing the feat in just over 30 test matches and he is giving no indication of slowing down. Yasir has the ability to spin the ball big and attack but he can also keep it tight if needs be. The Pakistan attack relies on Yasir to make something happen when nothing is and use the inevitable magic of a leg spinner to rip one off of the surface of a flat deck. Yasir and Shaheen Pakistan have the makeup of their test attack for at least the next 2 years if not more.
So the test side is building slowly and soon Pakistan will have developed their young talents into world beaters. But what about the white ball? Well in T20i cricket Pakistan have a truly thrilling squad. In Rizwan they have someone who is developing into one of the best white ball openers in the world with his recent performances vs South Africa laying testament to this as he struck his maiden T20i hundred. In Babar Azam they have a good T20 batsmen who has the groundwork to be one of the best shown by his explosive ton vs the same opposition. The aforementioned Shaheen Shah Afridi is one of the best T20 bowlers in the world and Haris Rauf is one of the most effective quicks in the middle overs. Shadab Khan is a very underrated leg spinning all rounder and is also handy in the field. Haider Ali is a pure six hitting machine who can boost the par totals to the huge ones and if Fakhar Zaman can translate his insane ODI form into the shortest format then Pakistan look a deadly opposition heading into the T20 world cup. Pakistan has all the tools to mix it with the best of them in the shortest format and they may do just that. The retirement of Mohammad Amir was a huge loss to the side as it would be to any but as is ever the case with the internal rumblings of Pakistani cricket it will come as no surprise if he is back in the Xi come the world cup.
In the one day format Pakistan are building a team of surprising strength. Babar Azam is currently ranked the highest ODI batsmen on the ICC rankings breaking Virat Kohli's streak and it is not undeserved. Babar is a level above most in the 50 over form of the game with the best of Babar being allowed to shine through. The aforementioned Zamam is on a roll in ODI cricket with his recent 193 once again showcasing his ability. To be frank Pakistan are one of the few sides in the world who are able to successfully make the transition from 20 over to 50 over cricket whilst realising the different intricacies of the formats. In a time in which most nations are using the ODI format as a chance to rest key players Pakistan are building something special that in a few years could shock the neutral.
Pakistan are reborn and reemerging onto the global cricket scene . Under the captaincy of Babar they are thriving and the test series against Zimbabwe will be yet another chance for them to showcase their skills. The test side has a sense of balance and building towards the future whilst the shorter formats are benefitting considerably from the advancement and success of the PSL. Pakistan cricket is building something new in which they aren’t bound by the tales of the past. Shaheen Shah Afridi is not considered the next Wasim instead he is his own man. Pakistan has realised to move forward they must acknowledge what has come but accept they aren’t what they were. The materials and players are there for Pakistan to build something new and where they have failed and stalled before this time something feels different.