England could have won in Abu Dhabi, England could have drawn in Dubai, and England could have run through Pakistan’s second innings in Sharjah. But at the end of a forlorn month of cricket, England failed to deliver in the crunch moments of all three games and Captain Cook returns home wondering what could have been. Sport is not about what-ifs, it is all about seizing that moment when the contest hangs in the balance, it is all about going for the kill when you get even a sniff, it’s all about being ruthless when the opposition least expects.
Three years ago when England first visited the UAE they were basking in the glory of their recently acquired number one rank in the Test format. Andrew Strauss, the then captain, had a team of superstars but by the end of that contest their reputations were shredded. Bullies like Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and James Anderson were left gobsmacked by a team that didn’t even have a home ground of its own.
This year, Cook arrived on the back of an overly hyped Ashes triumph against enemy numero uno Australia — the supposed ‘mother of all Test battles’ held seemingly almost every weekend. In Sharjah, he was the second-last man to jump off the burning deck as a 284-run target proved well out of the reach of his charges who were smitten by the vagaries of a fifth-day track. Strauss — now the director of England cricket — watched the carnage unfold from the Sharjah stadium corporate box. Some eyewitnesses claim he turned his head away each time a batsman perished to the wiles of the Pakistani magicians. The minds of Cook’s batsmen wreaked havoc with their techniques as Yasir Shah, Zulfiqar Babar and Shoaib Malik chuckled away at their red-faced opponents, devouring one sorry victim after another.
Since the stunning Karachi heist at the dawn of the new millennium, England have finished losers in seven out of their last nine Tests ‘hosted’ by Pakistan. No wonder the English bowlers and fielders so desperately want to square off with their tormentors in the comforts of their own conditions.
The fast bowling quartet of Anderson, Broad, Mark Wood and Ben Stokes all had a go at Pakistan batsmen in the UAE, reminding them after every boundary or miscue that their techniques would need to rev up for the seam and swing at Lord’s, Edgbaston, Old Trafford and Oval — the venues of the four Tests next year. Some English pundits also jumped on the bandwagon and scoffed at Pakistan’s ascent to number two in the ICC Test rankings, their collective contention being that Misbahul Haq’s men are world beaters at ‘home’ and lambs abroad.
Misbah has seemingly heard the rants of the ‘masters of the game’. Captain cool isn’t throwing in the towel yet. He knows that despite a Pakistan record 20 wins in Tests, there are gaps on his CV. Misbah hasn’t played a single Test in England so his swansong must befit the man and even at his age, the veteran wants to fight it out. Pakistan, meanwhile, have done far better on English shores compared to their rivals when the roles are reversed. Since 1982 Pakistan have won at least one Test in all but one of the seven series played.
The 2006 Oval Test was forfeited when the game was in the grasp of Inzamamul Haq’s team — the only time in the last 33 years that Pakistan didn’t win at least one Test in England. Pakistan won the 1987 series 1-0, won again in 1992 and 1996 — 2-1, 2-0 — and drew the two-match ‘Ashes curtain-raiser’ in 2001. In London, they have tasted a Test win no less than seven times — four at Oval, three at Lord’s. Birmingham and Manchester might be trickier propositions but Pakistan have also eked out a win under Waqar Younis in the 2001 Manchester Test too.
England are likely to leave the pitches for the Tests well-grassed. Pakistan bowlers might not mind that. Wahab Riaz, Imran Khan, Rahat Ali and company should be more than a handful. If the strips are shaved then the ‘Shah of Spin’ Yasir should have their feet tangled. To emulate the 1990s, the most productive Test batting unit in the last one year would have to indeed rev it up; Misbah, Younus Khan, Mohammad Hafeez, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed would have the English gunning for their throats. If they manage to hold on, Pakistan should trump the ‘masters’ again.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2015.