So…this was heartbreaking. Of course, one might think that Pakistani cricket fans should be used to it by now – we probably hold a record for the most ignominious collapses in the game. I’m too dispirited to look up the statistics. The loss today was very difficult to take, more difficult than getting bowled out for less than 100 in both innings, more difficult than losing against India in the final of the T20 World Cup, more difficult than many of the heartbreaks that Pakistan fanatics like me have endured over the past many years. Let me try and explain why.
Ever since that fateful day at Lord’s in 1999, cricket in this country has been a story of failure, with only a few highlights of individual brilliance to lift the soul. Sixes by Afridi and Razzaq hammered over midwicket, left leg out of the way. Spells by Shoaib and so many more bowling talents, to rattle helmets around the globe. That’s all we’ve really had for over a decade, and the years have been defined by two things: heavy defeats against Australia, and a resumption of conflict against India on the pitch instead of trench. In both cases we came up against some of the greatest batting juggernauts the world has ever seen in some of the worst pitches ever curated, equipped with some of the worst batsmen to ever lay stake to a Pakistan spot. We were preprogrammed for failure, but we kept fighting away, whether it was through a furious bowling spell or flurry of boundaries. Whether it was Rana reverse-swinging Sehwag into submission or Razzaq impudently smacking a fuming McGrath for five consecutive boundaries, Pakistan clung onto the tag ‘unpredictable’ like an article of faith – except for the fact that faith was missing the most.
That may seem a little out of touch with reality, given that the current Pakistani captain has a beard longer than his list of Test victories. Indeed, the only period of relative success and stability enjoyed by the cricket team, between the 2005 VB Series in Australia and 2006’s Oval fiasco, was carefully managed by two men founded on faith: the late Bob Woolmer and Inzamam ul-Haq. It was a time when pigs flew, when moons were usually bluer than the skies in which they rested, for the Pakistan XI played like an actual, united team, where the whole was greater than the sum of parts and victories were based upon contributions from all around. One of the best coaches in cricket joined forces with one of the biggest and best batsmen in the world to string together a series of series wins. The fans were left rubbing their eyes as a wave of tableegh swept the squad and prayers rather than parties were held in congregation. That was also the year in which Mohammad Yousuf broke the record for most Test runs in a single calendar year, scoring centuries seemingly at will. It is an ability that eludes him now.
For the very next year, the bombs began exploding. The volatility in Pakistan was reflected in the cricket team’s fortunes: Woolmer found dead, Lal Masjid, T20 and the ICL exodus, state of emergency. A new fear gripped the team and faithlessness prevailed again.
This lack of faith refers not to faith as it is usually understood in a religious context; I refer to the faith in systems, processes, practices. I refer to having faith in giving one’s best and believing that success will arrive if its preconditions are met. I refer to the resilience that allowed Pakistan to bounce back from being 0/3 on day 1 of the memorable Karachi 2006 Test against India and emerge victorious by 341 runs.
Faith is what the Australians have in spades – a belief that they can win no matter what the odds, a refusal to give up, an approach that says ‘Over my dead body, mate’ in a voice that oddly reminds one of Steve Waugh. The great John Arlott’s words are worth revisiting:
“Australianism… means where the ‘impossible’ is within the realm of what the human body can do, there are Australians who believe that they can do it – and who have succeeded often enough to make us wonder if anything is impossible to them. It means they have never lost a match – particularly a Test match – until the last run is scored or their last wicket down.”
It is this very faith that converted what looked to be a certain victory for Pakistan into a triumph for the Australians. A painful recap is in order: They were bowled out for 127 on the first day. Pakistan led by over 200 runs at the end of the second day. The Australians were effectively 51/8 at the end of the third day. Give any one of these situations to any team in the world, and it would take a brave man to bet against anything but defeat. Winning, though, is a habit that the hosts, especially captain Ricky Ponting, have developed and fine-tuned through years and years of success, and although they might have faltered recently, they haven’t forgotten how to do it.
Pakistan, though, clearly have. Day Four of the Sydney Test was an exhibition of confused thinking and a mindset still dominated by fear. After winning three days in a row by playing positively and aggressively, it was initially perplexing to see the Pakistanis begin this crucial day by defending instead of attacking. Perhaps the captain thought that stifling runs might force the obdurate (and eventually Man of the Match) Michael Hussey to give away his wicket; perhaps the captain found it difficult to confront the reality of a match firmly in his grasp. My guess is that, afraid of failure, he chose to err on the side of caution and play safe, play the only way he knew how to – a way that has, unfortunately, regularly brought failure instead of success.
Even when they came out to bat, chasing a larger-than-hoped-for but still eminently achievable target of 176 on a good pitch with over a day’s worth of play left, the Pakistanis were constantly caught in two minds. They knew that the key to success Down Under is attacking – and began swinging the bat as if determined to launch the Kookaburra into orbit, not realizing that Ponting was hoping for exactly that, not realizing that Australia’s one hope of success lay in quick wickets. It was still the ‘safe’ option – the method trumpeted by all and sundry as the route to a famous victory. It wasn’t, however, the smart option, which was to focus on building partnerships. Run rate was never going to be a problem with over 120 overs to get 176 runs, but the team plan seemed to be ‘one boundary per over’. Even when the match situation was screaming for some patience, Mohammad Yousuf thought it was a good idea to step down and test the spinner’s catching skills. (Hint: they’re better than our wicketkeeper’s.)
There are many obvious conclusions to draw from the game. Pakistan paid the price for poor fielding, an inexperienced and tactically unaware captain, persisting with talent that should have been dropped a long time ago, bad team management, and inexperience in the Test arena.
It has been more taxing than ever to stay faithful to the Pakistani team this year. A return to glory at the scene of our worst defeat, victory in a World Cup Final at Lord’s to wipe out the pain of ’99, the emergence of Mohammad Aamer and return of Mohammad Asif, a strong and honest captain determined to mould a team of champions over the long run: there was the good. Collapses against Sri Lanka, failure at the ICC Champions Trophy against New Zealand, and (as many have noted) perfecting the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: there was also the bad.
And for my money, this was the worst of the lot. For this was the Holy Grail of cricketing conquests – this was beating Australia in Australia, this was a dream come true. India, too, made it their obsession to beat Australia after Ganguly chose to benchmark with the best in 2001 – and were confirmed to be the best in the world only after a successful tour Down Under. The frequency of Indo-Austral bilateral cricketing series has significantly raised the exposure of Indian youths to the finest cricketing unit in the world and contributed greatly to the growing success of the Indian team. Pakistan, though, has not faced off with the world champions in years and was chomping at the bit with one of its finest bowling attacks since the two Ws left. After a series of whitewashes, this match was the golden opportunity to turn things around. There was belief on the last day at Melbourne that Pakistan might pull off a remarkable win; there is no doubt that they should have won today. They outplayed Australia long enough to deserve victory, but repeated the Test motif of the year: outplaying teams for long periods of time and then collapsing spectacularly to gift victory to the opposition.
But for 36 runs, we all might be beaming with joy.