An incredibly long red carpet has been laid out. Gaddafi Stadium has gone big for Pakistan’s grand day. Dave Richardson, the ICC’s chief executive, walks down it, self-consciously looking at the camera in front of him. Behind him is the real star, in a green blazer and aviator sunglasses: Misbah-ul-Haq.
Richardson is all business, polite smiles, exchanging pleasantries. Misbah is in his own world, not quite with the other signatories, instead doing what he wants to do. The two enter the arena and stand in front of a sponsor’s screen. The ICC media manager hurriedly picks up the Test mace, gives it to Richardson, who quickly passes it on to Misbah.
Misbah is standing, mace in hand, stone-dead expression, and his aviators glint in the sun. He looks like some long-lost Avenger. Mace Man. Pakistan are No. 1 in the world. Misbah seems to own it.
The UAE has been a fortress for Pakistan cricket. Other teams might win occasional Tests there, they might even draw them, but they don’t win series in Pakistan’s home away from home. It is the absolute reason Pakistan became No. 1 in the world.
Their first Test after receiving the mace was against West Indies (if Test cricket relegated sides, West Indies would most likely to be demoted), a day-night Test in Dubai. Azhar Ali made a triple-hundred, and over half of Pakistan’s score. They bowled out West Indies for 357, and in their second innings, Pakistan were 299 runs ahead with two wickets down. They would only add 46 more to that.
In the end it was just enough, but the worrying thing was that West Indies, with a second-rate side, had rattled the mace-holders in their fortress after conceding 579 in the first innings.
Pakistan won the second Test, in Abu Dhabi, easily, but lost the third, in Sharjah, after they lost their last five wickets for 39 runs in the first innings, and their top order slipped to 48 for 4 in the second.
Also, despite the 2-1 series win, two of their bowlers combined to take 31 wickets between them (Yasir Shah 21, and Wahab Riaz ten) and only two batsmen made hundreds (Azhar and Younis Khan).
Before the series only one Pakistan player – Sami Aslam – had played a first-class match since they beat England at The Oval. That win came on August 14 and the Test against West Indies started on October 13 (Pakistan’s first-class season began on October 1). Nor was there a proper warm-up match organised ahead of the series.
Pre-mace they played in England after an intensive fitness camp with the armed forces in order to get themselves ready physically and mentally. They were a professional team, well drilled, well prepared, and performed well enough to draw the series and go to No. 1
The series against West Indies ended on November 3, and on November 11, Pakistan were in Nelson for their only warm-up game on their tour of New Zealand. The three-day match was rained out, so they went straight into a two-Test series on foreign soil having played their last game in the UAE, and they were batting on day one in the Christchurch Test. Fast bowler Colin de Grandhomme took six wickets, Pakistan made 133.
In their four innings, four, five, four and six players respectively made double figures, but none made it to triple. No Pakistan bowler took more than seven wickets in the two Tests.
Pakistan lost the series 2-0 on November 29, and on December 8 they were in Australia, playing a warm-up match at Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns.
The idea was to get the surface in Cairns as close as possible to that of the Gabba, but, despite having hosted two Tests, Cazaly’s is not a cricket ground. It’s a football ground that occasionally gets transformed. It hasn’t hosted a first-class match in ten years, a List A match in eight years, and only one T20 match ever, also ten years ago. In the two Tests played there in the winters of 2003 and 2004, spinners took 27 wickets. Of course, that was so long ago, and so little cricket has been played there since then that it’s hard to know what kind of pitch it is. Although, given that Pakistan played in the first ever major match at Cazaly’s Stadium, in 1988-89 against North Queensland, they are as close to specialists as anyone.
On the first day, Pakistan made 208 on what they said was a slowish, low pitch. Before stumps they had the opposition, a Cricket Australia XI that was clearly not a first-class team, at 3 for 4. Pakistan won the game, but the conditions and the opposition were not adequate preparation for a Test at the Gabba.
Pakistan is a patient team. Well, Misbah is a patient man. He likes to dry the runs up. At the start the Gabba Test, he clearly told his fast bowlers to bowl very wide of off stump. And it worked. David Warner slowed down, so slow that he was behind Matt Renshaw at times. Warner took guard on off stump, but by the end of his innings, he was outside it.
Of the 45 balls he faced from the left-arm quicks, only five weren’t outside off, and it was one of those rare straight balls that trapped him lbw. Now it could have been an uber-plan from Misbah to move Warner in front of the stumps, or he was just bowling dry, hoping for a mistake from Warner. Though it took over 90 minutes, Warner only scored 32 at a strike rate of 45. Pakistan would take that every time.
The problem was that Misbah’s plan also softened the ball and took so long to succeed that by the time the other batsmen were in, the pitch was great for batting. Worse was that Misbah used Yasir as a stock bowler, which is okay, except that the stock of choice wasn’t delicious tight bowling but pointless bowling down the leg side.
Yasir, who helped win two Tests in England, and who took 21 wickets against West Indies, was bowling on the first morning to a 6-3 leg-side field. He wasn’t bowling an off stump-turning-to-middle line to the left-handers, or a middle-turning-to-leg. He was pitching it outside leg and spinning it further down leg.
If the plan was to not give Warner room outside off, that was overly cautious but understandable.
Pakistan bowled too wide all day. On day one, the seamers bowled 40% of their balls wide of off stump and 15% at the stumps. On day two, when they took seven wickets, they bowled 30% wide outside off and 30% at the stumps.
In the dirty, dark times of day-night cricket, just after dusk, Pakistan bowled short of a length or just short. In the same time, Australia bowled the majority of their deliveries on a good length or fuller.
And what about Pakistan’s fielding? On the verge of dinner on day one, wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed dropped Steven Smith off Azhar. Later, Pakistan caught his edge and didn’t appeal. The next day they dropped him again.
Actually, forget Pakistan’s fielding and think of Imran Tahir’s fielding. Tahir is Pakistan born, bred and coached, and when he first played professional cricket, he fielded like it. He was so hopeless it became a comedy every time he got involved. Now he is markedly less hopeless, and rarely funny. That has come from being in a professional set-up in South Africa, proof that Pakistan doesn’t breed bad fielders but coaches them, or creates them from a lack of coaching, and allows them to be unfit. Sohail Khan is so unfit that his third spells look like the most painful thing you have ever seen. Until he bowls his fourth spells. That lack of fitness is why he averages a very good 29 in the first innings of Tests, and 123 in the second.
Then there is the Pakistani batting. In their 17 innings in which they were bowled out this year, 11 times they failed to cross 250, and five times they made fewer than 200. It’s not that they can’t bat, or that they have no batting talent. There were seven scores of 100-plus this year for Pakistan, and only Azhar averages over 50. A side that has Aslam, Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz and Misbah shouldn’t fail as often as they do.
The contrast between how Peter Handscomb and Smith went about their batting under lights against the new ball and how Pakistan did was startling. They scored 23 runs in ten overs against the new ball. The Australians had luck, but they also looked to punish bad balls, tried to rotate the strike, and did not poke at balls they didn’t have to. Pakistan went from grim determination, from Aslam, to no particular plan at all from the rest. You cannot get your tactics wrong on the first day, back it up by missing key chances, and then play wafting shots when you know the cricket is at its hardest.
When Younis was out reverse-sweeping in the middle of day four at the Gabba, the narrative slipped back to: Pakistan are terrible. Younis was abused for not being in form and for being too old. Misbah was also too old. Younger players like Azam and Aslam were not good enough, and some started talking about Salman Butt’s return. And then there was Azhar being too slow again.
Now, Shafiq was in, and his form was terrible, and he was batting too low, and Sarfraz was with him, and of course only one ball from doing something stupid. The entire team was on their way to a shambolic loss, their fourth on the trot.
The only problem was that they weren’t. It was to be a loss, but it wasn’t embarrassing. It was inspiring. They fought and improvised, they did it in their way, and they made Australia think all hope was lost. All while batting twice in that tricky dusk period over three days, batting through rain breaks, against Mitchell Starc, and at the Gabba. It was an incredibly weird innings, with a bit of luck (although no more than what they granted Smith) and they made the most pessimistic Pakistani supporters believe. Then they fell short.
During the innings some were suggesting it was one of the best Pakistani batting performances in years. Imagine what they could have done in this Test, even after losing the toss, had they turned up and had a rest beforehand, or a rest and proper preparation. Instead, this flawed, odd and talented team had to play it their way, and as much as they have overcome in the last six years, they couldn’t overcome a target of 490.
No matter how you look at it, Pakistan are a good Test team. Their captain is experienced, smart and completely in control. Two of their best ever batsmen are playing right now. They have a good and varied bowling attack, with new-ball swingers, reverse-swinging pitch-hitters, quality wristspin and a sparky keeper. Sure, their seam bowlers aren’t as consistent as they should be, their top-order batsmen often let bowlers keep them at one end, and their tail is so weak that it’s shuffled almost daily, but they should be the world’s best all-surface team.
But in order to be the best they can be, even forgetting all the problems with the unprofessional structures of their cricket system, they have to look at how they schedule and prepare for tours.
If they think they are good enough to turn up and play three straight series in completely different surrounds without proper preparation and planning, then they won’t be a good Test team. They won’t get the most out of themselves. They won’t go back to No. 1, and even if they do, they probably won’t stay there for very long.
Pre-mace they played in England after an intensive fitness camp with the armed forces in order to get themselves ready physically and mentally. They arrived in England early, paying out of their own pocket for a camp, to get used to the conditions. They played two three-day warm-up games against county teams on proper county grounds. Hell, they even hired a PR guy, just in case there was extra trouble with Mohammad Amir’s comeback. They were a professional team, well drilled, well prepared, and performed well enough to draw the series and go to No. 1.
They won as many Tests in England as they have in their six Tests since, despite playing two, perhaps three, poorer teams. If Pakistan want to be great, they can’t just turn up and expect to dominate the teams they play. They need to be as prepared for each tour as they can be. There is no easy option for them. They are not that good. Misbah is no superhero; Pakistan is no super team. They are just another flawed team that had a moment of glory. For more, they will have to work harder and smarter than they did the first time.
As Misbah stands in front of the cameras looking cool as hell, he’s asked to take his sunglasses off. He fumbles around and hands them off to someone else. He looks back at the cameras and suddenly he has gone from being a perfect image to what Misbah really is – an old man, a bit awkward and world-weary, and not some incredibly smooth human being.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber