Lord’s Cricket Ground, London
Six years ago, at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in 2010, England wrapped up a 3-1 series victory against a Pakistani Test team led by Salman Butt. The defeat at Lord’s was swift and brutal – an innings and 225 runs, yet purists were fairly elated at the prospect of 18-year-old Mohammad Amir, who had burst through the English top order on the first morning with six wickets. He couldn’t get Jonathan Trott, who went on to build a massive partnership with an unlikely Stuart Broad. However, days within this defeat, a teenaged Amir then found himself in jail. His captain, Butt, was also with him. The spot-fixing scandal had taken center-stage, as Amir’s foot was repeatedly shown stepping way over the crease during one of his no-balls. An irredeemable leap of faith, it seemed. A career thrown away for a few quick bucks. Amir had taken money to bowl those balls, as had Mohammad Asif, spurred on by captain Salman Butt.
Amir, now 23 having served his time and a 5-year ban from cricket, castled who else but Broad and last man Jake Ball (who replaced James Anderson), to complete Pakistan’s victory over England. At Lord’s. In a Test match. By 75 runs.
Many will say this has been a remarkable turnaround. Many will no doubt find much credibility in the way this Pakistani team – led by journeyman Misbah-ul-Haq – prepared for this tour, the way they underwent a pre-tour boot camp with their own army at Abbotabad (known as the town in which Osama Bin Laden was killed), the way new coach Mickey Arthur (who was laughed out of the English camp after the ‘HomeworkGate’ affair in 2013) brought them to the Rose Bowl to acclimatize early with some practice matches, the way it became all about their fitness and discipline and hard work – attributes that never quite swum hand-in-hand with raw Pakistani talent.
Their salutes and push-up drills at the end of the game may have riled the Englishmen, and made people uncomfortable considering the recent failed Turkish military coup and the overall scenario, but on the face of it, this remarkable celebration only seemed like their way of telling their country that 2016 is worlds away from 2010, and that they can’t ever let down their country again on cricket’s most traditional stage.
But for those who have observed this team under Misbah – who scored a century to lay the foundation in the first innings – will know that this hasn’t been a “turnaround.” It has been in the making for a while now. The romanticism of winning at the same venue that kick-started their darkest ever phase is undeniable and poetic, but in the grand context of Pakistani cricket – as absurd as this may sound – their “consistency” in the longest form of the game has earned them this landmark win.
They hadn’t won at Lord’s since 1996, but then again, England haven’t been fast starters in a home series, even losing to India at the same venue last year before sweeping them away over the next three matches. But there’s something more ominous about this Pakistan team. There’s something that suggests this series might be very closely fought.
Pakistan’s recent Test-match record should drop some hints:
This victory was their third consecutive victory over England. Their last two Test matches back at the end of 2015 at Dubai and Sharjah were victories over this same team – winning their ‘home’ series 2-0. Once again, leg-spinner Yasir Shah, who took 10 wickets at Lord’s, has exposed their frailty to spin and general lack of patience, but also their willingness to achieve a result at any cost. Despite playing a Test match after eight long months, Misbah’s team is back at the top of its game.
Exactly a year ago, Misbah’s team defeated Sri Lanka 2-1 in Sri Lanka, just before Kumara Sangakkara retired in the proceeding series against India.
Just before that series, they again won ‘away’ in Dhaka, winning a series against an up-and-coming Bangladesh 1-0.
One would have to go back to August 2014 to see when Pakistan actually lost a Test series (2-0 to Sri Lanka away), after which they began their ‘home’ season with a resounding 3-0 victory over Australia.
This is, by no means, a sudden spurt to form. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Pakistan, a team that hasn’t played on their own home soil for years now, has had to play their cricket ‘away’ technically for so long that there is no home and away anymore. UAE is still alien soil to them, one that they seem to have mastered over the years, losing only one Test match to New Zealand there two years ago. In 13 Test matches since August 2014, Pakistan has lost just two, winning eight of them on the way. That’s as good a record for any Test team out there, for they have shown a willingness to take the battle to home teams repeatedly.
It’s a pity then, that this team hasn’t been playing India in Tests on their neighbour’s soil. The Indian home record would definitely be under threat, given that a Cook-led English team had defeated India not too long ago in a home series. Kohli’s men against a 43-year-young Misbah-led Pakistan would make for a riveting contest.
For now, though, Pakistan’s coup in England has only just begun. Cook and his troops are known to come back strong and hard, but they may just meet the dead bats of Misbah and wily Younis Khan – who want to learn from India’s mistakes during their loss of seven Tests under Dhoni in English conditions in the last five years.