James Lawton: The smiling avenger carries Pakistan down the road to redemption


We have said it before so many times and will still be saying it if and when it finally bends an old gnarled knee to all the quick-fix gratifications: Test cricket, what a game, what a story.

If Pakistan maintain their brilliant start against the No 1 Test nation England in Dubai over the next few days, one of the most intriguing and, maybe, inspiring chapters will have been written against an almost seamless background of blue, empty, plastic seats.

This is not the least of the ironies because if there is any corner of sport which, at its best, deserves an absorbed audience ruminating in worn, leather armchairs it is the kind of performance produced by Saeed Ajmal yesterday.

Ajmal, who did not bowl a Test delivery until he was 31, not only achieved career-best figures of 7 for 55 with beautiful off-spin –, leavened by the fabled doosra he inherited from his compatriot Saqlain Mushtaq – on a wicket that offered such notable run-hoarders as Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen the equivalent of an empty supermarket trolley and a free pass through checkout.

What he also did, with a smile that on such occasions is nearly as wide as the Punjab, is suggest we might be in the middle of one of the most astonishing developments anywhere in world sport. This, of course, is the rebirth of a great cricket nation.

You could have named your odds against such an outcome when the spot-fixing scandal dragged down three members of the Test team, most hauntingly the beautiful, young talent Mohammad Amir, and when they were jailed last year we could only reflect on a terrible breakdown in care and supervision not just by the Pakistan authorities but the International Cricket Council.

Starting with the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan tourists in Lahore in 2009, which put the country beyond bounds for the rest of the international game, Pakistani cricket plunged into pariah status. Fixers ran wild, even within the team hotel, another member of the team packed his bags after claiming that he was frightened for his life and that of his family following threatening phone calls, and a thousand doubts and suspicions came to the surface.

Reform looked like a lifetime away. It may yet be because such ills are not so easily healed. However, it can be astonishing what a few men of good faith and decency can achieve if they are given the chance.

Ajmal strode along redemption road most brilliantly yesterday – even if what looks like a damp squib of a threatened new weapon, the top-spin teesra, did not shine out of his armament, and the brilliant doosra provoked doubts about its legality in the unbreakably fastidious Bob Willis. But there was something else about the Pakistanis yesterday that went beyond the particular wiles of a most superior operator, one who at 34 is indeed making a late run into company of such great men as Warne and Muralitharan and Bedi.

It was a degree of composure, a certain lift of the shoulders when they walked about the field. It was as though you were looking at men who had found that their worst fears might be banished. We are told that under the new head of the Pakistan cricket authority, Zaka Ashraf, players of all ages have received intensive lecturing on the dangers of outside interference and the Doomsday potential of any form of match-fixing. This does not make you any more sanguine about the fate, particularly, of young Amir, but it does suggest that the extent of previous neglect has been recognised. Ashraf was appointed at the prompting of the Pakistan government, which is maybe not the most ringing endorsement, but then perhaps if the method of selection was wrong the short-term results are impressive enough.

Pakistan's 12-match unbeaten Test run under the new captain Misbah-ul-Haq is said to reflect new levels of discipline – and a clearly defined line between right and wrong. Certainly, both Misbah and the coach Mohsin Khan look like men who understand the value of giving this team of all teams the underpinning of new purpose – and a new acceptance that what happened in the past was guaranteed to drain away the best of a young sportsman's talent and heart.

It could be that Pakistan's new dawn will be subject to some delays, a possibility that the splendidly obdurate Matt Prior promised as he said that when England next bat there will be a much greater emphasis on playing straight shots. Such a resolve seems to be part of the new canon of Pakistani cricket, at least on the evidence of an undefeated opening stand as the desert night began to descend on the near-empty stadium.

More vital, though, was an apparently deeper pledge to play everything in front of them, and not just a swinging cricket ball, with a more upright stance. We can only hope that one day young Amir gets the chance to take guard again, under different rules and in a cleaner spirit.