Misbah's rebuilt Pakistan hope for legitimate shocks
Six Test series unbeaten and an unusually settled side mean the 'hosts' pose a major challenge
When Pakistan left England 16 months ago they were a rabble. They were poorly led and badly advised, hopelessly adrift and incapable of coping with the catastrophic match-fixing allegations that plunged their tour into chaos.
That version of Pakistan will overshadow the start of the 22nd Test series between the sides tomorrow. Reinvention cannot expunge the memory and there will be an unsavoury quest to spot both misdeeds and friction between the sides.
Since it was deliberate no balls on the 2010 tour that eventually led to the jailing of three Pakistani cricketers late last year, every similar offence will be scrutinised to see if the mark has been overstepped in more ways than one. The behaviour of the sides will be examined in forensic detail.
At some point, given the history of spectacular, unprecedented occurrences during series between these two sides something remarkable will probably happen. It can only be hoped it involves cricketing deeds and it may, because Pakistan are a side of significant talent and skill.
That was evident even in September 2010, when the team was in turmoil. They pushed England hard in the one-day series at the end of the trip, by which time the teams were barely acknowledging each other, and were finally defeated 3-2 by losing the last game.
Since then, Pakistan have created themselves anew. It is not simply that they have been unbeaten in six successive Test series, of which they have won four, it is that they have rediscovered the virtue of continuity in team selection. First, they found a mature and level-headed captain in Misbah-ul-Haq, who has encouraged them to play hard-nosed Test cricket and to understand the merits of the long game. Test matches are played over five days not five minutes.
Then, they have found a group of players and largely stuck by them. Nine of their players have appeared in 10 or more of the 12 Test matches they have played since the England tour. The opening batsmen, Taufeeq Umar and Mohammad Hafeez, have played in all of them. They first opened together in two matches in 2003 before being disbanded and between then and their reunion, Pakistan tried 18 different opening pairs in 55 Tests.
Although they are between coaches at present with the chief selector, Mohsin Khan fulfilling an interim role, it appears not to have affected them. Indeed, although Dav Whatmore, the former coach of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, is favourite to land the role, it is possible to wonder at the wisdom of it.
Pakistan seem, in short, to have got their act together. But that will not prevent an air of suspicion and intrigue around the Dubai International Cricket Stadium tomorrow. Misbah and Mohsin are trying desperately to move on. They have convinced their colleagues to forget the past and England too seem anxious to stress that what's gone is gone.
It may just be that Pakistan have pulled back from the brink of eternal disarray. Truly, it seems that being the pariahs of world cricket, the one activity above all that makes their nation special, was no fun any longer.
The next step is to find a way for them to play home international matches at home again. As Hafeez said yesterday: "Definitely Dubai is not in Pakistan. You miss your own crowd."
For now, they will remain the perpetual travellers of world cricket, in a permanent limbo. But they have come a long way since September 2010 and nobody would have expected that.
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