Pakistan: Playing it straight
Captain Misbah-ul-Haq insists corruption is in the past. The only c-word he cares about is cricket
Nine times he was asked and nine times Misbah-ul-Haq avoided the question. The Pakistan captain wanted to forget the past yesterday, not airbrush it from history exactly, but to move on as rapidly as possible from the disturbing issues it raised.
The only c-word in Misbah's vocabulary was not corruption but cricket. He insisted his team were focusing on cricket to the exclusion of all else. That day at Lord's in August, 2010, after which all hell broke loose and eventually caused the imprisonment of three Pakistani players, including their then captain, is apparently of no concern now.
"Nobody is worried about what happened in the past," said Misbah. "We are just focusing on the future and the present." He said something very similar on another eight occasions.
Was there any corruption left? "That is not a real concern for me. I am only focusing on what we can do in the ground and the team are also doing very well for that." Are you confident that what happened at Lord's in 2010 will never happen in a Pakistan team again? "I think we just need to focus on our cricket, we don't have to discuss what happened, that's what we are doing and we are really focused about the cricket."
And so it went on. Occasionally, it was as if the ball was honing in on off stump but Misbah declined to flirt with danger, judged the flight impeccably and allowed it safely through to the keeper. Perhaps there is no other way, perhaps Pakistan have to move on.
Misbah must have been fully aware that the events of 17 months ago would be the burning topic of discussion when he arrived with his team in Dubai for the resumption of competition against England. They had to be. The bowling of deliberate no balls in the fourth Test at Lord's had led to the imprisonment for cheating of captain Salman Butt and pacemen Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, as well as banishment from the game for five years each.
When the Test series of four matches begins next week, whatever Misbah might like to think should happen, attention from the outside world will be focused, so to speak, on only one thing. Will any of the Pakistan team be at it again? The scandal was so stupendous that every no ball, every wide, every false shot will be analysed.
On any rational level, Pakistan have regrouped wonderfully under Misbah following the tumult. He was a shrewd appointment in the wake of Butt. At 36, his Test career had been fitful and one of under-achievement and inconsistency since it started back in 2001.
But he has been a calm and phlegmatic leader. He has led Pakistan in the six Test series they have played since the debacle in England of which they have won four, drawn two and lost none. There has been no hint of underhand or nefarious activities, only squeaky clean and abundantly gifted cricketers playing a squeaky clean and abundantly gifted game.
Misbah's own form has been serene with 11 fifties in 20 innings since assuming the Test captaincy in November 2010. The off-spinner, Saeed Ajmal, took 50 wickets in 2011 and, almost unnoticed, was the leading Test wicket-taker in the world during the year. Apart from his off-spinner and his doosra it is said he has developed a teesra, apparently a back spinner. If the doosra is the "other one" in Urdu, the teesra (maybe it should be the "teasra"), is the third one. Yesterdayin the nets, he looked like he might even be practising a fourth variation, maybe he could call this one the quadoosra. Pakistan think that England will read these about as easily as they interpret Sanskrit.
Ajmal's contest with England's own off-spinner, Graeme Swann, still ranked as the world's leading slow bowler, promises to be enthralling. Swann, make no mistake, will be under pressure to perform on pitches that, while not wholly sub-continental in nature, will grant him some favours.
Equally, England will have spotted that Ajmal's record in the UAE alone is not utterly compelling, three matches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi bringing 18 wickets at 27 runs apiece.
For the moment, all this cricket is subsumed by the other c-word. Wittingly or not, though some might say it is typical of them, Pakistan have stoked the fire of corruption again by recalling the left-arm fast bowler Wahab Riaz, after missing two series for no apparent reason. He may be remembered by England fans for his altercation with the England batsman Jonathan Trott on the Nursery Ground at Lord's before the one-day international between the sides in 2010. By that time, relations between the teams were as discordant as could be.
However, Riaz was also mentioned during the trial of Butt, Amir and Asif. As a result, the ICC asked for the documents in the case so they could check if further action might be necessary. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing and the ICC chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, made it clear that member boards had an absolute right to pick who they wanted.
Still, the recall of Riaz seems, to some English eyes, as at best indelicate. The timing of the MCC World Cricket Committee was also unfortunate, its statement in Cape Town coinciding as it did with Pakistan's arrival in the UAE.
Under the new chairman, Mike Brearley, the former England captain, the committee has asked the ICC's anti-corruption unit to institute life bans for any captain, vice-captain or coach found guilty of corruption.
Pakistan are confronted with the past wherever they turn. Somehow, as Misbah said, they get on with their cricket. And they get on with it without ever playing on home soil. That is the other unusual aspect about Pakistan. Not only are they dogged by reputation but they are unable to play in front of their own fans.
They have been itinerants since 2009 when the Sri Lanka team coach was attacked on the way to a Test in Lahore. Seven policemen were killed, several Sri Lankan players injured. Since then they have been on the road. They agreed to play one series against New Zealand in New Zealand as the home team.
Then in the early summer of 2010 they were the home team in England when they played Australia and were involved in a thrilling 1-1 draw. That is one more reason for English anger at what happened later that season. There was a sense of betrayal.
Lately, Pakistan have pitched up in the UAE, playing against South Africa late in 2010 and Sri Lanka late last year. It is a home from home, it has to be. But it is not home. This was an issue that Misbah seemed prepared to address.
"Of course not playing in Pakistan is a big drawback, and we really miss it," he said. "Playing at home is always a great feeling. Sometimes you really struggle in away series. We really want to play cricket in Pakistan, but at the moment you can't do anything about it. We have to adjust. The people of Pakistan are also missing international cricket there, and we really want it there in the near future."
Pakistan maintain that their country is normal now, but nobody in cricket is yet prepared to believe it; and they are hardly about to say that the place is the gateway to danger. Bangladesh have agreed a tour there in April but their players have raised concerns about security and there is no certainty that it will proceed. The cricketers of other teams would simply not contemplate playing in Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi it is then. Pakistan seem to have cut it fine, arriving only a week before the first Test match, barely with time to play a practice game. But that is also typical of their style. When Tuesday comes, the eyes of the cricket world will be on them and they will be ready.
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