It’s the journey, right? That’s what matters, right? Because if it’s about anything else, like reaching targets and goals, then nobody sent that email to Pakistan. For ages now, every year of theirs has felt like a pretzel inside a roundabout on Groundhog Day: winding here, winding there, tacking right sharply, u-turning, screeching to a halt, speeding up again. Then ending up where you began. Or is that just the career of Misbah-ul-Haq as played out in the head of Shahid Afridi?
For is it not these two who, evermore, have come to represent, well, something of Pakistan cricket in this modern age? What that something is I don’t know, nor do I know how it could even be possible for two such contrasting men to represent one entity, but again this year, Pakistan lived a whole year as Afridi and a whole year as Misbah.
Like Misbah, they were so good in Tests in the UAE that at times it felt like this was the Pakistan of the ’80s and ’90s, and that Dubai and Abu Dhabi were as impregnable as Karachi, and Sharjah as unbreachable as Sharjah again.
Through all their finest moments stood Misbah; the unbeaten 68 in that scampering Sharjah chase (and almost as memorable, the moustache-twirling ode to Dav Whatmore); the twin hundreds against Australia and the series win this winter. By the end what was more difficult to believe? That Misbah was Pakistan’s most successful Test captain of all? Or that he had equalled Viv Richards for the fastest Test hundred of all time?
Abroad, like Misbah, Pakistan were not so good, losing two Testscarelessly to Sri Lanka. So of course they won and lost four Testsapiece. Far be it from Misbah and Pakistan to provide conclusiveness to anything.
They did not win a single ODI series this year, and in fact were not very good at the format at all. But they were, like Kim Kardashian, impossible not to watch, no matter what they were doing, breaking the internet on good, bad and ridiculous days.
It was much in the mould of Afridi himself. He may not have been the officially appointed full-time ODI captain, but in his own head he was and to a considerable degree, spiritually it was he, not Misbah, who was the more pervasive influence.
It wasn’t only because he was responsible for some of the most memorable interventions. He was also the only player other than Ahmed Shehzad to play all 16 ODIs Pakistan played this year. And Shehzad, incidentally, is nothing if not a walking postmodern homage to Afridi.
The lack of series wins is an important statistic, given how fluid Pakistan’s ODI line-up was this year. Only three men who played in the first ODI XI of the year played in the last (Umar Akmal was the third). As preparations go for a World Cup, it is pitch perfect.
Much the same applies to their board. All those court cases for control crippled its work, yet somehow not only did the PCB start the year as the most confusing beacon of morality since Robin Hood, it also ended up with probably its most democratic and right-minded constitution. And still nobody will say today that it is a particularly slick-functioning board.
They also ended it afloat, which, as this was the year that marked the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks on Sri Lanka, is perhaps reason for quiet cheer. As Kenya visited, the first non-Asian international team to do so since then, it marked the first, tiniest step on a long road back. Nobody can say when international cricket will return, but we are a year closer to it.
In more impulsive moments, one might opt for the Afridi-inspired win over India at the Asia Cup. But on reflection how can any moment top the toppling of Australia this winter in the UAE? To do so at all, given Pakistan had not beaten them in 20 years, was some feat. To do so without Saeed Ajmal and Junaid Khan, with an attack as green as Pakistan’s, against a team like Australia, was gonzo cricket. It was near enough the most perfect series of Test cricket Pakistan have played in years, maybe ever. Their batsmen, led by Younis Khan (disgruntled, as ever, coming in) not only scored runs, they broke records; each of their bowlers took wickets, and the fielders their catches. When Misbah goes, this series will be the greatest gift of his era and his career.
The series losses in Sri Lanka were pretty poor but the greatest loss came during the first Test, when Saeed Ajmal’s action was reported. For three years Ajmal had been Pakistan’s leading man across all formats, the one guy in whom all of Pakistan would invest their most fervent hopes: take this wicket, save these runs, win this match. When he was suspended soon after, it took away the one bit of stardust in what has been a pretty staid era (with apologies to Afridi). His suspension evoked similar emotions as it had once done for Murali, namely that he was just too nice and decent a guy for this to happen. And when Pakistan moved on and started winning without him, it felt even worse. He is still not back and may never return the same as he was. A little light has gone out.
New kid on the block
Perhaps this should be a collective award to the Test attack Pakistan unveiled in the first Test against Australia. Sure Rahat Ali and Zulfiqar Babar had played Tests, but they only debuted in 2013. Imran Khan and, most impressively, Yasir Shah were proper debutants. And what a quartet they made: right-arm and left-arm pace, left-arm orthodox spin and a leggie. Yasir was probably the most equal of them, if only because he was so refreshing. He was Pakistan’s first proper legspinner since Danish Kaneria debuted all the way back in 2000, and he bowled like a veteran. Good control, unfazed by being hit, and above all, patient: none of the twitchiness of Mushtaq Ahmed and Danish Kaneria in resorting readily to the googly. And if he’s good enough for Shane Warne, who are we to say anything else?
What 2015 holds
Not much really. A World Cup. Then series at home against England and, possibly, India. Potential retirements for Misbah. One for Afridi. Should be a doddle. Here’s a prediction: they’ll probably still be here same time, same place next year.