On the 24th of June, cricket was a long way from the mind of most Brits. The country had voted to leave the European Union, political norms were unravelling and the hostilities and divisions of the campaign were bringing social tensions to the surface. For weeks, the country choked on a surfeit of news. Those cursed interesting times were here. Sporting escape seemed distant. The England football team were dumped ignominiously out of the European Championships by Iceland. Some one-sided one-dayers against Sri Lanka were pretty irrelevant.
The visit of Pakistan offered little hope of distraction. Rather, it seemed likely that the bitter public mood would curdle a series so often soured by unpleasantness. The return of Mohammad Amir was likely to increase the acrimony. We got lucky. England and Pakistan played out a fine series in good spirit. Cricket provided not only a distraction from the uncertainty of national fate, but, in Misbah’s Pakistan, an example of how a team can both be moulded by and transcend social conditions. Their stoicism and unity, as well as exuberance in victory, won many admirers. A team that left England in disgrace in 2010 now attracts appreciation.
Pakistan have always attracted fans in England for the quality of their cricket, from the huge hundreds of Zaheer Abbas to the pace and skill of Wasim and Waqar. They have always been proudly different, unashamedly rejecting English convention. But this has also been accompanied by tension. Liberals might like the way Pakistan rile the old guard of English cricket or see them as an alternative to tedious English conservatism. Pakistani otherness has always been a crucial part of their perception in England, both in terms of appreciation and suspicion. The flip side of admiring the supposedly “exotic” is a sense that “they” are not like “us” – a feeling that then underpins arguments like the “Tebbit test” which question loyalties. Moreover, this exoticism can be couched in terms of that suggest an unthinking approach – think of all the pieces praising the supposedly childlike enthusiasm of the Afghan cricket team, portraying them as cricketing noble savages.
We must remember that this is a changing world. I travelled from Oxford to Worcester for Pakistan’s tour match. The train journey through the Cotswolds seemed little different to Edward Thomas’s famous poem of a century ago. But get to Moreton-in-Marsh, the quintessential Cotswold town, and there are signs in the train station in Chinese. The old certainties of Britain are shifting, something the Brexit campaigners crudely played on. Cricketing geopolitics have shifted as well. England are financial winners, but are still from certain about the brave new world. Pakistan are losers, mainly due to the seep of broader geopolitics into cricket.
This is the world in which Misbah must lead. The appeal of his team still lies in their difference to England, but not in the traditional ways. This is not a team built on the mastery of mysterious skills or individual match winners. Rather, they are an old-fashioned side, and their appeal to the neutral in part lies in nostalgia. Pakistan are still a unique team, but in a quite different way. In an age when everyone has to bat like Shahid Afridi in T20 matches, they are no longer futurists. Their batsman bat steadily, their keeper chips in unorthodox runs and catches well, their bowlers bowl to take wickets or to a set plan. It is old school, and it works, especially in the UAE.
Misbah is the calm leader and the trendsetter. In the twenty-first century, professional athletes aren’t meant to play into their forties. He puts the needs of his team before any personal desire to retire. He plays within himself. He understands the social conditions in which his team plays. He may not be a funky captain and only a sporadically explosive batsman, but he knows that Pakistan’s success is rooted in a conservatism dictated by conditions. They play few tests, all of them outside Pakistan, stymied by a dysfunctional board, and with the weight of corruption and tragedy on their shoulders. Yet Misbah has taken them to the brink of being the best team in the world.
I was lucky enough to watch Misbah’s chief lieutenant, Younis Khan, in the nets at Worcester. He yelled at himself after each mishit ball, demanded that each throw be just as he required, pushed himself harder and harder. There were doubts about him after three tests of erratic batting in this series. Never doubt Younis. His double hundred at The Oval was a punishing innings, bloody-minded and willed into existence. There is a strange style in Younis’s technique, an intensity in all that movement, a glimpse for the viewer of all the effort that goes in. The beauty is in the struggle, in the defiance and in the pride.
The old-fashioned discipline of Misbah and Younis seems to have rubbed off on the most successful of Pakistan’s batsmen, Asad Shafiq, Azhar Ali and Sami Aslam. They all have different techniques, but accept the traditional test match basics of watchfulness and accumulation. They are not un-Pakistani for this – think of the late, great Hanif Mohammad – but don’t fit the model of a modern batsman. They have shown that patience can and should still be a virtue.
Even Yasir Shah, twice Pakistan’s match winner, is not a mystery spinner, but relentlessly accurate and subtle in his variations. He is not Saeed Ajmal or Saqlain Mushtaq; for all his exuberance, he is a orthodox but very skilful bowler. The fast bowlers are similarly traditional in their bowling virtues and batting and fielding vices. Rahat Ali and Sohail Khan both bowled like the type of English seamer not seen so often these days, and Mohammad Amir, lacking the extravagant movement and youthful excess of his previous incarnation, utilised the conditions skilfully and bowled accurately to plans when they suited him less. Only Wahab Riaz was a real wildcard, useful on flat modern wickets. His spell on the fourth afternoon at Lord’s was an outrageous exhibition of reverse swing and he made crucial breakthroughs at The Oval.
Perhaps we should not fetishize Pakistan’s traditional ways too much. Pakistan fans would doubtless like to see a team able to compete well in the shorter formats of the game. There the game has rather evolved away from them, not helped by the failure of players like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad to fulfil their potential. The team doesn’t just exist to give neutrals pleasure with their retro air, like reverse “calypso cricketers”.
The pared down style they have adopted does, however, offer an interesting insight into the meanings of sport. Osman Samiuddin, the pre-eminent modern Pakistani cricket writer, once wrote that Younis Khan’s career was
“not even a career as much as some great and ongoing cosmic experiment – or perhaps exploration – into mankind. What becomes of us when our ideals begin to curdle into compromise? What becomes of us when we cannot reconcile our contradictions? What happens to us when we acquire authority? In what ways do we build and break trust?”
It might be said that this Pakistan team poses similar questions. Like great literature, sport can force us to ask difficult questions. Misbah’s Pakistan team poses many, about the relationship between the individual and the nation; the meanings of home, diaspora and identity; the ability to transcend our time and place. Of difference, of change, of excellence.
Where Pakistan go next, it is hard to say. This team may break up when Younis and Misbah retire, the attrition of playing away from home all the time taking its toll. Who knows when cricket will return to Pakistan, or where it might retreat from next. Perhaps we should expect the unexpected. But this summer has given us a timely reminder of what cricket can mean to people, and how carefully we must consider about it. Think of all the meanings and emotions in those Lord’s press-ups. If you need a moment of escape, unpick that image for a bit – all the history, all the symbols, all the personalities. That will be Misbah’s legacy – the richness and intelligence with which he has imbued the game.