Forza Pakistan, cricket’s flourishing nomads, our very own anti-England

Followers of England’s 50-over cricket team are already well versed in the idea of adopting a second team at World Cups.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps given that over the past five tournaments at least two months of knockout cricket have taken place with England already safely out of the way. Luckily the World Cup is invariably well-stocked with charismatic alternatives, although this time the choice has surely been narrowed to a fine point by a quarter-final draw that sees Pakistan, always a powerful lure for the neutral, play the favourites and hosts Australia in Adelaide on Friday.

In which case, Forza Pakistan! And not just for the obvious reasons. True, this time around Misbah-ul-Haq’s team of tyros, fill-ins and grand old men come equipped with the full Pakistan hand of brittle flair and operatic background drama. But there is a little something extra too. As cricket has been transformed since the last World Cup, Pakistan have remained a nation apart. Never mind the Big Three – England, Australia and India – meet the barely-operational one: a team without a home, without bargaining chips in the ongoing wrangle for cricket’s global future, and who are in their own way a kind of anti-England. Here is a team that appears constantly to be on the verge of sputtering to a messy halt – wheels falling off, doors blown out, management structures razed – but which just keeps revving along all the same.

Not that Pakistan are expected to win in Adelaide. They have lost 23 of their past 30 ODIs against Australia, while defeat to West Indies by 150 runs last month made it 12 losses out of 14 before a mini-surge of four straight wins took them to this stage. Of course this is a hugely depleted Pakistan. Much has been made in England of the absence of a single ageing star batsman with two ODI hundreds in the last seven years. Pakistan meanwhile have five bowlers in the current top 40 of the ICC ODI rankings – but only one of them actually available to play against Australia.

Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Irfan, Mohammad Hafeez and Junaid Khan are all either banned or injured, Irfan having gone down in the past week. Umar Gul was ruled out of the tournament by knee surgery, plus, lest we forget, the past five years have been spent without the once-in-a-generation talents of Mohammad Amir. And yet here they are all the same, a brilliantly moreish combination of flair and bloody-mindedness, heart and collapsibility. If Imran Khan’s cricketing aristocrats were urged to play like cornered tigers on their way to glory in 1992, this Pakistan team are more like a set of urban foxes: adaptable, resourceful, a little out of place, green-shirted squatters on the front lawn.

It is no mean achievement simply keeping going in an era when Pakistan cricket seems to be in constant recovery from the latest apocalypse visited upon it. The major traumas of the 21st century are easy enough to tick off. The Qayyum report in 2000, which painted a picture of scarcely credible corruption at every level. Bob Woolmer’s mysterious death at the 2007 World Cup (referred to again this week by Younus Khan). The terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in March 2009 and subsequent ban from staging home matches. And finally the spot-fixing affair of 2010 that saw the team captain and two other players sent to prison.

Pakistan have rebuilt through the lockdown-in-exile of the Misbah-ul-Haq years, transformed into a kind of cricketing North Korea, a place none may enter but from which untempered talent continues to emerge. The current squad breaks down into two distinct groups: the old lags Misbah, Shahid Afridi, Younus Khan, Wahab Riaz and Sohail Khan, who at least have a memory of playing an international fixture in Pakistan, and the mid-twenties rump for whom there has only ever been domestic cricket behind the veil and the life of an ex-pat international cricketer. The contrast with Australia, the consummate modern team, globe-trotting darlings of the franchise, is striking.

Yet for all their isolationism, the sense of a team hastily re-upholstered with parts from that relentlessly fecund domestic setup, Pakistan are still dangerous opponents. “They can still play some incredible cricket,” Shane Watson noted this week, and certainly the bowling attack remains a strength, skilfully rejigged by Waqar Younis to provide both variation and fire. It was the bowlers who kept Pakistan in the tournament last week, with South Africa on 67 for one chasing 237. At which point: enter the cornered foxes. The two left-armers Rahat Ali and Wahab found some swing and nip and suddenly out of nowhere South Africa had lost four wickets for seven runs. A week later Wahab, Rahat and Sohail took seven wickets as Ireland were cuffed aside.

Wahab in particular has been a key figure, leader of the attack now and a 90mph bowler who isn’t afraid to explore the middle of the pitch while Pakistan seamers have more often tended to be artists of the full ball. It might be tempting for Pakistan to hit Australia with spin in Adelaide, given the two-Test match thrashing handed out to the same opponents by Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar in the UEA last year. But the feeling is this will boil down to a battle of left-arm pacemen on a ground where England were undone last week by some late reverse swing from Bangladesh’s Rubel Hossain and Taskin Ahmed.

Ah yes: England. Like England, Pakistan do not play in the IPL. Unlike England, their cricketers appear to have emerged with their sense of adventure undimmed, the ability to bowl yorkers or play aggressive shots unhindered. Also unlike England they have a doughty, decent blocker (and sometime blaster) of a captain still in place, the gorgeously courteous, brilliantly dour Misbah, who has managed to unite his team and to stand as the rock around which the best parts of the last few years have flourished.

It is a tribute both to Misbah’s own affable gravitas, and to the basic high ceilinged talent of his team that he was able to say this week that Pakistan could win the World Cup, the same day they edged past Ireland into the knockout stages, without raising too many eyebrows. But then Pakistan at their best represent something very basic and oddly uplifting, a triumph of hope and talent over corruption and the power-politics of modern cricket, and a reminder that moments of sporting purity can still flourish.

Powered by article was written by Barney Ronay, for The Guardian on Wednesday 18th March 2015 22.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010