It took a long time coming; 519 days to be exact. But Pakistan eventually managed to win their first ODI series since 17 months. They won the Twenty20 series too. And both by margins of 2-0.
But then the series against Zimbabwe was not just about results. It was a watershed event. Just over six years of international cricketing hibernation at home was broken by a courageous set of players from the eastern coast of Africa. They braved fear, part real, part infused by those who didn’t want them to come, like the Federation of International Cricketers and some countries’ cricketing boards.
And the Lahoris applauded them no end. Enduring one of the worst heat spells of recent years over 100,000 thronged the Gaddafi Stadium to not just enjoy the cricket, but to salute the Zimbabweans for breaking the mold and coming over. One had almost forgotten what home support could be. For that matter I cannot recall a full stadium over the last six years for a Pakistani game other than when they toured India for a similar number of games a few years back. And that wasn’t home support of course.
Barring that unfortunate incident while the second ODI was being played where a suicide bomber took away the life of a policeman who was guarding against such an attack, the tour went incident free. Sadly, the policeman couldn’t be honoured publicly as he deserved. It was perhaps thought best by the authorities not to highlight the incident. A life sacrificed for the country’s image, in more ways than one.
The security agencies deserve accolades nevertheless. No incident happened at the hotel or on the ground despite the hundred thousand who filled the stadium over five games, first outside and then inside. Yes there was a population explosion of policemen in uniform and in plain clothes. But it takes one intelligence failure to ruin a perfect security cordon. In that sense the whole show was well managed.
I would have thought that the PCB would have invited former greats of Pakistan cricket, or at least the past captains. These are areas where the PCB still lags. Personal likes and dislikes and professional jealousies still linger, at times overtly.
But back to cricket and to Zimbabwe first. They may have lost all the games but in each of them there was a fight worth watching. Truly the Zimbabweans were least bothered with the fact that they were playing what appeared to be a superior side and at their home. Even in the first ODI where Pakistan rattled up a record score of 370-plus they were not too far behind in the end. In the second ODI they made Pakistan think again while chasing and in the third, although they let the initiative slip when Pakistan were six down for not too many, they came out all guns blazing in response until a combination of breakdown, dust storm and rain curtailed their ambitions. In the T20s they gave back as much as they got and both games were tight. Perhaps Pakistan’s experience got them through otherwise they could have gone either way.
In the T20s most of their main batsmen – Sean Williams, Hamilton Masakadza, Elton Chigumbura and Vusimuzi Sibanda got runs in at least one innings out of two. And it must be remembered that others like Charles Coventry and Sikander Raza got either one outing or remained unbeaten in at least one after arriving near the end.
In the ODIs two of their batsmen – Chigumbura and Sikander Raza got hundreds and Chamunorwa Chibhabha got out once on 99 (which incidentally was the first time a Zimbabwean had got out to that score in an ODI). Sikander Raza also became the first Pakistan-born player to score a century against Pakistan in ODIs. The young man is Sialkot born.
But what was quite discomforting for the Pakistani selectors I’m sure was the disdain with which the Zimbabweans attacked the Pakistani bowling. Only Wahab Riaz maintained his respect with an average of 23 and a RPO of just over 5 for his 5 wickets in the ODIs, otherwise Sami and Anwar Ali were carted at will all around the ground and no spinner could make an impression. Sami may have taken 4 wickets in the T20s but he also went for over 9 an over there. It has to be noted that wickets come cheap once the slogging starts. In the ODIs he took no wicket for over 100 runs, going for over 7 an over: Anwar went for 157 runs for his 2 wickets in the ODIs.
Pakistan nevertheless batted well. Kudos to their captain Azhar Ali especially. He had come into the captaincy and back into the Pakistani ODI side under a heavy cloud considering his approach to batting. But he had a great run in the series and became the first Pakistan captain to score 100 in a successful chase in international cricket. That came in the second ODI after Zimbabwe put up an impressive total. His 227 in the three ODIs came at an average of over 75 and a healthy strike rate.
His approach was refreshing to watch, though it must be tempered by the fact that it came against probably the weakest bowling attack on the ODI circuit. Likewise can be said for the runs scored by Malik and Hafeez.
Nevertheless, what was a treat to watch was little Babar Azam holding fort and rather aggressively in his debut game which was the third ODI. At last the selectors gave him the opportunity in the first XI and he was much like the boy who stood on the burning deck as seniors toppled around him. His half century was therefore doubly pleasing.
On another count of pleasantness, Zaheer Abbas will be Pakistan’s man at the ICC for the ceremonial position of the council’s President. Najam Sethi took the right step by stepping down and he was big enough to make way for a cricketer. As I had written in these pages on the topic, if not this year then Pakistan would have had to wait till at least 2025 to send an iconic cricketer to the post.
In Zaheer Abbas they have done exactly that. He is one of the legends of the game and certainly enjoys a tremendous amount of respect world over. He is of course our most prolific scorer. Over 35,000 runs and 108 centuries in first class cricket. He has also been captain of the Pakistan team on tours of India in 1983 (later captained Pakistan in absence of Imran Khan in a couple of Tests on the 1983-84 Australian tour) and at home against India (1984) and New Zealand (1984-85).
Admittedly Zaheer will have to work a bit hard to absorb the protocol of the post. He has held positions of power in Pakistan, most recently as manager of the Pakistan side to England in 2006 and a couple of advisory roles in the PCB under Najam Sethi and Sheheryar Khan. But you can get away with a few utterings here, but not at ICC.
But I feel he will spend the year well. Zaheer is an affable man, ideal for a ceremonial post. A soft spoken person with as much a love of golf as for batting, he would be a good ambassador of Pakistan cricket on the international stage. •