It is possible to love the Pakistan cricket team, just as it is possible to hate them. They can play sublimely, they can play disastrously; they play within the laws, and break them at will; they have produced some of the game’s greatest talents, and some of its biggest villains. Watching Pakistan play cricket is a bit like watching Paul Gascoigne play football: there is always magic, but it is a magic fraught with danger. They force you to the edge of your seat, nails bitten to the quick, never quite sure what crazy thing is going to happen next.
In the late 1990s if you wanted boring consistency, then watching Australia was the thing: always pressing home the advantage, always winning, usually with a preaching tone to boot. If you wanted textbook cricket, then England was the place to be: left elbow high, and all that, and steady line and length. If you wanted tactical sterility, then you should have gone to South Africa: seamers banging away outside off-stump, to rigid field settings. Even the West Indies were predictable in their awfulness.
Pakistan, meanwhile, were totally and utterly unpredictable; beguiling, bewitching and, at times, bloody dreadful. They would win gloriously then lose shambolically, each defeat producing convulsions and factions within the camp, the captain blaming the coach and vice-versa, before some government minister stepped in and sacked the lot. In a bizarre period between 1992 and 1995, there were ten different captains of the team, the job little more than a prestigious game of pass the parcel.
A list of Pakistan captains in the 1990s is both a gallery of rogues and a roll-call of some of the great players of the period. Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saaed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Salim Malik. Imran was the father figure by the early part of the decade, the roughest of diamonds who became the most polished of fast bowlers. He was the inspirational figure who urged his team to fight like cornered tigers in the 1992 World Cup when they were on the brink of elimination and who, ultimately, lifted the trophy on a triumphant night in Melbourne. That evening Pakistan showed the rest of the world what was the possible if raw, uninhibited talent was given its head.
Imran, and the disciples who followed him, revolutionised the art of fast bowling on dry, unhelpful pitches. Imran had learnt the secrets of reverse swing from another Pakistan fast bowler, Safraz Nawaz, and passed them onto Wasim and Waqar, who became one of the great opening partnerships in the history of the game. No other pairing can have been so dangerous with new ball and old, no other fast bowlers have been so skilled a making the old ball move in the air, snaking this way and that, honing in on the toes or the base of the stumps with heat-seeking accuracy. Both had a greater percentage of bowled and lbw dismissals than any other fast bowlers in the history of the game.
Nothing is ever simple, though, with Pakistan cricket. Rumours circulated that the secrets passed on from generation to generation contained some dark arts and accusations of ball tampering flew back and forth. No cricketer who played in that era with eyes open could deny that ball tampering was rife- the New Zealand bowler Chris Pringle openly admitted to using a bottle top on the Pakistan tour of 1990- just as no batsmen would deny that, tampered with or not, the ball did magical things in the hands of Wasim and Waqar.
If Pakistan’s quicker bowlers revolutionised the game, so did one of its spinners, Saqlain Mushtaq, the inventor of the ‘doosra’. The genesis of the ‘doosra’, the off-spinner’s equivalent of the googly, can be found in the dry, parched pitches of Pakistan. While they provided enough natural wear and tear to encourage reverse swing, they also prevented an off-spinner finding the degree of curve that, say, an English off-spinner would get in more damp and lush conditions. In order to beat the outside edge of the bat, then, Saqlain came up with the ‘doosra’, flicked over the top with a cocked wrist. Now, no sub-continental off-spinner worth his salt is without a doosra in his armoury: Harbhajan Singh, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis. But it was Saqlain who paved the way.
How did this team, with wonderful, attacking batsmen and world-class, revolutionary bowlers have such an indifferent, chaotic record in the mid 1990s? Justice Qayuum was given the task of looking into that one and his report into match-fixing was about as condemnatory as it was possible to be. Salim Malik was banned for life (and is apparently now writing a book lifting the lid on match-fixing in the 1990s) and found guilty of fixing matches against Sri Lanka and Australia. Wasim, it was recommended, should never hold a position of responsibility again. England’s spin bowling coach, Mushtaq Ahmed, was not above suspicion.
The impression given of cricket on the subcontinent in the 1990s was of a giant casino, in which the players were addicted gamblers, cricket often taking second place to the demands of bookmakers. Investigating a match in Christchurch in 1994, when Pakistan lost against the odds, Qayuum suspected the worst but could not prove it. He came, instead, to a conclusion which could have summed up Pakistan cricket in that period: ‘There were misfields, there were wides. The batting collapsed. But then again that is the Pakistan cricket team,’ he said. Indeed.
Nothing, perhaps, sums up the contradictions of Pakistan cricket, and the abyss into which it has now descended, better than Miandad. He is the greatest player that Pakistan has produced without doubt one of the greatest players of the modern era. But he has ties, through a family marriage, to a wanted terrorist who was initially at the forefront of match-fixing and who is now linked with the network responsible for the Mumbai bombings in December and who is suspected of carrying out the Lahore massacre. Miandad’s eldest son is married to the daughter of Ibrahim Dawood, who the US State Department describes as ‘a global terrorist with links to al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-toiba.’
Pakistan cricket has faced many hurdles over the last two decades, but none bigger than it faces now. Despite all the problems, the loss of Pakistan to the cricket calendar would be a grievous one, for they have encapsulated all that is good and bad in cricket- all that is good and bad in sport.
When you watch cricket played on the streets in Pakistan, you watch the game played in its purest form. No coaches and no textbooks to interfere, just raw talent and passion. That is why it is always likely that Pakistan will produce special cricketers who push the boundaries of what is possible, who perfect the art of something different, and who demand that the rest of world catch on or lose out. It makes Pakistan one of the most precious resources the game has to offer.
It is essential that cricket is not left to wither and die, and that the ICC does its utmost to lend support and nurture Pakistan cricket back to life. It is inconceivable that international cricket can be played in Pakistan in the short-term, but there is no reason why we should not delight in watching the next generation of rascals play in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London and Melbourne. Cricket would be poorer without them.