You would be forgiven for thinking the only significant developments in Pakistani cricket this year revolved around the spot-fixing trial which came to an end this week. We would forgive, but we would not forget, as despite the events of Southwark Crown Court the national side has been enjoying something of a resurgence. Disregarding their ‘activities’, the loss of three players of the calibre of Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir would leave a gaping hole in any side, but a combination of younger players and experienced pros taking responsibility has meant their loss has hardly been felt from a cricketing perspective. Since their ill-fated tour of England last summer Pakistan are unbeaten in five Test series, and their only defeat has come thanks to a once in a lifetime collapse in the face of Darren Sammy’s fearsome medium pacers.
Non-believers will point to the fact they have played fairly weak opposition in 2011, as the four teams who have fallen victim to the new Pakistan are New Zealand, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, but that would be unfair. Taking into account where they were 12 months ago any sort of run like this is to be applauded, and it’s a great credit not only to their ability but also their mental strength for them to have put such a string of results together.
Of the team which lost to England at Lords last August, only two – Azhar Ali and Saeed Ajmal – also played their most recent game against Sri Lanka. That is an astonishing turnover of players in little over a year, one which usually would require some time before they began producing results. Perhaps the off-field shenanigans actually benefitted the team as a whole because it meant the spotlight has often been elsewhere, but whatever the spark, this side has already gelled into a formidable unit. The batting, so lacking in backbone in England, now looks much more solid; Younis Khan’s return coupled with the experience of Tafeeq Umar and Mohammed Hafeez at the top of the order provide a good foil for the youth of Azhar and Asad Shafiq. Even the bowling, shorn of its two most dangerous weapons, has demonstrated an ability to bowl teams out on a consistent basis; Umar Gul leads the attack while Saeed Ajmal has spun his way to 41 wickets this year, joint best in 2011 with Ishant Sharma in five fewer games.
In the one day arena, their results are even more impressive; 21 wins from 29, culminating in a 4-1 demolition of Sri Lanka over the past fortnight, means they are the most successful side in that format this year. Pakistan have always been a good ODI outfit, but they really have stepped up a gear in recent times. Their attack looks perhaps the most varied in the world, with three front line spin options in Hafeez, Ajmal and Shahid Afridi supporting the ever-excellent Gul, along with two young left arm pacemen in Junaid Khan and Sohail Tanvir. Were the World Cup to come around now they would have to be one of the favourites, and even in March they were unlucky to meet India when their arch-enemies were at the very top of their game.
This coming winter will be the sternest test of ‘new’ Pakistan, but given their form they could well prove to be England’s toughest opponents since South Africa two years ago. They are getting more comfortable with the conditions in Dubai with every passing game, so the disadvantage of having no proper home games is becoming less of an issue. A lot will depend on their batting, as there is an argument to be made that they perhaps should have collectively scored a few more runs given their opposition this year, and England have made a habit of bowling teams out cheaply on good wickets. Their biggest weapon could be that they’re flying somewhat under the radar – English eyes could be more focussed on Sri Lanka, which is perceived to be the more difficult task. It won’t be, with the Pakistanis looking far better placed to cause trouble.