The Six-Year Redemption

Published in The Express Tribune

There was no other word for it, except heartwarming. Even Piers Morgan, rarely associated with either heart or warmth, was moved to call it ‘the best victory celebration in cricket history.’

The men in green, throwing themselves at the Lord’s Pavilion and giving drill sergeant Younis Khan twenty (or five), is the kind of happy ending we could only hope for.

Because not too long ago, hope was nowhere in sight. Lord’s, far from our moment of truth, was the scene of the crime: a sad story of spot fixing, sting busts, and jail terms. From the world’s cornered tigers to The News of the World’s convicted cheats, Pakistan’s return to respectability seemed a long way off.

But, like the saying goes, only when you’ve been in the deepest valley, can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain. Sunday’s test finale against England spelt redemption in a way not even Hollywood could have scripted.

After all, has Hollywood any leading man like Misbah ul-Haq? At 42 years young, Misbah has blazed his way into the all-time greats: sober, sardonic, and utterly unflappable. In a team of drama queens, his hand stays steady.

And among the visuals that will live on in the sport’s history – Javed Miandad’s manic mock jumps; Shahid Afridi chomping on cricket balls – we now get to add Misbah saluting Tommy Lord’s 200-year-old stadium, and dropping down for pushups.

Credit, we were told, to the team’s army trainers in Kakul. But the gratitude was reciprocated: soon after victory, the army chief put in a call to the captain. Social media feeds went wild: it would seem Misbah doesn’t thank Raheel Sharif. Raheel Sharif thanks Misbah.

Yes, Misbah is a man of crisis: the last man standing when Pakistan was lost at sea in 2010. By choosing to focus on substance over style, the captain is worlds apart from serial intriguer Salman Butt, the man he inherited an ash heap from. He focuses on the basics: discipline, fitness, and morale.

Not that other contenders weren’t making themselves heard. Far removed from the action in St. John’s Wood, Shahid Afridi was hamming it up, the royal pretender. Lala was this series’ Shoaib Akhtar – a handsome spoiler saying outrageous things and pulling no punches.

‘People talk this and that; that there’s so much talent in this country,’ Afridi told BBC Urdu. ‘Sorry, [there’s] no talent!’ He then giggled he was ‘a much better player than any of these players.’

Boom Boom was slammed soon after, but what he said was helpful. Lurking in Lala’s words is all the dysfunction that’s plagued Pakistani cricket: passion over professionalism, individuals over institutions. With PCB chiefs so often mud-wrestling one another, the system seldom expects different from their players. There’s not a soul talented enough to replace Afridi, says Boom Boom, so why bother looking?

Compare this to the interview Yasir Shah gave Cricbuzz’s Hassan Cheema from last October. Saying Misbah had always supported him, Yasir went on, ‘See the thing with Misbah bhai is that he’s been with me for so long and he’s been in and around cricket for so long that he understands situations really well. He is always calm and cool, but thinking about scenarios all the time. I don’t have any issues with him because I respect and understand him.’

And it was that understanding, and Yasir Shah’s rampage through the wickets, that won us the series.

Yet the reason our hearts nearly gave way by the end was the sheer turnaround – the agony of 2010 and the joy of 2016: Jonny Bairstow’s lonely last stand at the crease, Amir snatching up the last wicket for glorious victory.

Many weren’t ready to offer him that chance. Writing in The Sun before the match, England ex-spinner Graeme Swann called for a life ban. ‘Amir will walk out on the green and glorious turf at Lord’s on Thursday,’ Swann sulked, ‘and it will make me feel sick.’

Swanny is welcome to his opinion, as well as his Swann Sickness – a rare condition that only acts up when brown men are involved.

During England’s warmup win against Sri Lanka in 2012, batsman Dilruwan Perera refused to walk after sending a catch Strauss’s way. Swann was in a rage: ‘I wanted to kill the batsman because he was cheating. He was stood right next to me with a smug look on his face!’

Yet Swann was sweetness and light when England’s Broad pulled the same stunt a year later against Australia. ‘I think it is very harsh to shine the light just on Broady,’ said Swann, about a man that had been clearly caught at first slip. ‘In a high-stakes game like an Ashes Test, it is human nature that people are going to stand their ground and use the argument that umpires are there to makes decisions.’

By the same logic, it is a judge that’s there to make decisions, and a judge that gets to decide quantum of sentence: Amir has paid his dues – let his bowling speak for him now.

Indeed, Swanny would have been better served heeding his countryman Mark Nicholas, ‘The day ended with Amir sprinting in from the pavilion end. No one was saying “that’s the spot-fixer who did time”. Rather we were saying “this is one of the Pakistan bowlers who is giving England one hell of a fright”. The reintegration of Mohammed Amir is complete.’

Mr. Nicholas’s eyes also drifted forward, ‘As for the narrative that began on this ground six years ago, we can all move on. Test match cricket needs Pakistan every bit as much as Pakistan needs Test match cricket.’

Thank you Misbah ul-Haq, for making us believe again.