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Cook and Misbah script a new chapter

The greatest and fiercest sporting rivalries evolve over time. They take various shapes, they grow, expand, outlive generations and in time the narrative begins to include non-sporting factors. Issues of politics, identity, culture and history, all merge and mingle with the sporting factors and over time, it becomes indistinguishable. What came first? Did the events on the field influence the ones off it? Or is it the other way around?

This is why there is always so much controversy and drama surrounding great sporting rivalries. Think of Bodyline, think of Kolkata 99. And then there’s the England-Pakistan drama. Both these cricketing nations have higher profile rivalries with Australia and India respectively. This probably explains why this particular rivalry hasn’t always been talked about in the same vein. But one look at any series between these two and the fierceness and intensity is absolutely unquestionable. To say that the cricketing relationship between England and Pakistan is fraught with controversy, discord and drama that would put a soap opera to shame is easy. Yet it would be reductive to understand this narrative as just a conflict between a new nation and their old colonial masters, in a post-colonial world, although it is a vital part of this relationship. If one begins to peel off the layers and tries to understand this relationship, it becomes clear that the most essential element that makes this rivalry so exciting, is that the two parties give each other a lot of importance, fueled by quiet admiration, whether they are always willing to acknowledge this or not.

The story of Pakistan cricket started in England. No, not necessarily with the triumph at Oval. But a bit earlier when the Kardars and the Fazals saw the Huttons and the Truemans and began to dream the same sort of success, adulation and ambition for themselves. As the new generations replaced the old and the mantle was passed on to Botham and Khan and Gatting and Akram and now to Cook and Misbah, the rivalry lost none of its fervour and intensity. If anything, the narrative came to encompass issues as diverse as neutral umpiring, reverse swing, forfeiture and spot fixing.

The two rival captains – Alastair Cook and Misbah ul Haq add a fresh and interesting twist to this fascinating story. Misbah at 41 years of age, is his team’s oldest captain, and the oldest cricketer playing today is capped at 61 tests. Alastair Cook, on the other hand, at 30 years of age, is already a veteran of 122 test matches, a lifetime of cricket, that saw two Ashes wins, a win in India and a whitewash in Australia. It is incredible that Cook has already seen so much of cricketing troughs and peaks at such young age. One can look at these statistics and can’t help but feel that they have been reversed by mistake. Yet it’s not like Misbah at 61 tests hasn’t seen enough ups and downs of his own. His tenure as captain saw Pakistan lose a test match in Zimbabwe, a familiar whitewash in South Africa, two consecutive losses in Sri Lanka but also test series wins over Australia, Sri Lanka recently. But perhaps, the crowning achievement in his career, and his most significant contribution to England-Pakistan narrative was the 3-0 win in 2012.
The 2012 series wasn’t without its share of controversies, but most importantly though, it was one of the most fascinating display of test cricket in recent times. England came into UAE the number one ranked team in the world. This was England’s golden generation under the leadership of Andrew Strauss-Andy Flower.

The 3-0 score line perhaps flattered Pakistan a little. It was a far more intensely fought series, a reflection of how closely placed the two teams are. The defeat had far reaching consequences in England. For the core unit of England’s best team in decades, Cook, Bell, Pietersen, Trott, Anderson, Broad, Swann, all of whom had won the Ashes both home and away, winning in the subcontinent became the ultimate pinnacle of achievement. There was a hint of “never again” for this generation, who knew just how close they had come to defeat Pakistan on a number of occasions, and how they had squandered it. Test cricket can be brutal. A whitewash stared them in the face instead.

But the same brutal test cricket gives you an opportunity to move on, to pick yourself up, and to start afresh. England’s next assignment was in Sri Lanka and in a two match series, led by star batsman Kevin Pietersen’s brutal onslaught on Sri Lankan spinners, England drew a two match series amidst murmurs that they could have won the series 2-1 in a three match series.
In August 2012 when Cook took over as captain from Strauss, he had at his disposal two of the best spinners England have had in decades. With Swann and Panesar, Cook landed in India as part of his first assignment, with England not having won in India in 28 years. Test cricket does not allow you a beginner’s level. It throws you at the deep end and challenges you to keep floating. Cook responded by example, amassing 547 runs including three centuries, as England completed a famous 2-1 win.

Yet, England landed in UAE with subdued expectations and trepidation. The reason for this being that since adopting UAE as their home venue in 2010, Pakistan are undefeated in eight series, having won four, and drawn four. This and memories of 2012 whitewash meant England were content to be underdogs.

The first match saw Misbah win the toss and Pakistan amass a mammoth 523, on the back of Shoaib Malik’s career best 245, making his comeback in the test side on the back of a purple patch. Misbah’s Pakistan have grown to develop a very precise strategy and approach, as a response to the team’s shortcomings and weaknesses. The response is quiet, efficient, disciplined cricket which means Pakistan looks to block out the seamers/strike bowlers and play them with the utmost of caution and precision. Then look to up the ante when the spinners come along and the seamers tire out.

This method saw them win a test match against South Africa in 2013, and beat Australia 2-0 last year. But what makes this approach very interesting in the context of a Pakistan-England series is that it is uncannily reminiscent of an era in England – the era of Flower-Strauss from 2009 to 2013.

The Flower-Strauss years are arguably the best years of English cricket in the last few decades. This period saw them win three Ashes series including an overseas Ashes win, a 4-0 drubbing of India at home and a 2-1 win in India. A period that saw England become the number one test team in the world. It is the sort of attritional cricket that plays on the opposition’s patience, that looks to tire you into submission, that looks to minimise risks and wait for the opportunities to come before you pounce on the opponent.

It is just the formula Misbah’s Pakistan needed to deal with frequent batting collapses and a weak top order. It is also the brand of cricket that saw the emergence of England’s most prolific run scorer in this era – Alastair Cook. So it was little surprise that he responded in the exact same way – a double century and outdid Pakistan at their own game.

Facing a lead of 75 runs after spending two days on the field, Pakistan panicked and collapsed in a way only Pakistan can, for 173, leaving England a paltry 99 to win.

Coming in to the series as underdogs, England were suddenly staring at being 1-0 up, but alas the light intervened. Memories of Karachi 2000 flashed in our minds, but England were denied a familiar script when the umpires deemed the light unsuitable for play to continue, leaving them tantalisingly short of a famous victory.

The second test match saw Misbah win the toss once again and elect to bat first. The same brand of cricket followed and Pakistan managed 378, the captain himself scoring a hundred. England were very much on their way at 206/3 on a pitch that on Day two and three was offering it’s best self to the batsmen. With no lateral movement or bite from the pitch, a Pakistani fast bowler picked up a slightly older ball, determined to defy nature, with raw pace, reverse swing and the sheer strength of will. Wahab Riaz stepped in to play the role pioneered by Imran, immortalised by Waqar , revitalised by Shoaib. The Wahab who toiled away on a similar, lifeless track in the first test match with little to show. The Wahab whose career at 30 years of age is only 15 test matches old, the Wahab who is known for two spells in two World Cup games, both of which saw Pakistan get knocked out in the end.

This is a nation that begrudgingly relinquishes its right to a functional government, its right to healthcare, education, infrastructure, electricity but feels it has a birth right to have fast bowlers blow away teams. Pace is pace yaar is what they say on the streets in Pakistan. And pace is what Wahab has plenty of to offer. Making his debut in the notorious 2010 tour of England, despite a five wicket haul on debut he was easily overshadowed thanks to Amir and Asif’s shenanigans, both on and off the field. He has played sporadically since then, not having a consistent run either due to injury or selection mismanagement. Yet until a year ago, he wasn’t even a regular member of the side, his two World Cup performances proving to be inadequate in a career of over five years. It’s as if his entire career was a tantalising wait for that moment he dreamed of as a Pakistani fast bowler, the moment when the spoiled nation would hug him with joy and satisfaction and the sweet smell of victory. Until now. Until Day three.

In a devastating spell of nine overs in sweltering heat, Wahab pummelled England’s middle order, picking up Root, Stokes and Buttler before Pakistan’s new leg spin prodigy Yasir Shah joined the party. England lost 7 wickets for 36 runs and lost the test match in one session. There was however one more twist in the tale before the formalities could be completed, when Rashid and Wood put up a stiff resistance on Day five and this time Pakistan were in a race against time to complete their victory. Fortunately for them, Rashid finally gave in just before the umpires might have called off play and Pakistan went 1-0 up.

The third test at Sharjah saw Misbah complete a hat-trick of toss wins and bat first once again. But Pakistan were denied much of an advantage when veteran James Anderson produced a stunning display of skill, guile and intelligence and collaborated with Broad to skittle out Pakistan for a meagre 234 and helping England to a decent 72 run lead while dominating the first two days completely. They had been threatening to do that the entire series. Faced with non-conducive pitches and arduous weather conditions, England’s seamers combined to pick up 31 wickets at 24.58 in comparison to English spinners managing 20 at 59.85. They troubled Pakistan with the new ball, and then, to demonstrate their versatility and adaptability, they produced beguiling spells of reverse swing bowling to torment Pakistan at various points throughout the series. In fact, such was Anderson’s proficiency with the old ball on Day three, centurion Hafeez remarked that he had never seen such an excellent display of reverse swing bowling since Wasim and Waqar.

Hafeez himself suffered a few close calls and tough chances to notch up a 151, in a scintillating display of elegance and poise when the rest of the team perished around him. This is the sort of innings he had promised to deliver on various occasions before letting his team down. With Misbah and Younis back in the hut, this was the moment Pakistan needed it from him, and this was the moment he responded.

The target of 284 with a day and a half to go was always going to be daunting against the spin twins of Yasir and Babar, who respectively average 17 and 20 in the fourth innings of a match. England were bundled out for 156 with only Alastair Cook putting up any resistance.

The 2-0 scoreline at the end of a riveting test series says nothing of how the pendulum kept swinging for most part of the series session by session. Just like any great sporting encounter, this series provided us with its fair share of ‘what ifs’ when England were denied by bad light in the first test match. Placing the decision on light firmly in the hands of the umpires was perhaps the best decision by the ICC especially in the context of an England-Pakistan series, where there is always an off field story to overshadow the cricket. Not this time.

In the historical context of controversy ridden England-Pakistan encounters, where headlines on the Daily Mail are often louder than the cricket on the grounds, it is no surprise that this series, played under the leadership of Alastair Cook and Misbah ul Haq will rank amongst the most controversy free ones. Here are two of the most unassuming and dedicated cricketers their nations have produced, keen to speak only in the language of cricket. In fact so focused on performances and excellence are these two teams now under their respective leaders that they unabashedly borrowed from each other, demonstrating indirectly their mutual admiration of each other. James Anderson and Mark Wood tormented batsmen with reverse swing much the same way Wasim and Waqar did at their peak, and Misbah, Younis and Shafiq produced displays of attritional batting reminiscent of Cook, Thorpe, Gooch etc.

In doing so, Misbah and Cook might have written a new chapter in the story. A complex and fascinating rivalry that has often been reduced to a simplistic ‘clash of cultures’ narrative, this new chapter that defies all previous ones, might just be the beginning of a new, yet equally fascinating rivalry.

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