By Stephen Brenkley for The Independent
Pakistan are here to win. Anybody who thought that they were in England this summer to make up the numbers, licking their wounds, grateful to be given a temporary home, would be misguided.
They may indeed be the refugees of world cricket, unable to play in their own country because teams refuse to go there, but they will be nobody’s fools. It is the most bizarre of tours they have embarked on. Starting on Tuesday at Lord’s, they play the first of two Tests against Australia, which will be considered as home matches.
They then play four Tests against England in which they will be the touring side. Such have been the ramifications of the terrorist activities at home. Pakistan have been forced to play where they can. “It’s a big tour. It’s not easy to get hold of 17 boys, a lot on their first tour here, and I don’t think we have ever played six Test matches in two months,” said Yawar Saeed, their wise, veteran manager.
“We have a young side here and it was important to keep them together. There is plenty of talent in this team. The one sitting there, Umar Akmal, is just a bundle of talent, God is so kind to him. I have told him, if he doesn’t use his talent I will beat him one of these days. I see him as a future Vivian Richards. Look at his confidence at his age and look at the way he’s playing. He’s a very good kid and I’m trying to help him and the left-arm fast bowler, [Mohammad] Aamer, who’s only 18 and can also do great things.”
There is, of course, no physical intent by Yawar towards the precocious Umar, he merely makes the point to reinforce his desire not to waste his gifts. There has been precious little sign of that so far.
Yawar is on his 26th or 27th tour – he really has lost count – as manager. At 75, he thought he had unpacked for the last time but with the shifting of officials yet again in the Pakistan Cricket Board he has returned as a safe pair of hands. He is an Anglophile who was educated at Millfield, played for Somerset for three seasons in the mid-Fifties and whose father, Mohammad Saeed, was the first captain of Pakistan post-partition and pre-Tests.
At the core of the thinking of those who run cricket in Pakistan is the day when they can play at home again. Somehow, cricket is being sustained despite the lack of international competition but Yawar and the PCB hierarchy know that cannot last while understanding the virtual boycott.
The memory is still raw of the Sri Lanka team being attacked on the way to a Test in Lahore last year. Yawar and the Pakistan team were in a coach 40 yards behind. “The whole thing is dependent on the conditions and security within the country,” he said. “You have to ask: Yawar, if you were an Australian or an Englishman, would you go there? It’s very difficult, I don’t blame any of the people who are hesitant to come there. But all I can say is it’s not as bad as it looks from here. I’m not saying it’s perfect.”
Pakistan have taken a big risk by appointing as captain Shahid Afridi, who has been in regular trouble for ill-discipline. He has not so far shown diplomatic tendencies when they may be needed. In England four years ago, Pakistan’s tour was almost derailed when the Fourth Test was abandoned amid allegations of ball-tampering.
On the tour of Australia last winter, disharmony led to a whitewash and a series of disciplinary actions later on. Shahid himself was penalised for being spotted biting a ball. “We had problems about the captain,” said Yawar. “I can see in Shahid the one who can get them all together, mould them into one team. People who matter have had a chat with Shahid. I am very confident he’s going to be OK. Even this ball-biting thing, it’s just that he’s so keen, he’s keen to win like a lot of people, so he does lose control at times. I don’t think he will as captain.”
So to Australia on Tuesday. “Playing Australia you have got to be mentally tough. That’s where I’m working on them. I have seen Australia play, I have seen these boys play, I know their psyche. I can’t say that overnight we will become X, Y, Z, but you will see a graph going up by the Test match.”
But nobody in Pakistan will rest until the next touring team arrives to play this attractive, gifted young team. “It has to be reintroduced. I can’t put a date on it but I think that something should happen within the next three or four years. I would love to see cricket being played in Pakistan again. Before I say goodbye to this world, I would love to see that.”