This is for Hobart
The morning of November 22, 1999 was nippy and blustery, typical Karachi winter weather. I woke up early with an air of expectation. Christmas was coming early this year and Eid was going to follow. Pakistan was finally going to beat Australia in a Test match on their home turf and I was ready for school early to savour as much of the moment as possible.
The Test series was following after Pakistan had been blanked by Australia in the World Cup final earlier in the year and was billed as the ‘badla’ tour by the press. Wasim Akram, the Pakistan team captain, had said in an interview that the contest was between the two best sides in the world and the winner could lay claim of being the undisputed number one. It was akin to the West Indies-Australia series of 1979 and Clive Lloyd had echoed similar sentiments. West Indies had won that handily and gone on to dominate cricket for the next decade and a half. The same was expected from this series too, and with a strong batting and arguably the best bowling attack in the world, this was Pakistan’s best chance to finally win a Test series in Australia.
Pakistan lost the first Test at Brisbane by a humiliating 10 wickets, a second innings century by Saeed Anwar, the saving grace. And yet, this was no dampener on the spirits; Australia has the habit of playing undercooked, visiting sides on bouncy tracks in Brisbane, or worse, Perth, and bagging the first Test. It was from the second Test that any Pakistan-in-Australia series started.
The second Test was to be in Hobart, a friendlier track. Pakistan was playing Mohammad Waseem, the rookie opener and the rest of the batting side was Saeed, Ijaz Ahmad, Inzamamul Haq, Yousuf Youhana and Azhar Mahmood. The rookie scored 91 in the first inning, followed by a 118 by Inzi in the second and supporting 50s by Saeed and Ijaz.
Now on the fifth day they could sense victory.
Australia had been given a stiff target of 369 and were to start the day at 188 for five, still a long distance from saving the day. With a bowling attack of Wasim, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq, Azhar and Shoaib Akhtar, the match was as good as done, only Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist to be dispensed with. This was Pakistan’s moment; this is what the nation had aspired for long years, ever since Imran Khan developed a stress fracture going into the first five Test series to be played in Australia. This was the prize for which Pakistan had been preparing green tops at home for a decade (and no, Mr Ian Chappel, the green tops were not to blunt Shane Warne, but prepare Pakistan for Australia).
For the last 10 years, wins against India were opium for the masses; the Pakistani connoisseur pined for a series win against Australia, in Australia.
By the time I got to school, Pakistan were still going strong. Then came the decision to let off Langer from what seemed like a plumb leg before. Chance gone, Pakistan wilted, and Australia romped home; Gilchrist’s withering century battering Pakistani psyches. Seeing victory snatched away by the vagaries of the umpire, Pakistan got deflated and lost the third match inside three days by an innings and thus began the dominance of the Australians on Pakistan. Wasim’s words had been prophetic, only not in the way he must have meant.
Historical epochs are often scripted on decisive moments and cricket is no exception. Harold Larwood’s first bouncer to Donald Bradman in ’32 Bodyline Ashes, Javed Miandad’s last ball six at Sharjah in ’86, Michael Holding’s crashing delivery against Brian Close in ’76, Misbahul Haq’s miscued punt in the 2007 T20 World Cup – all these were to herald a seismic change in the cricket world. It seemed Langer’s let off in Hobart was one of them. For the next decade and a half, Pakistan were the whipping boys for the Australians even as Pakistan won or drew Test series against the rest of the world. Australia, however, was the perennial bugbear. They destroyed Pakistan everywhere they played – Colombo, Sharjah, London and the Test venues of Australia bore witness to the all too familiar sight of Pakistan being steam rolled by the sight of Warne and company.
In 2002, Pakistan were out for 59 and 53 on a flat Sharjah wicket, while in 2004, they lost by a mind boggling 451 runs at Perth. From 1999 to 2010, Pakistan lost 13 Tests against Australia and won just one. They were whitewashed in four consecutive series; a Mohammad Aamir inspired victory at Headingley, the sole sliver of joy. For a Pakistani cricket fan, it was soul searching stuff.
Pakistan team’s long suffering captains, Wasim, Waqar and Inzamam, all bore the brunt of the Aussie juggernaut and before the Dubai Test, it seemed the massacre would continue. And why wouldn’t it? The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had been in a state of turmoil for the past year and a half, and had recently installed another new chairman. The team was missing its talismanic bowler, one Saeed Ajmal, and Younus Khan, the senior most batsman of the side, had publicly stated his disgust against the management after being dropped from the limited overs side. Australia was coming off from an Ashes whitewash and a 2-1 series win in South Africa, and had swept Pakistan in the ODIs. Captain Misbah seemed beleaguered and had dropped himself for the third ODI, ostensibly for lack of form. Pakistan’s bowling attack had played a total of eight Tests and featured two debutants. It was to be Australia’s ‘veni, vedi, veci’ (I came, I saw, I conquered).
At 7/2, on the first day’s morning, Pakistan were in depressingly familiar territory when something strange happened – the batsmen simply refused to roll over. From then on, Pakistan dominated, hour after hour, session after session and day after day. Misbah and his young charges counter attacked and the bowlers went on the hunt. The Australians were not to win a session until the fifth day’s morning in the second Test and the unthinkable, the unfathomable happened; Misbah and his band of merry young men kneaded, pummelled and flattened the Australians for a brown-wash.
The 2-0 score line does not give the complete picture. Statistics only give a side of the tapestry that was Pakistan’s mastery of their opponents. However, there are few telling ones. Before this series, Pakistani batsmen had scored six centuries in the period of 1999 to 2010. In this one alone, they scored nine. Two batsmen scored a century in each innings of a Test match, Younus, in fact, getting three in a row. It featured the fastest century in Test cricket by captain Misbah, a freakish innings of rare power and brutality. Pakistan won the last match by 356 runs, which is their largest margin of victory against any opponent. The numbers go on and on, each articulating Pakistan’s dominance over their erstwhile tormentors.
What is even more satisfying is that this was a most un-Pakistan-like victory. Pakistan’s cricket success is largely wrought by its bowlers and often stems from a magical moment produced almost at will by the mercurial geniuses the country keeps producing. From Oval ‘56 when Fazal Mahmood mesmerised the English to Imran’s 12 wicket whirlwind in Sydney in ‘77 to Dubai 2012 when Ajmal and Rehman spun a web around the hapless English, Test victories have been produced largely due to sparks of brilliance rather than sustained team efforts. The last series was different, no last day miracle, no madcap victory from jaws of defeat.
Australia were not hamstrung by a scintillating bowling spell or a flashing batting performance but rather strangulated under the weight of runs and sustained pressure. When the scoreboard shows mammoth scores by opposition, it saps your energy. Long periods of chasing leather and fresh legs become heavy, nimble feet became leaden and clear minds become cloudy. Ever put salt on a slug under the hot sun? After Misbah’s 56 ball hundred that is how the Aussies looked, a quivering jelly-like puddle ready to be buried under the desert sands.
Watching Pakistan land body blow after another, I was reminded of the Muhammad Ali-Ernie Terrell ’67 fight. Terrell had made the mistake of taunting Ali by calling him by his old name and as punishment was hammered for 15 rounds in a lopsided match. As Ali landed jabs and hooks, he kept asking Terrell “What’s my name?”
If Pakistan had asked Michael Clarke the same question, he could have been forgiven for being a little confused because Pakistan’s method of grinding opponents down was positively Australian and had been perfected by Clarke’s predecessor Steve Waugh. Waugh didn’t use to enforce the follow-on and wanted to garrotte opponents by running them ragged and then unleashing his menacing bowlers, inflicting not just abysmal defeat but deep mental scars. That is what Misbah did and the series can rank with Tiger Woods’s US Open 2000 campaign or Pete Sampras’s defeat of Cedric Pioline in Wimbledon Final 1997 in its one-sidedness, a blowout in sporting jargon.
After all, the shameful capitulations and agonising defeats, after watching Warne’s serpentine deliveries bamboozle and befuddle, after witnessing Matthew Hayden and Gilchrist happily chew up our bowlers, after viewing Glenn McGrath run through the batsmen, after seeing Mark Taylor, Waugh and Ricky Ponting slicing up Pakistan, we have gotten a bit of our own back. I can now be philosophical about the years of waiting and disappointment, the gnashed teeth at submissive tactics, at the wasted mornings and afternoons, wasted talent, wasted opportunities, and more defeats.
A wait of 20 years comes to an end. It isn’t often we do an Ali. It isn’t often we flay the opposition. This is sweet satisfaction. This is for Hobart.
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