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A good Pak for better cricket?

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Pakistan's show in the series in India brought to the fore a united, hungry face. The rise of the young side bodes well for a nation riven by internal turmoil.

If the cocooned world of international cricket is a giant fruitcake, Pakistan represents the nuttier parts - crunchy, rich and delightful. It was good to see Pakistan players put their best foot forward in the recently-concluded "goodwill" series against India and show the world what it has been missing in recent times. The world of cricket continues to be poorer without Pakistan's full-fledged participation because of security issues in their strife-torn backyard.

The March 3, 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus outside Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium was not merely a dark chapter in the game's history, but also the biggest blow to cricket in Pakistan after the match-fixing saga. For almost four years now, no international team has set foot on Pakistan soil, condemning a bunch of extremely talented cricketers to a nomadic life as they seek home comfort in alien lands in order to keep their passion for the game alive and pots boiling in their hearth.

It is indeed a pity that Pakistan played just six Test matches in 2012. Their ODI (17) and T20 (16) counts were better primarily because of the Asia Cup in Bangladesh and the ICC World T20 meet in Sri Lanka. Add to it, the hastily slotted two T20 Internationals and three ODIs in India, two of which spilled on to the New Year, and it is crystal clear that Pakistan cricket lagged behind the likes of Australia (11 Tests, 26 ODIs, 13 T20s) and India (9 Tests, 17 ODIs, 15 T20s) in the year gone by. Pakistan could do with more bilateral series in order to keep their players occupied.

Just as too much cricket results in burnout of cricketers, too little action leaves players under-cooked for international assignments. Fortunately that was not the case with the Pakistan squad that came to India. They looked sharp, focused and well-prepared for the short ODI series that they won quite easily before taking the foot off the pedal at the Ferozeshah Kotla. The manner of their capitulation at the Kotla - they lost seven wickets for 44 runs in 14. 4 overs - gave rise to 'fixing' claims, a stigma that Pakistan cricket has not been able to rid itself of.

Under normal circumstances, the Kotla result would have attracted the attention of ICC's anti-corruption unit, but with two neighbours using cricket to build bridges and mend fences, what mattered was the mehman nawazi.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that India only played good hosts. Pakistan were clearly the better of the two teams and deserved to win the ODI series. Teams from the sub-continent have rarely looked so determined to win a series. Pakistan were on the ball from the first game, while Indians were clearly off the boil. That was the most pleasing aspect of Pakistan's performance.

Former captain Bishan Singh Bedi, who was at the helm of the Indian team in the 1978 revival series in Pakistan, feels this new-found hunger among players across the border stems from a sense of deprivation arising out of the international boycott of their nation.

"Cricket ka junoon wahan tha, aur ab bhi hai (the passion for cricket in Pakistan was always there and it still remains). The cricketers are now doubly keen to make a point or two, " says Bedi. "After all, their livelihood is at stake. Adversity is known to bring out the best in us, " he adds.

Referring to the socio-political aspect of Indo-Pak cricket, Bedi wonders whether the aggressive body language of Pakistani cricketers cutting across generations had something to do with the craving to establish their own identity. "It is a historical fact that Pakistan was created out of India. The Pakistanis are very warm-hearted and proud people. I have always been intrigued by the cockiness of their players in general. I guess it stems from supreme confidence in their own ability and a burning desire to win a rightful place under the sun, " says Bedi.

Stressing on the need for a strong Pakistan outfit in order to keep international cricket healthy, Bedi says he always enjoyed playing with and against players from across the border. "It was a privilege to compete with them and we got along famously off the field too. Having shared the dressing room with Mushtaq Mohammad at Northamptonshire, I can tell you what a great cricketer he was, and yet so humble. Intikhab Alam, Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Bari too were all truly world-class. "

For all the batting talent Pakistan has produced over the years, Bedi reckons Pakistan cricket has always been, and continues to be defined by the quality of their pace attack. "A strong pace attack earns any team respect in international cricket. Right from the days of Fazal Mahmood, Pakistan have always been blessed with exceptional fast bowlers like Imran, Sarfaraz, Wasim and Waqar - all capable of taking out the opposition on their own, " Bedi says.

Does he reckon the current Pakistan attack is the best in the world? "They sure have better balance in their attack than South Africa because of their two dart-throwing offspinners - Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez - but the Proteas have a more potent pace attack than Pakistan's led by Junaid Khan and Umar Gul, " feels Bedi.

Even without the banned pace duo of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, Pakistan have the firepower to trouble South Africa's batting line-up in their next assignment in the southern hemisphere, but their batting remains a worry. After Inzamam-ul Haq, only Younus Khan and Mohammad Yousuf have come through the ranks. The pipeline has gone dry.

Bedi blames it on cricket's current obsession with T20 cricket. He also points to the decline of domestic cricket in the sub-continent for young batsmen losing their way. "Missing a Ranji Trophy game was out of question in our days. Today, our top players shun First Class cricket. Even five-day matches are failing to produce a result. The scene is no better across the border where domestic cricket has never been well-structured, " laments Bedi.

Starved of homeland cricket, Pakistan cricketers, including fringe players, have been forced to line up for franchise-owned outfits in various T20 leagues to supplement their meagre income from national team assignments. They are in big demand in the Big Bash League Down Under, BPL in Bangladesh and SLPL in the Emerald Island. The IPL too benefitted from the star value that the likes of Shahid Afridi, Hafeez, Salman Butt and Shoaib Akhtar brought to the table in the inaugural edition of the world's richest T20 league. Post 26/11, they have been 'frozen' out by the Indian franchises, but there is no denying the fact that lPL has been poorer without the incredible talents that Pakistan continues to throw up.

With Indo-Pak cricket completely at the mercy of political masters on either side of the LoC, it is hard to see a resumption of bilateral tours in the near future. The International Cricket Council (ICC) too has indicated that ground realities in Pakistan have to improve considerably before international cricket can return to its shores. It is not a happy situation for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), currently chaired by Zaka Ashraf.

If the PCB, which has been headed by five different officials since the beginning of the new millennium, stands maginalised in the world's governing body, it is because of a series of gaffes made by Ashraf's predecessor Ijaz Butt, who had preposterously called for life ban on ICC Match Referee Chris Broad for condemning the terror attack on Sri Lankan cricketers.

Ashraf now has the onerous task of undoing all the wrongs and rebuild ties with the Asian bloc headed by the BCCI. The short goodwill series was the first step in that direction.

The good thing is that in spite of the boycott of Pakistan by international teams, the craze for cricket has not dimmed in the gullies and mohallas of the troubled nation.

Bedi sums it up nicely. "Cricket is god's gift to the subcontinent. Even terrorists have not been able to muzzle the game at the grassroots level where the love for the game is eternal. There is an abundance of talent at every nook and corner, " says the man who has always maintained that youngsters who burst through, do so in spite of the system.

Pakistan cricket fans have a lot to look forward to after their team's bright start in the New Year.

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