In the early stages of Pakistan’s run-chase on a fraught final day at Malahide, Sky Sports’ cameras cut to the team’s coach, Mickey Arthur – sitting on the boundary’s edge, head in hands, contemplating a dismal scoreline of 14 for 3, and the prospect of a stunning defeat against the Test rookies of Ireland.
Moments later, however, clearly alerted to the cameras’ attentions, Arthur was all smiles again – grinning gamely towards the lens with a thumbs-up gesture to calm his adopted nation’s nerves. His message was clear: this was just another day at the office. Another dip in the rollercoaster of the most fascinating sports team of them all.
“The thing you mustn’t ever do is write off Pakistan,” says the former England captain and Sky Sports commentator Nasser Hussain.
“It’s a cliché, but they are a mercurial side. Some days they’ll turn up and you’ll be all over them, and the next day… boom! Never write them off – in a game, in a series, in a tournament. They’ll look absolutely ragged at times, and you think, they are all over the place, but it’s just the way they play.”
Sure enough, last week’s Ireland Test was Pakistan cricket in microcosm. Wild surges of brilliance – in particular from their sturdy young seamer Mohammad Abbas in the first innings and their established star Mohammad Amir in the second – interspersed with bouts of trademark calamity, particularly at the start of both their batting efforts.
The net result was a contest from which you dared not avert your eyes. But by the end of it, Pakistan were once again all smiles and handshakes, beaming with pride at a job done well (enough), and perhaps most importantly, battle-hardened for the challenge that lies in wait, against England at Lord’s next week.
A penny for the thoughts of Joe Root’s men, who have learned the hard way in the course of the last two home summers just how dangerous these opponents can be.
In 2016, Pakistan came, saw, and conquered the capital with two stunning victories at Lord’s and The Oval. They did so by riding on the coat-tails of two of their all-time great batsmen, Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, whose respective matchwinning centuries helped to ensure that Pakistan finished the season as the No.1 Test side in the world.
And then last summer, with Sarfraz Ahmed at the helm, they pulled off one of their greatest coups in a generation – reprising Imran Khan’s Cornered Tigers feat at the 1992 World Cup to swipe the ICC Champions Trophy from under the noses of both the hosts, England, and their greatest rivals, India.
“The great strength of Pakistan over the years has been their ability to take wickets in clusters on flat pitches,” says Michael Atherton, the former England captain and Sky Sports commentator. “They’ve always had fantastic bowlers in terms of pace and slightly unorthodox spin. They are the kind of team that, when they get on a roll, and start to create something in the field, watch out, they are dangerous.”
For that’s the remarkable thing about Pakistan. Somehow, in spite of their innate turmoil, they tend to find a way – clearly not in the consistent manner of the game’s great steamroller sides – but with passion and élan, and as often than not, with a faith in the restorative qualities of youth that few other sides would dare to emulate.
And that’s what makes this summer’s visit especially hard to second-guess. Since that heady Test tour of 2016, Pakistan have slumped from No.1 in the world to No.7, not least because the spine of their batting order was ripped out by the twin retirements of Misbah and Younis.
“I would not underestimate them, but their batting looks sketchy,” Hussain admits.
And yet, that familiar stirring of youth appeared to have begun in earnest over the course of an exacting four days in Malahide. The match may have started with Ireland’s assembled rookies in the spotlight, but by the end, it was Pakistan’s own new boys who had delivered the decisive blows.
Imam-ul-Haq, the bespectacled nephew of the national icon Inzamam, hadn’t even faced a ball in his own Test debut when he was all but knocked cold in a collision with Niall O’Brien. He finished the same match with a beautifully composed 74 not out – standing firm against a new-ball onslaught before draining Ireland’s resolve in a one-sided final session.
That display of character was matched by Faheem Ashraf, also on debut, who found uncharted depths of resolve in the first innings, as he joined forces with legspinner Shadab Khan – himself only in his second Test – to add 117 match-turning runs for the seventh wicket.
And then there was Abbas, just five caps and 13 months into his own Test career – the instigator of Ireland’s first-innings jitters with three wickets in his first four overs, and the burster of their bubble second-time around, when his five-wicket haul included the scalp of the centurion Kevin O’Brien off the first ball he faced on the final morning.
Pakistan are under no illusions about the quality of the challenge that lies in wait. James Anderson and Stuart Broad in early-season England are a cut above the quality that Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin brought to Ireland’s challenge. And a batting line-up bolstered by a recall for the toast of the IPL, Jos Buttler, is unlikely to stand on ceremony for anyone.
But neither dare England take any aspect of their challenge for granted, especially not when there’s a bowler of Amir’s quality in the opposition ranks.
No one in the Pakistan squad – maybe even in the whole of the cricket world – has a greater understanding of what it means to rebuild your story from scratch. The events of his maiden visit to Lord’s in 2010 will be etched on his career for ever more, but having defied the pain of a knee injury to deliver the spell of the Test at Malahide, he’s desperate to make his mark once again on the game’s most famous ground.
“You can see our momentum and confidence this time,” Amir tells ESPNcricinfo. “Our team is very young with lots of new players here, and they are very keen to play at Lord’s. Lord’s is a special moment for everyone. They are very excited, because the young generation always put their hand up and everyone wants their name on the honours board.”
Hussain believes that England dare not ignore that warning. “I have never played against a Pakistan bowling attack where they don’t challenge you, all the time,” he says. “This young generation, there’s potential in there, but they need to produce one great batsman. Because if they can get a score, their bowlers can always win them games.”