Here is a quintessential Pakistan fact, one that comes from cricket but that anthropologists can easily have a field day with. Two of their three biggest Test wins in terms of runs have come after they began the match in an absolute shambles, from positions that, nine times out of ten, should result in thumping losses.
Around noon on Tuesday this week, Pakistan were 57 for 5 and odds on to lose a second successive Test series at home. By around 2pm on Friday they were towering over Australia, victors by 373 runs, their biggest victory in terms of runs. Down one minute, as Nasser Hussain so memorably called it at The Oval one day in June, and up the next.
Call it a bit of an orientation for Sarfraz Ahmed, the latest Pakistani to be given the reins of such a ride. It is a very Pakistani ride because 57 for 5 represented the seventh time in Tests that Pakistan have been at that score or worse and yet gone on to win a Test.
It’s not something that happens that often. Just 25 times since Pakistan began playing Tests in 1952, which means they are responsible for over a quarter of the occasions it has happened since. Every kind of Pakistani team has done it, the newbies of the 1950s, the world-beaters of the 1980s, the 1990s superstars, and Misbah’s men.
Sarfraz learnt something very basic from the turnaround, and he hopes his team has as well. Actually, it is something that he knows, that every sportsperson knows, just that it is something that is reinforced viscerally every now and again.
“You never, ever give up,” Sarfraz said, back at the ground after a trip to the hospital for precautionary scans of the head earlier in the morning. “To bounce back from 57 for 5, there can’t be many teams that can come back from losing five in the first session and then to win in four days by such a big margin.
“That is what I’ve learnt, to keep fighting. To make sure that whatever batsmen you have left in an innings, they need to keep batting. The target to them should be to not throw their wickets.
“We were 205 for 6 when Fakhar [Zaman] got out, but we stretched that to 280. We got tail runs, like Bilal Asif’s 20, Yasir Shah’s 22 and Mohammad Abbas’ 15. These are all important runs. However many runs you can make, you make.”
Sarfraz was at the very heart of that fight, his first innings 94 sparking off the kind of punchy wicketkeeping counter that Pakistan should be very familiar with; nobody is forgetting Kamran Akmal from 39 for 6 and Moin Khan from 26 for 6 any time soon.
Second-innings runs, and runs despite two injuries, a fine and critical catch to dismiss Usman Khawaja, some sharp captaincy, and suddenly the pressures of the last month feel like a lifetime away. Now he has a series victory under his belt, and the tools, it seems, to begin thinking about re-establishing the home dominance of the last decade.
“We really needed this victory. I think our team did really well over both Tests. Each batsman over the course of the series did what they were supposed to. And then the way our bowlers bowled, no praise is enough for Abbas. Mir Hamza played and took only one wicket, but he hasn’t bowled on these pitches and he still showed that he can become a good bowler. Bilal [Asif] bowled well all this series, so did Yasir.”
That will still take time as there remains plenty of room for improvement. One of the hallmarks of the Misbah era in the UAE was the collective nature of their triumphs: a number of batsmen scoring hundreds, wickets being shared around. Only two Pakistani batsmen made hundreds – neither of them big ones – despite as many as eight fifties, and Abbas towered over the bowlers.
“There are a lot of things we need to do better,” Sarfraz said. “If you want to play Test cricket our batting will have to be a lot more mature than it is. If you look at our batting, we gave away soft wickets after our batsmen were set. We’ve given away too many soft wickets in this series, batsmen scoring 60s and getting out.
“We shared a dressing room with Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. Younis always used to say that in Tests, you get one chance and you settle, you pull that for as long as you can. That is a weakness that we need to improve.
“With our bowling, we need to improve our spinning a little bit. Abbas is there, but we need to get ready another fast bowler who, other than [on] these pitches, can do well away.”