There are certain occasions—the last breaths of a relative, the concluding act of a tragic story, the final moments of a lover’s tryst—in which the sense of impending end overshadows the end itself. It is why the Last Supper is the most emotive tale of Christian mythology; while Hussein dawning his white shroud on Shab-e-Ashur, Shiism’s.
One eve of the Pakistan’s tour of South Africa, such a sense pervades. In a few weeks time, at Centurion Park, on the windswept grasslands of the Highveld, Team Misbah will likely find its final resting place. Misbah will have found an ocean too deep, a mountain too high. Heroically, he will soldier on to his demise; not because the ICC’s Future Tours Program dictates, but because he knows he must face this fate. And though he will call on his team to fight beside him, he cannot ask them to win.
They cannot win.
No stats are required to support the case that Misbah’s batsmen cannot withstand the challenge: South Africa boats the best fast bowling attack the world has seen since the heyday of the West Indian greats. Philander swings the ball both ways with purpose; Morkel gets it to seam and bounce at pace; and Dale Steyn imbues the ball with a life of its own. The practice game notwithstanding, Hafeez has consistently underperformed on swinging tracks where the location of his offstump remains a mystery to him. Nasir is untested outside of Asia, and by the looks of his footwork, he’d be lucky to nick the ball to slip. Azhar’s out of form, Younis is a shadow of himself and, God bless his soul, Misbah won’t be winning any Test matches with the bat. That leaves the kids from Karachi—Shafiq and Sarfaraz—who have yet to display the skills necessary for automatic selection, let alone fend off the world’s best.
Neither will the bowling attack triumph. To begin with, regardless of the track, our best combination would include Abdur Rehman, who probably won’t get a game in. By virtue of both his frame and his inexperience, Mohammad Irfan will unlikely sustain more than a few threatening spells, while Umar Gul has never been sustained a threat in Tests. Junaid Khan might produce, but still lacks the pace and consistent control to seriously test a quality line-up like South Africa. Even a genuinely awesome cricketer like Saeed Ajmal cannot win Test matches on his own. Also, South Africa have seen him before and will be weary. Much like Saqlain, he’s now in the phase of his career where he may have been overexposed—teams, especially good teams like South Africa, will begin to figure him out.
Dav Whatmore’s influence may be an x-factor, but at this level, not matter how keen the coach, a fundamental change in players’ DNA is unlikely.
In short, Team Misbah faces a Goliath that’s smarter, sharper, and quicker than the boorish thug young David smote when hope for impossible victories was first invented.
Why, then, hope?
We hope because one year ago, under the warm sun of an Arabian winter, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, and each member of Misbah’s team reminded us of the hypnotic rapture of Pakistan cricket at its finest. Victory, on that fateful afternoon in Abu Dhabi, wasn’t born of bursts of unplayable deliveries or seismic tons from bludgeoning batsman. It was born of the ancient art of team work, in which each player achieves a level of sporting consciousness that elevates the individual above himself. Further, the foundation of this Team was constructed from the raw materials of the sport—line, length, defense, wisdom. And with that as its mantra, Team Misbah demolished a powerhouse.
Nothing favors Pakistan in South Africa. We have no superstars, we have have no home grounds to return to. But as fans we do have something to depend on: institution of the Pakistan Cricket Team, the institution that has been built brick-by-brick since Lord’s, the institution that fittingly defeated England last year. It is an institution constructed mostly by Misbah, but also men like Waqar Younis, Mohsin Khan, and yes, even Shahid Afridi.
And so we will watch this series not because we believe the team will win, but because with know the team will fight. It will hold its ground, it will not crumble, it will look South Africia in the eye.
Will they triumph? No. They lack the skill, the endurance, the resources. For now, we can only sense the profound sadness of impending defeat. Team Misbah will ride into battle knowing the fate awaits. But in falling with a fight, they will be victorious in our hearts. So that at the very least, every time Junaid yells banshee-like in celebration, or one of the young bats drops to his knees in pious submission, we will whisper softly:
Shaba boys, Shaba.