There are certain occasions—the last gasps of a dear relative, the concluding act of a tragic story, the final moments of a lover’s tryst—in which the sense of impending end is more stirring than the end itself. It is why the Last Supper is the most emotive tale of Christian mythology, while in Shi’ism, it is Shab-e-Ashur.
On 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 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 this is a fate he must face. And though he will call on his team to fight beside him, he cannot ask them to prevail.
No stats are required to demonstrate that Team Misbah will not withstand the onslaught: South Africa boats the finest fast bowling the world has seen since the heyday of the West Indian greats. Philander swings the ball both ways with purpose; Morkel seams and bounces it at pace; Steyn gives it a life of its own. The practice game notwithstanding, Hafeez has consistently underperformed on swinging tracks where he can’t find his off-stump. 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 diminished 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 triumph. To begin with, regardless of the track, our best combination would include Abdur Rehman, who probably won’t get a game in because of misplaced conventional wisdom. By virtue of his frame and inexperience, Mohammad Irfan is unlikely to sustain his threat, while Umar Gul has never had much threat to sustain. Junaid Khan might produce, but still lacks the pace and consistent control to test a 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 that phase of overexposure—teams, good teams, will begin to figure him out.
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 conceived.
Why, then, hope?
We hope because one year ago, under the purple sun of an Arabian winter, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, and each member of Misbah’s team showed us of the hypnotic rapture of Pakistan cricket in its brave new world. 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 players achieve a sporting consciousness that elevates the individual above the self. The foundation of this Team was constructed from the fundamentals of the sport—line, length, defense, wisdom. With these as mantra, Team Misbah demolished a powerhouse in a way few teams of Pakistan past have achieved.
On this tour of South Africa, if the team can once again achieve even these fundamentals, something unexpected, something irrational may occur.
Will they triumph? No. They lack the skill, the endurance, the resources. But for better or worse, we have come to expect a certain level of performance of Team Misbah, one that we can trust. Even as they fall, one-by-one, we hope that Misbah’s men will strive, they will continue delivering those fundamentals. So that each time Junaid Khan yells banshee-like in euphoric celebration, or one of the young bats drops to his knees in pious submission, we will whisper softly:
Shaba boys, Shaba.