By Shane Thomas
The England cricket team; the sport's dominant force. The playground bullies. Best in the world. Don't believe me, look at the rankings.
So on this England team went to the sub-continent to play Pakistan. They came, they saw, and they got a pasting. It was a rude awakening, as Pakistan taught England a lesson that they shouldn't really have needed teaching. England were whitewashed in the series, 3-0, and have been humbled as a result.
But it's not England's defeat that should bring joy to cricket fans, but Pakistan's victory.
The story of Pakistani cricket is a headlong miasma of quixotic brilliance, emetic avarice, wanton self-interest, and even criminal violence, with the loathsome presence of terrorism making its presence felt. Over the years, Pakistan has been a chimeric cricketing nation.
Things reached a nadir between 2009 and 2010. While many countries opted against touring Pakistan due to a potential threat of attacks from terrorist groups, Sri Lanka decided that sport and politics could be kept separate. While a laudable decision, it turned out that the caution evinced by the majority of the Test cricket countries was not misplaced. In March of 2009, gunmen opened fire on buses carrying the Sri Lankan team and match officials. It resulted in the deaths of 7 people and injuries to 8 others.
It was clear that in the short-term, cricket in Pakistan was untenable, which left the region's cricketers as the sport's nomads, having to play "home" matches in other countries.
The following year, while touring England, three Pakistani cricketers - including then captain, Salman Butt - were found guilty of "spot-fixing" (organising for bowlers to bowl "no-balls" at specific moments in the match). This blatant flouting of the game's laws and fraudulent conduct, led to all three players being charged and imprisoned.
At this point, Pakistan were cricket's pariahs, with some calling for them to be ostracised from the sport. However, since this time, while the Pakistani cricketing authorities still leave a lot to be desired, the playing personnel have quietly gone about rebuilding the team.
Now relocated to Abu Dhabi and Dubai for the time being, Pakistan are now a force to be reckoned with again. Under Misbah-Ul-Haq's understated leadership, their team is built around a mix of new talents such Azhar Ali and Adnan Akmal, supplemented by experienced heads like Younis Khan and Umar Gul. And of course, not forgetting the magical off-breaks of Saeed Ajmal - who has officially usurped Graeme Swann as the world's premier spinner.
England underestimated the togetherness of this new Pakistan oufit - which given their shambolic past is understandable - and got a thumping as a result.
The country that gave us Imran Khan, arguably the greatest ever new ball partnership of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, the improbable World Cup win in 1992, and popularising reverse-swing, cricket is a richer place with a strong Pakistan side, and it's something that we should all be thankful for.
Along with a resurgent Australia, Test cricket is looking a brighter place again. Now, if only we could do something about the West Indies.
AND IN OTHER NEWS...
- After some impressive recent performances, there has been talk of Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being called up to the England squad for Euro 2012. Now Oxlade-Chamberlain is still only 18, and has so far started only three matches in the Premier League. Talk of going to Poland and the Ukraine seems a bit premature. Is this summer a tournament too soon?
Well, what many have overlooked is that the European Championships isn't the only international football competition happening in the summer. While many in this country look at the Olympics football competition with disdain, it will feature most of the country's best under-23 footballers. If Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn't go to Euro 2012, he'll be a certainty - fitness permitting - for London 2012.
So football fans (especially Arsenal ones) thinking that it's best for Oxlade-Chamberlain to stay at home, rest up in the summer, and return fresh for the 2012/13 season, forget it. One way or another, he'll be wearing national colours in the next few months. And playing in the Olympics will ensure he misses the start of the next Premier League season. For once, it may behoove Fabio Capello to heed the clamour from the tabloids and find a space for the young Arsenal flyer in his final squad of 23.
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