In October of 2013, Pakistan went into the final Test of their two-match series with a realistic chance of becoming the first nation to beat South Africa at home in seven years. Misbah-ul-Haq won the toss and predictably decided to bat. In less than three hours Pakistan had been bowled out for just 99. Imran Tahir had run through their lower order, finishing with 5 for 32. Almost as if to prove that there were no demons in the pitch, South Africa then responded with the then highest score ever in Dubai. A score that wouldn’t be surpassed till Azhar Ali scored a triple hundred.
Two years later Pakistan hosted England. The final day of the first Test started with England still trundling along in their first innings, just 46 runs ahead of Pakistan’s first innings score. By the end of the day they would be ruing bad light, falling just 25 short of a win after Adil Rashid had run through the Pakistani lower order, finishing with 5 for 64.
It’s fair to say they were warned.
Since Pakistan moved to the Emirates in 2010 they’ve made their name on their ability to play spin. Over these six years touring spinners have fared worse (in terms of average) only in Australia, England and New Zealand – none of which have been particularly famous for assisting spin. And only in Australia of those three countries have touring spinners gone at a higher rate. Pakistan’s reputation, it would seem, is well earned.
And yet, every now and then, they revert to their old selves, as if to remind everyone that the appearance may change, but the soul always remains.
Half an hour before the end of the second session at Dubai on Day 4, it appeared as if even such a scenario couldn’t create much problems for Pakistan. But complacency has never been the key to success in Test cricket.
For the second time in three days Devendra Bishoo appeared at a press conference, his mood barely different from 48 hours earlier. The soft-spoken Guyanese still looked as calm as ever, a hint of a smile the only thing reflecting that he had just finished with the best figures by a non-Asian spinner in Asia: 8 for 49 and a remarkable, famous victory within reach. His words, though, were far more expressive.
“I’m delighted right now”, he said. “I’m so happy. I don’t have the words to explain that, I’m really, really happy. More happy of the position we put ourselves in the Test match, so that we could win the Test match.”
He intimated how he had changed his line from the first innings, where he had often bowled with a 6-3 off-side field and at “fourth or fifth stump” as per him, although it appeared wider from afar. He had decided to attack the stumps, a tactic far too rarely used by opposition spinners here for fear of being taken apart. But just like Imran Tahir three years ago (each of his five wickets that day in Dubai were bowled or LBW) Bishoo gave Pakistan a taste of their own medicine. He bowled wicket to wicket, varied his speed, and let the deteriorating pitch do the rest. Mickey Arthur later said that the pitch had started turning a day too late for his liking, echoing the words that Misbah used the day after Rashid did his thing against Pakistan.
And yet for the leggie this was as special an occasion as any. When informed later in the day that he now owned a better best bowling figures than the likes of Courtney Walsh, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, he was left speechless. Two days ago he had been defending the pink ball and its use for spinners, now he had shown what a spinner could do with it. Five-and-a-half years on from his debut against the same opposition, a period defined by a stop-start career and his inability to combine all his obvious gifts into a complete package he had shown that for one evening in the Emirates, when the stars aligned, what he could do.
Of course, Pakistan played a role in their own demise. They lost their final six wickets for just eleven runs in 26 balls, five of them falling to Bishoo. They went from trying to accelerate to get closer to their target of scoring at least 180 in the second innings and declaring, to finding themselves struggling to get to 150. It was a collapse of epic proportions.
The Pakistan coach, Mickey Arthur, of course, blamed his own team for their demise.”I thought Bishoo bowled really well, I don’t want to take anything away from that, but I think we gave him eight soft wickets. We were cutting against the spin, some lazy shots, so that’s something we have to speak hard about. That’s not how we want to play the game. We have worked so hard to get ahead in the game. But in one session we lost 6-11 and that put the West Indies back, or gave them a sniff. We want to be better than that. We want to be the team that closes the opposition when we get the opportunity.”
And yet for all of Bishoo’s heroics and the continued form of Darren Bravo, a West Indian victory still seems far away. Scoring over 250 against Pakistan on a Day 5 wicket in Dubai will need something special. But special performances aren’t something that this match has lacked. Twenty four hours on from everyone wondering about the state of the pitch, a draw is the least likely result. Last night Wahab Riaz said that cricket is a funny old game. Oh how right he was.