Saqlain Mushtaq’s mystical charm inspires Pakistan to triumph through instinct

“The mistake they make,” Harold Pinter said, “is to attempt to determine and calculate, with the finest instruments, the source of the wound.” He wasn’t talking about cricket (that time) but the words still come to mind watching Pakistan play in this T20 World Cup.

Six weeks or so ago, they hammered England by 10 wickets in a Twenty20 match in Karachi. The mood in the stadium after the game that evening was giddy, even a little delirious. A day later, England beat them back, badly, in a 63-run victory that was settled 20 minutes into the second innings and of course the mood changed too. It became sour and frustrated.

Late that night Pakistan’s coach, Saqlain Mushtaq, heaved himself into a chair for his post-match press conference, the eager media spread in front of him, ready to press him on the what-ifs, why-nots, and what-abouts of the defeat. Mushtaq started to talk, and talk and talk, and he carried on talking, calmly, for the best part of 10 straight minutes, in one long unbroken monologue. Some of the journalists in the room were smiling, some were sniggering, some were just perplexed, like most of the English press, who were all looking at each other, eyebrows raised, wondering exactly what he was going on about.

You could pick up some of it from his body language, but the rest really needed a translation. Afterwards the one fluent Urdu speaker in the group found he couldn’t really begin to explain it. It was, he said, all something to do with fate but it would require repeated listening to even begin to translate accurately. It came out later as something like “Day and night, summer and winter, rains, they are all natural. Just like that, sport is also the same. Wins and losses will always be there. We need to accept it, and we do. It’s the law of nature, it’s not in our control, so what else can we do? What we can do is have intent, for the rest we can only pray.”

Which made a change from the usual “Well, of course the boys are disappointed but we haven’t become a bad side overnight”. Mushtaq got some affectionate ribbing for it in the media, and maybe it was a bit rich for the head coach to say it’s just kismet. But it has worked out for him. Six weeks later his Pakistan team are in the final of the World T20 for the first time since 2009. They have tripped and stumbled through the tournament, they lost one game against India that turned on a no-ball call in the last over, another against Zimbabwe when they somehow ended up two runs short of the smallest total that has been defended in the tournament.

They made it to the semi-finals only because the Netherlands beat South Africa. “We’re only here because of a miracle”, said their assistant coach Matthew Hayden in his team talk last Sunday. “T20 cricket is one of those games that you can overtrain, overthink and overplan for,” he continued. “When I look at this side I think we’re such a good reactive team, when we’ve got the energy there, when we’ve got the commitment and belief, then magic unfolds”. Hayden spoke about how proud he was of the way they had taken a day off. Then told the players to play “forgetful cricket” because “who cares what’s happened over the last three weeks?”

Regardless, there is something pretty charming about this mystical tinge to Pakistan’s coaching, especially in a format of the sport that has become so mired in numbers that there seems to be a new statistic for every last variable, as if, yes, the source of the wound can be determined and calculated with the finest instruments, false shot percentages, pitch maps and win probabilities.

Here instead is a Pakistan team who are being encouraged to play by instinct. Yes, they’ve doubtless got an excellent analyst working for them behind the scenes too, but still, in a tournament full of twists and turns, their take-as-it-comes approach to cricket is paying off.

That magic was there to see in their semi-final against New Zealand. It was there in the very first over, when Finn Allen hit Shaheen Shah Afridi’s opening ball down the ground for four. Afridi smiled as if he knew he had the better of him, set himself to bowl the same delivery again, only a little straighter this time, and beat Allen so convincingly that umpire Marais Erasmus felt he had to give him out. Erasmus got that one wrong, there was an inside edge, but not the next, which was the same ball again and trapped Allen stone dead. It was there again in the way Babar Azam attacked the bowling after Devon Conway had dropped him. For all the planning and preparation, the game still turns on how players handle themselves in those moments.

They are, always have been, a team of eddying brilliance, whose games ebb and flow according to the occasion. It is what Saqlain might call a law of nature.