In the autumn of 2017, Pakistan entered a new era. Sarfraz Ahmed, captain of recently-crowned Champions Trophy winning side, was to begin his UAE journey as his team's Test skipper. His predecessor, Misbah-ul-Haq, had started his own Test journey here too — in the aftermath of a scandal that rocked world cricket, and after four years without a series win — and came out of that as an underappreciated great.
Sarfraz and his cohort had a decade of experience and a ready-made template to fall back on. Pakistan were finally going back to their roots - of aggression and passion rather than the officious logic of the MisYou (Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan) era. It was time to build on the foundation laid by the old wise men of Pakistan cricket.
Thirteen months on, Pakistan are in an identity crisis. Not in white-ball cricket, of course, where even in their pitfalls it's easy to see what they are trying to achieve. Their revolution in the shorter formats has been somewhat successful, even with a disastrous Asia Cup, but in the red-ball game it truly does feel like we have our Pakistan back: the Pakistan that enters every day, nay, every session not knowing how it will end up.
They know that Yasir Shah and Mohammad Abbas will take wickets, but unless Azhar Ali scores big, can they compete with anyone? Or to put it another way, Pakistan know that their bowlers will get 20 wickets more often than not, but they don't know if they can rely upon anyone apart from their best batsman. That's a sentence you could have written any time in the past five decades.
Sarfraz's journey began with Pakistan failing to chase down 136 against Sri Lanka last year — the lowest fourth innings target they've ever faced in a match that ended up in a loss. At the time, it seemed like an anomaly — they were run over by Rangana Herath, there was nothing to worry about, this stuff happens sometimes. And then they ended up losing that series after being dominated in the second Test.
At the beginning of that series, Pakistan owned the longest unbeaten "home" streak in world cricket. A home that wasn't even their home was a fortress that had not been breached in the decade when every other country had lost a home series. Of course, it was taken for granted by the local cricket establishment, as home records tend to be. So, the new generation would come in, play an attractive, marketable brand of cricket, and improve the team.
Instead Pakistan have gone back to the old days in other ways. The run rate may not have changed much from the MisYou era, but the results have. Pakistan have now won just 2 of their 7 Tests under Sarfraz's leadership in the UAE and the worrying thing for them has been that their poor record is mostly due to their own inability to step up in big moments.
Whereas, the MisYou era, at least in the UAE, was defined by newbies stepping up in big moments — from Azhar Ali and Shan Masood being the star of two 300+ fourth innings chases to the sustained excellence of Yasir Shah so early on in his international career — the following year or so has been defined by their inability to drive home their advantage. Now against New Zealand, in their first "home" series loss to them in nearly 50 years, they frittered away advantages that could so easily have led to a clean sweep. 29 to win with six wickets in hand in the first Test, 286-3 in response to 274 all out in the third Test, and yet both those situations ended up in a loss for them! It turns out, we truly are back to the old days of Pakistan, the bad old days that is.
From the autumn of 1995 (when they lost their first home series in over a decade) till the autumn of 2010 (when the MisYou era began), Pakistan lost more home series than they won. Just between 1995 and 2004, an era often romanticized due to rockstar players, they lost historic home series to each of Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia, Zimbabwe, England and India. Pakistan had an almost identical record at home as they did away — they were an inconsistent team which would lose as often as they would win, regardless of where the Tests took place.
And that's where Pakistan seem to be right now, after a Test win in Ireland, a drawn series in England and a series win in the desert against Australia, it had seemed like things were on the right track, that the Sri Lanka series was an anomaly, but New Zealand have sent them crashing back down. They can take solace in the fact that in both those series they have been dismantled by true greats — Herath in the Sri Lanka series, and Kane Williamson in Abu Dhabi — but they had seen plenty of greats in the decade prior to this and had been able to come out of it unscathed. Not anymore. The Sri Lanka series wasn't the anomaly, the decade of excellence was.
The post-mortem will now begin. Sarfraz's own shaky grasp over his captaincy will be questioned, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mickey Arthur's continued favoritism will come under the microscope and paeans will be written for the eras past as they always are. What happens now is anyone's guess. The good news for Pakistan is that they don't have to face much pressure in the coming months: all they have is a tour to South Africa and a World Cup to prepare for. Thus, as the time honoured tradition of Pakistani cricket, it's time to play the game, "how much worse can it get".