Very little is worth toiling away on the Pakistan domestic circuit for, but, the fact this comes close is the greatest compliment you could pay Abid Ali.
The start of an international career – that for the best part of a decade looked destined not to materialise – has been so heady it was a blessing it didn’t happen in the barren desert of the Emirates. While Abid plugged away, almost sight unseen, in Pakistan, the national side attracted, at best, a handful more spectators in the UAE, their achievements met by sullen indifference from seats in stadiums that might as well have been designed never to be sat on.
Here, as Abid brought up another hundred, his second in his first two Tests, it was greeted by the largest crowd this Test match has seen. That may not be saying too much, but when he finally tickled one to the onside to bring up three-figures, there were nearly as many people in the ground as the 8,000 or so that flocked to Pindi Stadium on that magical fifth day. It means this unassuming 32-year old is the unlikely recipient of the most adulation a Pakistan player has received in a home series in over a decade.
The wheels for this moment had been set in motion three months prior at this same venue on the day this year’s edition of a revamped Quaid-e-Azam trophy began. Abid would bat 170 overs as opener for Sindh, ending up with an unbeaten 249, and while the match ended in a tame draw, it was clear the format which came most naturally was beckoning to him just as Pakistan looked set to bring Test cricket back home.
That he took that chance with both hands is as surprising as it is gratifying, for Abid’s disposition and attitude is as far removed from the average elite athlete in the best possible way. He may not be the interviewer’s dream, humble to a fault and so uncontroversial it should count as a separate skill independent of his prowess on the field. Ever since he scored that hundred on ODI debut against Australia, he’s been asked about little except whether he felt bitter he had been kept away from the international side so long. Today, too, those suggestions were presented the straight bat that made him so prolific on the field all day long.
“The domestic cricket I’ve played has served me well, and it was all for this moment,” he said. “Wherever I’ve gone, whichever region or department I played for gave me the confidence to play well today. In the 105 first-class matches I played before this game, all I was focused on was I had to take my chance whenever I was given one. I was intent on being positive, and that’s always the way I look to play.”
Moreover, being prolific in domestic cricket doesn’t necessarily translate to international success, and nowhere is that more evident than Pakistan, where the gap between the first-class circuit and international cricket is a yawning chasm. Sami Aslam played for the national side on the back of strong domestic performances only to fade away, while it’s taken Shan Masood the best part of half a decade to become something of a regular in the Test side, and would have found his spot under immediate scrutiny again with a failure here. But Abid’s uncomplicated approach, his positive footwork when driving down the ground and wristwork through midwicket mean that, in home Tests at least, Abid has done enough ensure Pakistan needn’t worry about one of the opening slots for the foreseeable future.
But the real reason Abid would do well to bask in the accolades flowing his way is they won’t last very long. Sure, Pakistan fans will value his contributions to the side, but he isn’t the reason they come to the grounds. When Abid was finally adjudged lbw towards the end of the day, 26 runs shy of a double-century, he decided to review the call. But even before Hawk-Eye was shown, the crowd began chanting the name of Babar Azam, who would be the next man in. They had been clamouring to see him all day, and if that meant Abid Ali would have to walk off, well, they were fine with it.
Abid will know that better than anyone. He had come into this series barely expecting to play any part in it, before a late decision the night before the first Test told him he would make his Test debut in Pindi. He spent over a decade being shunted from ground to ground, team to team all in the hopes he’d finally win the approval of whichever Pakistan selector happened to be there.
Abid has done more than that. For the second time in a week, he stood, clad in the Pakistan shirt he might have thought he’d never wear, raising his bat to fans he never imagined would chant his name. In Pakistan cricket, it’s much easier to be cynical than optimistic, far simpler to become bitter than continue to believe. It is why few could begrudge Abid a series likely beyond his wildest fantasies. He believed he was good enough, even if for several years, Pakistan’s selectors didn’t share that viewpoint. Now, thousands in Rawalpindi and Karachi agree wholeheartedly with him. He may not be the player they come to watch, but if the first two Tests are any indication, they’ll be seeing an awful lot of him in the years to come.