When the ICC made the annual adjustments to its test team rankings to reflect recent form a couple of days ago, the Pakistani fans were in for a pleasant surprise. Pakistan was ranked at number 4, which is the highest ranking it has achieved in 5 years.
There was a time when Pakistan was ranked third in test matches. It was not that far back; till the first half 2007 Pakistan was ranked third, behind Australia and England.
When the annual revision came around in 2007, the new rankings showed Pakistan at 6 - its lowest ranking ever in the history of the game - with a substantial gap of 27 rating points with Sri Lanka, the team at 5.
Since then, Pakistan has remained at 6 in the ICC test rankings with the exception of a few months at 5.
The 3-year period between July 2007 (right after the drop to 6) and July 2010 (right before the tour to England) was probably the worst period ever in the history of test cricket for Pakistan. They played 16 test matches during that time, winning only 1 of them; they did not win a single test series during this period, both at home and away; their solitary win came in New Zealand in a series that was drawn 1-1.
The lead up to the tour to England in the summer of 2010 where Pakistan was to play Australia in a 2-test series and England in a 4-test series could not have been any worse.
Besides coming off a torrid 3 years of test cricket, Pakistan cricket was in shambles with then Chairman Ijaz Butt placing bans on half the team due to allegations of misconduct on a tour to Australia (2009-10). Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik and several others found themselves out of the team and at loggerheads with the cricket board. Amidst all this turmoil, Shahid Afridi, who had not played test cricket for 4 years, was appointed captain of the test team.
If this turmoil was torrid, even worse times were to come.
That summer of 2010 will probably be remembered as the darkest period in the history of Pakistan cricket. The senior cricketers were banned by the board, the newly appointed captain resigned after just 1 test match in charge, and the captain that stepped in was banned for 10 years after the tour for spot fixing. And the two most talented pacers to play for Pakistan since the two Ws also faced bans for spot fixing.
Within a period of 12 months, Pakistan had witnessed Younis Khan resign from the captaincy, Mohammad Yousuf stripped of the captaincy and banned by the PCB, Shahid Afridi resign from the captaincy, and Salman Butt banned by the ICC, effectively losing his captaincy.
Darkest period is an understatement.
Yet in some strangely ironic way that summer of 2010 was also the beginning of the rise of Pakistan in test cricket.
Despite Afridi resigning after losing the first test to Australia, Pakistan managed to win the second test of the series at Leeds. That win was the first time that Pakistan had beaten Australia in a test match in 15 years! It was also the first time in 7 test series against Australia that Pakistan had managed to avoid a series defeat.
Pakistan repeated the winning performance against England at the Oval during the same summer despite losing the test series 3-1. A series loss that was to remain as the only one in the last 24 months till the just concluded series against Sri Lanka.
The spot fixing scandal that rocked Pakistan cricket at the end of that series against England might be looked back at and thought of as the time when Pakistan cricket pulled up its socks and said enough is enough!
Misbah Ul Haq, who had been out of the team for about a year, was called back to captain a side that was in turmoil. The decision turned out to be a master stroke. Misbah was controversy free, a calm character, a senior cricketer who was well respected in the domestic circuit and among the junior cricketers who were looking to establish themselves in the international arena.
In Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah found a trustworthy lieutenant who had been by Misbah's side for over a decade in the domestic circles, and now found himself playing the same role at international level. Along with Shahid Afridi, who was at the helm of the ODI and T20 teams, and the coach Waqar Younis, Pakistan cricket slowly started to pick itself up from the disgrace that it had faced in England.
It quietly went about its business, series after series; and before anyone realized it Pakistan was topping a streak of 6 test series without a loss with a 3-0 whitewash of the world's number 1 test team.
In 18 months of test cricket since that tour to England in 2010, Pakistan had played 7 test series without losing any of them. There were draws against South Africa and the West Indies, and wins against England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe.
That run of 7 test series without a loss was recently broken by Sri Lanka, but the two years of hard work that began (dare I say) at the top of that summer of 2010 paid off when the latest ICC test rankings were released with Pakistan ranked at 4 - the highest it has ever been at since July 2007.
During the last 24 months, between July 2010 and July 2012, Pakistan has played 10 test series - winning 5, drawing 3, and losing 2. The two series that it lost were against England and Sri Lanka, opponents who Pakistan beat in test series as well during this same period.
Moreover, Pakistan has the second best W/L ratio in test cricket during this period, behind only the number 1 test team, England.
If England manage to beat South Africa 2-0 in the most awaited test series that is about to start, then Pakistan will find itself at number 3 (at the expense of the Proteas), behind England and Australia, which is where they were right before the ICC rankings revision in 2007. Come on England!
Pakistan's rise over the past two years has been nothing short of dramatic. After all there is no Pakistan cricket without some drama. This sort of stability and continuity in terms of captaincy and playing XI was last witnessed in the mid to late 90s, arguably the best era of Pakistan cricket.
It has not been an easy ride, and it will only get tougher going forward. This team still has to conquer England, Australia, and South Africa on their turf. Undoubtedly tougher challenges await Pakistan, but this team has shown that it might not have the flair of the team of the 90s, but it definitely has the will to fight and rise to the occasion.
For the first time in our lives, we can say to hell with ODI and T20 cricket, it is test cricket that matters!
The barrier into the top 4, which has been dominated by Australia, England, South Africa, and India over the past 5 years has been broken, and the potential shown by this team indicates that it can do more. So much more.
If Pakistan continue to rise, it will make an even better story. But for now, we can relish the fact that we are among the top 4 test teams and have claimed a stake at the World Test Championship, if it ever goes ahead.