It’s surprising how much news a fortnight of sitting in a room doing nothing seems to have generated. When Pakistan began their managed isolation period in New Zealand last month – though it seems like last year – to say it didn’t go the way West Indies’ isolation went would be an understatement. With acrimony built up and a dark cloud hanging over the fate of the tour, the focus turned to the grinding mental toll that more than two weeks of what is effectively solitary confinement would have on the visiting Pakistan players.
But if Shan Masood is any yardstick, one thing Pakistan appear to have retained is perspective. In the first press conference since leaving for New Zealand, Masood made clear he would “always choose” quarantining in New Zealand over England, simply because now that the squad is out, there no longer remains a need to maintain any bio-secure bubble, given there are no active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand.
“We collectively accepted this challenge,” Masood said during a virtual media interaction. “Spending 14 days to yourself, never leaving the room, is not easy. But it’s upon the individual to look at everything from a positive slant. What helped was knowing that unlike England, there’s no bio-secure bubble once we got out of quarantine. So we could live like normal people, and enjoy our life outside of cricket. It was a challenge, but now we’re looking ahead.
“If I was given the choice of staying in a bubble like we did in England or quarantine the way we did in New Zealand, I’d always opt for the New Zealand option. There’s life outside of cricket as well, and while we spent a difficult time in quarantine, the reward we get is not only do we get to play cricket, we also get a normal life away from cricket, and get to roam around freely.
“We used to talk to each other on video call a lot. We had a little bit of time in fresh air. We just tried to encourage each other to bide the time in quarantine and we had good cricket to look forward to at the end of the day.”
If there were concerns in New Zealand that Pakistan might not have respected their tikanga (customs and protocols) during isolation, Masood’s remarks should go a long way towards easing some of those tensions. Pakistan will, during the rest of the time they are in New Zealand, enjoy a level of freedom they would have in precious few places around the world, and certainly not back home, where Covid-19 is fiercely resurgent once more.
By contrast, in New Zealand, they are no longer required to socially distance, wear masks, or take most of the precautions that have become second nature in the vast majority of nations around the world. That this is acknowledged, and appreciated, by Pakistan should serve as an olive branch following a somewhat tense start to the tour.
Masood did acknowledge quarantine wasn’t especially easy on the mind, but dismissed concerns that a couple of weeks locked away in a room might significantly impact their ability to perform at the highest level.
“What you do for years doesn’t disappear in 14 days as a cricketer,” he said. “Your skills and fitness levels, which you’ve worked on for years, aren’t too impacted by 14 days away. There is of course a bit of rustiness but the Test side, thankfully, gets a little bit extra time as well as a game against New Zealand ‘A’. The T20 side is also practicing; they just had an intra-squad match today. We’re professionals and have been playing cricket since the England tour. These two weeks might be a blessing in disguise, in that players might get the extra little bit of rest.
“Whenever you play a sport at the highest level, maintaining your mental health is paramount. In one’s usual life, too, sometimes staying in control of your mental health is a challenge. As a nation, we need to take mental health far more seriously than we do.”
Ultimately, however, one can only say so much about sitting in a room with counting down the days. Masood reverted to talking about the reason he was there putting up with all this in the first place – the actual cricket Pakistan have gone to play against a side, that, if the first Test against West Indies is anything to go by, will pose an exceptionally stern challenge. Over the past five years, New Zealand have hovered around the top of the table in the Test rankings, a place that Pakistan occupied not so long ago. The visitors, however, sit in seventh place now, but Masood insisted that wasn’t a true reflection of their abilities.
“Cricket is cyclical, and it wasn’t so long ago that Pakistan was number one in Test cricket. There have been a lot of changes in our Test cricket over the years. We’ve just got a new captain. Teams are put together and then they have to rebuild, and I think we might be going through that rebuilding phase right now. In England, we really gave England a run for their money. The Manchester Test, where we couldn’t end up getting over the line, ended up deciding the whole tour.”
The fences have been mended and the niceties are out of the way. Having run the clock down on a challenging few weeks of late, Pakistan can look forward to turning the clock back and enjoying what was taken for granted until this year: just a regular cricket tour with little else to worry about.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000