Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq and South Africa’s Graeme Smith have gotten better with age but the pressure to win still looms ahead of their first Test match in Abu Dhabi.
A tale of two cricket captains heading in same direction
Last week Misbah-ul-Haq completed a remarkable milestone. On October 8, he marked three years as Pakistan’s Test captain.
It is doubtful he even knew of it, let alone afforded himself the tiniest bit of satisfaction.
Ask yourself how many Pakistan captains have been as embedded in the post as him.
How many have survived an overseas Test series whitewash? And then a big-tournament disaster? And then a Test loss to Zimbabwe?
He could still go on for a bit more. There is the slightest chance that he may not, of course, but this series against South Africa would have to be pretty catastrophic for that to happen.
Misbah would also probably have to bag two pairs and drop some catches. Also, the Pakistan Cricket Board would have to have a chairman in charge, a man who can actually take that decision.
Only the Future Tours Programme can remove him; after five Tests this winter, Pakistan’s next Test commitments are not until October 2014, when Misbah will be well over 40.
Asked in Abu Dhabi on Saturday whether he thought back then he would still be here now, facing the very same opponents, Misbah’s response was revealing both of his general outlook and of a broader strain in Pakistan cricket.
“In Pakistan you just can’t look forward so much that you will be there for three years or more, but you have to concentrate series to series and match to match,” he said. “This is how we go about it.”
Once the dust settles on Misbah’s tenure, the period might come to be remembered as the survivalist phase of Pakistan cricket, where each day on the field was a win in itself.
It is in the mould of Misbah’s career itself, an ode to living to see another day, good, bad, great or disastrous.
He is proud of it, too. “That’s been a good experience with this team. This bunch of guys have performed well,” he said.
“We were under a lot of pressure after what happened, but I think after that this team really kicked off and most of the young guys performed very well.
“Overall if you look at it, keeping in mind that we are not playing at home, not playing much cricket, I think this team is doing well.”
If Misbah feels like a lifetime in the job, his counterpart over the next couple of weeks, Graeme Smith, constitutes a rip in the space-time continuum.
A decade into the job, and almost as remarkable as Misbah’s continuing presence, is the fact of Smith’s growing, Deepak Chopra-esque Zen.
If these are the ravages of a decade of leadership, then let every human be so ravaged.
As he has grown older, Smith has become looser, freer somehow, and there is little doubt it has helped South Africa thrive.
They have not lost a series away from home since the summer of 2006, winning eight and drawing the rest.
And South Africa are, well, pretty chilled about that.
“We haven’t dwelled on any of sort of past experiences away from home, but I think every time you do overcome winning away from home, there’s a certain strength that you get as a team and as an individual,” Smith said.
“I think that’s a natural inner strength; sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on what that actually is.”
The contrast between the two sides is evident in so many little details, but that of the captains is difficult not to comment upon.
Pakistan, like Misbah, will have to survive through the two Tests, over by over, session by session, day by day.
South Africa, like Smith, are so relaxed and settled, so grooved that even an eight-month break from Test cricket does not seem a problem.
Until the practice game in Sharjah, Smith had not played any cricket since May; Jacques Kallis is also coming off an extensive break.
Yet, in their cases, you suspect it might actually help them even more.
Pakistan are in flux, harried as they search for even the briefest respite of stability. They have a strange staccato Test schedule, which has hampered their tightness and, in some cases, development.
They have a new opening pair. Two of their younger middle-order players are under a little pressure – unfairly, it must be said. They just lost a Test to Zimbabwe.
South Africa are making detailed plans about Pakistan’s bowlers, reminding each other how best to play spin, trying to scrounge together as much information about the left-arm spinner Zulfiqar Baber. They have fancy ice vests in place.
Pakistan? Saeed Ajmal wants to “take more and more wickets” and is “100 per cent confident”.
It is not as though one approach is right, or guarantees wins, and the other does not. It is just that the contrast is worth appreciating as backdrop.
The wickets will not be as dead as last time, certainly not in Dubai, where Tony Hemming has produced some good, even surfaces.
South Africa, arguably, are better-equipped to deal with whatever surface they are given. Pakistan are not as much a rabble as they were last time, but they are still pretty shook up after the loss in Zimbabwe.
Reason and sense points to a South Africa triumph. Everything else is just hope.