x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Misbah leads Pakistan through the calm after the storm

The Pakistan captain's quiet nature has helped bring stability to Pakistan cricket.

Misbah-ul-Haq, left, the Pakistan captain, talks with Mohsin Khan, centre, the Pakistan coach, and Umar Gul, right, during the Test match with Sri Lanka in Sharjah.
Misbah-ul-Haq, left, the Pakistan captain, talks with Mohsin Khan, centre, the Pakistan coach, and Umar Gul, right, during the Test match with Sri Lanka in Sharjah.

Until recently, I've not known what to make of Misbah-ul-Haq.

We're never sure how history will judge someone until they are done, but over the course of a career or life you can make out a tilt in one direction.

With Misbah, whose batting provides no clue - sharp and attuned one day, lethargic and disoriented the next - I've just not been able to decide.

To many he is the object of fervid boos; they complain he is a sifaarshi - compromised - selection in the first place (not knowing he scored nearly 4,000 runs at 47 between 2003 and 2007 when he was out of the side). They pin the blame for two high-profile defeats to India squarely on him, like acts of treason (overlooking two Test hundreds and an ice-cool 70 to finish an Asia Cup triumph as stand-in captain against them).

Those who do praise him trump for his innate calm. Former coaches note his sharp on-field thinking; Geoff Lawson, a fan, says Misbah solves problems analytically, not emotionally. It is this cold rationality, and his impassivity, I suspect, that riles people most and leaves the indifferent a little more indifferent.

You see, Misbah's real misfortune is that his rise to captain has coincided with the age of Shahid Afridi, a vibrant, expressive media-savvy charmer and a man of such colour it blinds you to what is really inside. Afridi has also led successfully in this time and he remains a people's captain, the anti-establishment rouser to Misbah's system lackey. Much of Pakistan embraces Afridi's irrationality without understanding what he is, and more after each ball bite, each pitch-spiking, each retirement and subsequent unretirement, each public spat.

Misbah, by contrast, is pheeka, or bland. To triumph or defeat, to boundary or dismissal, he gives no reaction and how can you love no emotion, no jazba (passion)? The one revealing image I recall is his sunken head, on his knees leaning against his bat, just after the shot that ended the 2007 World Twenty20 final. You cannot even see his face. So when Afridi agitated against Younis Khan's captaincy, people got over it. But when Misbah was part of a similar movement? Not forgotten.

The one expression he allows the world shows nothing, so you may as well be looking at a rock. Even as we chat, the eyes are lost elsewhere. "This nature is a little ... genetic. My father, family-wise ... it's inherited, a little to do with your background, how you grew up, your experiences," he explains, caught a little off guard.

Does he even get angry on the field?

He smiles slowly. "You do, everyone does, but when you've been playing for so long, you know if you get angry you're not going to improve anything."

When sportsmen speak of their rise, most do in casual, inevitable ways: 'I worked hard, played well, had some luck, got picked, bingo.' The work, sweat, details of elation and dejection, the dedication, goes uncaptured. It reduces the bigness of an achievement very, very few can contemplate.

Misbah is even more matter-of-fact, going from not playing the game to Pakistan selection in about ten minutes. The most noteworthy admission in what seems to have been a normal life is that he didn't play cricket seriously until well into his 20s.

He was a good schoolboy hockey player, as well as at that staple Pakistani recreation, table tennis. "Cricket in Mianwali was a lot of taped-tennis ball games," he recalls. "I played very little proper cricket.

"After college, some club cricket for Gymkhana, but not much. Then I went to Lahore and started with Servis club and Grade II Patron's cricket [a level below first-class cricket]. Even there, I played recreationally. It wasn't really a passion. I was studying alongside, but I liked playing so I kept going."

It did not become serious until after his Masters because his late father was not for sport. It was only after his passing, with Misbah in his teens, that his mother even encouraged him towards sport, insisting that he also study. "Around 1998, after my MBA, I had two choices: cricket or a career," he says. "I took a chance on cricket."

So began for Sargodha in February 1999, at nearly 25 years old, a most idiosyncratic career. For many years it looked set to be a common story of waste, like many scattered across the land, across generations. Just over two years later, following a season and half of prominence, he earned a Pakistan call-up. And for another three years, he tried and tried but never made it.

Then he went back. Pakistan's middle order acquired impregnability with Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis and Mohammad Yousuf and Misbah, we thought, would spend the rest of his time on the domestic circuit, frustrated and brooding like so many. Except he did not; he scored all those runs.

"The main driving force is your passion, specifically for the game," he says. "If you retain that, then even if you're playing club, you only get satisfaction when you perform. I enjoyed scoring runs in domestic as much as in internationals and I always, always wanted to be the top scorer."

Then, four years later at 33, selection again to play a young man's game. It was surprising not because he wasn't scoring runs, but because he'd been scoring so long unnoticed, his time had gone.

Then a really crazy three years when, in turn, he all but won a world title, became briefly Pakistan's best Test batsman, then vice-captain, did win a world title, was banished from all formats, re-selected a month later, dropped again a few months later. In October 2010 post-spot-fixing and with plans to retire, Misbah was called back. As Test captain, naturally. It is enough to twist the brain's blood and yet he stands sane, untwisted.

"When these times come, you mature, you learn. Of course you dream of playing for Pakistan and if I'd played earlier, I might've done more," he says. "But wherever, whenever you play, you forget what has gone and concentrate on the present. That's important."

Having seen three captains that year, he still didn't hesitate in accepting. "I didn't have any expectations. I was hopeful of coming back because they needed senior players. I'd been vice-captain before, captained domestically and was confident I'd be able to do a good job."

It is this last year which might define Misbah. As captain, little by little, not attractively but surely, he has prevented on-field disintegration. He has done it quietly, even politely.

As batsman, Misbah resides in the uncomfortable location between risk-taking and risk-averse that finishers must necessarily inhabit. As captain he is a pragmatist, most forcefully evoking Lawson's analysis of his problem-solving. So, as response to losing a quality new-ball attack once he took over, he has chosen the fairly unPakistani tactic of playing just two pacemen with two spinners in five of the ten Tests he has led. And he has known how to use spin; Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman have been instrumental in Pakistan's upturn.

After winning the first Test against New Zealand in January, Misbah refused to chase a gettable 274 in the second Test on the last day. He didn't want to risk defeat in pursuit, settling for a series win, a first in over four years. Even in his first series against South Africa, he identified a stalemate for a depleted team as triumph. The approach is not popular, but these are simple - and rational - calculations. And he has not lost a Test series from five, three of which they could have expected to lose.

"South Africa were a big team and our aim was, if we can't win then we should draw and we were successful," he says. "The motto in New Zealand was the same. We thought we could win. We went with that target, we won. The goals we have set as a team, players, mine, the team has responded pretty well and to an extent, we've achieved them."

If we are being honest, he has looked more comfortable than immediate predecessors. He doesn't let things drift as Inzamam did, he is not as unsure as Shoaib Malik, not as unstable as Younis, or as daunted as Yousuf. He is not Afridi as we've established, and looks more secure in the side than Salman Butt.

"You need cricketing sense, thinking about not just your batting or bowling, but the whole game," he says. "Experience helps. I've been lucky that since 2001, I captained domestically. You need stability to gain experience and get better. In decision-making, at every other level, the pressure isn't there. Here every decision is scrutinised. It's a place where the smallest decision has the heaviest meaning. In terms of pressure it is a different scenario."

The best is that - though it is hardly emancipated him - leadership has made him broader at the crease, more difficult to get past. He is averaging nearly 80, no stroke embodying the effect more than his forward defensive, stretching so far forward and down his bat face nearly touches turf as he kills the ball. It is a counter-argument stroke, throttling whatever comes at a man who wasn't even in the side when made captain. Don't get out; runs will come, prove the point.

"I've had this always, when conditions are difficult I perform," he says. "At school, club, when the match used to fall on me, I performed. In difficult times the pressure goes. It's natural for me.

"But because of the captaincy, the responsibility I've been given helps. It is trust being placed in you, they feel you are capable. The responsibility you have as a player anyway, but the confidence helps."

It is why his first Test as captain, the draw against South Africa - dull and dead to watchers - is special to him. "The pressure ... I didn't score runs first but made 76 in the second to help save it. That was such an important time for me as player, for the team. I can't forget that."

Brace yourself. Barring injury or something drastic between now and the end of the England series in February, Misbah will have led in 15 Tests straight. That is an unbroken run bettered only by Inzamam and Waqar Younis since as long ago as the days of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad.

How will he have produced this period of unimaginable stability? I'm still unsure. Moreover, how will he have managed it to a degree of success no one thought likely? He made his debut - smile at this thought - alongside Faisal Iqbal, Imran Farhat and Mohammad Sami and looked the least likely. Look at them now; look at him.

I met him during the drama of the last, dark days of the spot-fixing trial. The day that got messier, I took recourse in the recording of our meeting, his voice - one-toned, clean, earnest and endearing - like Maurice Ravel's Bolero to the war outside. Here I began to sense the tilt.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae