Pakistani cricket fans, experts and analysts are divided in two groups on their opinion on Misbah–ul–Haq, the batsman.
Sarfraz Nawaz reflected the sentiments of one group on 14th June 2013: “His (Misbah’s) overly defensive batting puts his colleagues under pressure, which indirectly results (in) loss of wickets”.
For this group, everything wrong, bad and sometimes even evil about Pakistan cricket, boils down to Misbah-ul-Haq. It is the amount of negative energy he transmits into the veins of the entire team that is termed as slow death. From the team’s ever sliding run rate, to the miseries of the otherwise talented and free flowing opening batsmen; Misbah is to be blamed for all.
Meanwhile, Wasim Akram echoed the emotion of the second group on 17th June 2013: “I think Misbah has been our best batsman in recent times…if Misbah had not stood his ground, the way this team batted it could have been bowled out for scores of 30.”
Misbah’s supporters view him as the backbone of a defunct batting order, devoid of talent. He normally comes in amidst a batting collapse and has no choice but to anchor the ship before it sinks. He is willing to be crucified for the salvation of his team; Misbah is the savior of Pakistan cricket in its most difficult period.
After making his debut in 2001 and putting in mixed performances in Test and ODIs, Misbah continued with glittering success in the relative obscurity of domestic cricket until his return to the international circuit in 2007 when he illuminated the inaugural World T20 in South Africa with his swashbuckling abilities and undeterred nerves. Today, almost six years later, even for the most ardent Misbah fan, the second coming of an assertive and dynamic batsman is a fading memory.
Is it the aging process? Is it the burden of captaincy or a fragile batting line up? Or is it the lack of capability? Maybe, his 2007 T20 resurgence was just a flash in the pan?
A typically unflappable Misbah has his own opinion on the evolution of his approach to batting in the middle order of Pakistan.
On 13th May 2013 Misbah stated: “In 2007 my role in the team was a different one. As a no. 6 batsman, I was aggressive in the presence of Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan - who were taking most of the responsibility to play out all the overs and keep rotating the strike. But with Yousuf being dropped, it was a huge gap to fill, and the responsibility came on me. I was given a role when I led the team after the spot-fixing fiasco: to stay in the middle till the end. And this is the reason for the phase when I held my shots and didn't play to my strengths. When you play like this, you lose your confidence and can't give your best. But now I have given this approach a rethink and have decided to return to my natural game.”
Let’s not make sweeping statements for once and put Misbah’s own self analysis through the acid test.
Misbah, from 2007 – 2010, Mohammad Yousuf was still a part of the ODI setup.
Matches: 46, Runs: 1249, Average: 37.85, Strike Rate: 84.74
Misbah, from 2010 – 2013, Mohammad Yousuf was not a part of the ODI setup.
Matches: 67, Runs: 2265, Average: 50.33, Strike Rate: 69.14
Misbah’s self assessment is backed well by his numbers, though, the man he is trying to replace played in the same batting positions of number four and five but was able to score three centuries during the years both of them played for Pakistan. In that time frame, Yousuf was scoring at an average of 45.53 with a strike rate of 78.72. Also a slow starter, once set, runs would flow from his bat with elegance and the scoreboard kept ticking.
This helped the relatively inexperienced players like Misbah to play freely without feeling the heat. It is the job of senior players to make things easier for their juniors and groom them to handle the pressures of international cricket. This is one area that Misbah has been criticized for most. Even when he gets into the groove, he is unable to pick the pace and inject the all important impetus in the innings.
The hallmark of a great batsman is not just what he achieves with his own numbers, but also what he brings to the crease for his partner at the other end. The likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Javed Miandad were the masters of this trade and in their presence the value of rotating the strike could never be undermined in the Pakistani middle order.
Misbah has vowed to return to his natural game, which according to his own observation was an aggressive one till he had to change it when Yousuf’s career was brought to an abrupt and unceremonious end in 2010.
The winning captain of the Faysal Bank T-20 cup this year, Misbah was also the tournament’s highest run getter with an average of 103 and a strike rate of 140.13. He will take Faisalabad Wolves to the fifth edition of the Champions League T-20 hosted by India in September. Furthermore, a run chase in the President’s Cup indicated that his batting has more gears than the two he has grown accustomed to engage when he shifts out of neutral; first or top.
This summer, the only ODI Pakistan lost in West Indies was the one in which Misbah did not score a half century. He scored 260 runs in five games at a healthy average of 65 but a typically modest strike rate of 63.41, numbers deservingly earning him the man of the series award.
However, the fourth ODI in the West Indies portrays the problems he is still facing in bringing his “A” game to the international stage, or, by his own definition, his ‘natural one’. His innings was categorised in two distinct parts, one before the rain where he scored three runs off eight balls and the other after the rain making 14 off the next eight. It’s hypothetical, but, if rain had not reduced play to a 29-over contest the first part of his innings might have lasted a little longer, irritating his opponents and annoying a lot of Pakistani fans.
A score of 262 appeared very distant for a batting order prone to crumble in pursuit but with a shortened game it seemed that suddenly the weight of the world was taken off Misbah’s shoulders. He did not need to worry about batting a quota of 50 overs; more importantly, he knew his team would not have to either.
It was not about his trademark slog over mid-on to break the shackles. His innings had the momentum he so dearly desires and is very capable of; running 35 of his 53 runs between the wickets while maintaining a strike rate of 123.25.
In Misbah’s own words “I do assess the criticism but also evaluate if there is any hidden interest behind it. If it's a logical and fair point, I do consider it and try to address it on the field.”
Whether he is slow death or Pakistan’s saviour is a matter of perspective, but, Misbah appears to be clearly aware of the approach that he has consciously adopted. To some, it may seem that he is unable to adapt to the situation during matches, though, by his own calculation he has intentionally curbed his natural instinct and altered his game to fit the requirement of his team.
For Misbah, it has not been a question of limited ability but a matter of choice within a given environment. Currently, being the best batsman in the country gives Misbah the liberty and luxury to choose his own path. One can only hope that it does more good to his team than it causes harm and ultimately contributes to more silverware for Pakistan.