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Last man standing

October 27, 2013

By the time this article appears on these pages, the second Test between Pakistan and South Africa in Dubai must have entered its fifth and last day. It might be heading for a dull draw, or might end in a victory for either of the two teams. Or it might have already ended with Pakistan winning and taking the series 2-0 or SA rebounding to make it 1-1. Whatever the result of the Test, it will have no bearing or impact on certain unprecedented facts about Misbahul Haq’s captaincy.

Apart from the not-so-unique fact that he was elevated to become the Pakistan cricket team’s captain at a time when Pakistan’s cricket was under tremendous stress due to some infamous match-fixing episodes and vicious in-fighting, Misbah has gone ahead to set a record of sorts that is (surprisingly) not talked about.

Vehemently criticised by the many fans of the game and so-called experts in Pakistan for being too defensive in his batting and captaincy, Misbah has actually become the backbone of the team’s fragile batting line-up and its most prolific scorer, retaining a batting average of over 50 in the last one year or so.

A stylish right-handed batsman with a classical, old-school approach to batting, Misbah also has the ability to suddenly switch gears and apply almost all the innovations modern-day batsmen have concocted, especially in ODI and T20 games.

Though he made his Test debut in 2001, Misbah soon lost his form and place in the team. But in spite of the fact that he regained his form and scored heavily in the domestic circuit, he could not find a permanent place in the Test side till he was again given a chance in 2007 at the age of 33.

Former Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Shaheryar Khan, wrote in his most recent book that Misbah was consciously kept out of the side by dashing middle-order batsman, Inzimamul Haq, who was Pakistan’s captain from 2003 till 2007.

According to Khan, Inzimam (who rose to stardom from a humble family background), was not comfortable with the fact that Misbah was one of the most educated players in the circuit (he’s an MBA); something Inzimam thought could undermine his captaincy.

A report that appeared two months ago in a respected Urdu daily suggested that another reason Inzimam was not all that enthusiastic about Misbah’s return, was because Misbah was unwilling to participate in Inzimam’s tactic of using religion to instill discipline in the team and gain unquestioning loyalty from his players.

Nevertheless, the moment Inzimam retired in 2007, Misbah was at once recalled by the new captain, Shoaib Malik.

Though now aged 33, Misbah managed to become a solid mainstay of the team in all the formats of the game.

However, three years later he once again lost form and was discarded. It is quite possible that Misbah would have remained out had the team not been rocked by notorious match-fixing scandals in 2010 and vicious in-fighting between groupings headed by former captains, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi.

It was during this turmoil that the now 37-year-old Misbah was made captain. The year was 2011. Apart from having to prove that he was still good enough to become a permanent member of the team, he was asked to head a squad riddled with groupings, inner squabbles, controversies and the fact that Pakistan had been unable to play at home ever since 2009 because no team was willing to tour the country due to the increasingly precarious security concerns in the country.

Unlike some of the most successful former captains of Pakistan, such as Hafeez Kardar, Mushtaq Muhammad and Imran Khan, who were aggressive, outspoken and dictatorial in their approach, Misbah was quite the opposite.

He was quiet, extremely private, reserved and painfully introverted (but with a dry sense of humour). Not many saw him surviving as captain in a volatile team like Pakistan and yet, it was his quiet demeanour and the ever-growing habit of leading from the front (as a batsman), that eventually restored the much needed calm and order in the team.

But since cricket fans and media in Pakistan are as volatile as Pakistan’s cricket teams, Misbah’s enigmatic persona and quiet disposition actually ended up having a polarising effect. Not in the team, but on those around it.

There are fanatical Misbah fans and then there are those who simply refuse to recognise him as a genuine cricketing item, criticising him for being too defensive and undemonstrative.

But these traits have actually worked for him. Beyond the media and the fans, insiders who are close to the team have repeatedly told this writer that Misbah has actually managed to command tremendous respect from his players, an occurrence that has always eluded most Pakistani captains.

Apart from rising to become one of the team’s most dependable batsmen and a player who is actually getting better with age (he’ll turn 40 next year), Misbah has created an unprecedented record of sorts as skipper.

He is the only long-standing captain in the history of the game who has never led a Test side at home. He’s never had the benefit of what in cricket is called a home advantage where you play on grounds, pitches, surroundings and cities you are most familiar with.

Even the most successful Pakistani captains won a bulk of their games at home. And yet, Misbah, who has thus far led all of his 23 Tests as captain on foreign grounds and countries, is just three wins away from the record of 14 wins each by Imran Khan and Javed Miandad and one away from Wasim Akram’s 12.

But Misbah has won 11 out of the 23 Tests that he has captained (all on foreign grounds and conditions), whereas Imran needed 48 and Miandad 34 Tests respectively to notch their 14 wins.

What’s more, he is also a war time skipper. Captain of a side whose country has been in a state of a vicious civil war between the state and extremists, and where no foreign side has visited ever since 2009.

In all this commotion, Misbah has continued to carry himself as a guarded diplomat who is almost entirely undemonstrative about his politics and religiosity and simply refuses to let the reactive, knee-jerk criticism that comes his way to jar his apparently steely nerves.

Without many even noticing this, Misbah may as well be on his way of becoming one of the most successful Test captains in Pakistan.