“Most captains and cricketers improve their records at home, on grounds that they played their initial cricket on and in front of home crowds,” sighs the enigmatic Pakistan cricket captain, Misbah-ul-Haq.
He is talking to me in a secluded corner of the hotel where the Pakistan team was staying during the recently concluded Test match against Sri Lanka in Dubai.
The team is now getting ready to travel to Sharjah for the third and last Test of the series.
Misbah is rueing the fact that he hasn’t been able to captain the Pakistan side in a Test in Pakistan. No team has been willing to tour the country after the bizarre 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan side in Lahore.
Ever since he was made the captain in late 2011, Misbah has captained the side in 26 Tests, all on foreign soil. He’s won 11 of these and lost seven.
“More than half of my side has never played for Pakistan in Pakistan,” he laments. “We have continuously been playing abroad for years now. Apart from players like Younis, Hafeez and I, most of the players in the side today have no idea what it means to play international cricket at home.”
Though, ever since he got the captaincy he has continued to be Pakistan’s leading run-scorer, Misbah has also managed to gather a number of critics.
Most of them believe he is too defensive as a captain, and that he goes into a shell too often while batting. But interestingly, his record as a captain and batsman in the last three years actually contradicts such criticism.
“I do not mind constructive criticism,” he claims. “But it should remain within the boundaries of the ethics and values that I exhibit towards my critics. There is only so much one can tolerate.”
A lot of criticism that has come his way is indeed misplaced, if not entirely wrong. He was made the captain when the team was in total disarray. After former captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq’s retirement in 2007, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had to change five captains until finally settling for Misbah.
Shoaib Malik replaced Inzamam but lost form and influence and was replaced by Mohammad Yousuf, who, though a stylish stroke-maker, was never captaincy material.
Solid middle-order batsman, Younis Khan, became the new skipper but resigned within a year, allegedly due to a players’ rebellion against him.
He was replaced by the temperamental all-rounder, Shahid Afridi, who retired from Test cricket after leading Pakistan in just a single Test. Opener, Salman Butt was made Pakistan’s fifth Test captain in a rocky span of just two years, but he was fired after being caught dealing with shady spot-fixers.
Making his debut at the age of 26, Misbah soon lost his form and place in the side just before the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.
After the event, captain, Waqar Younis, along with his legendary fast bowling partner, Wasim Akram, retired from the game, and a number of established players were dropped due to the team’s horrendous performance in the tournament.
Wicketkeeper, Rashid Latif replaced Waqar as captain but was soon replaced by the dashing stroke-maker, Inzamam-ul-Haq.
New spots and positions opened up and the selectors began to look for replacements. But, in spite of performing well in the domestic circuit, Misbah just couldn’t find his way back onto the side.
Misbah finally returned to the team in 2007 after spending four years in seclusion, at the age of 33.
Former Chairman of the PCB and diplomat, Shaharyar Khan, wrote in his most recent book that Misbah’s return to the squad was blocked by Inzamam.
According to Khan, Misbah was far more educated than Inzamam and had a better cricketing brain. This threatened Inzamam who was very insecure about his captaincy.
Then, early last year a leading Urdu daily alleged that Inzamam, who was trying to change the culture of the team by infusing a particular brand of Islam into the squad, kept Misbah out because he knew Misbah would never have toed the new line.
I asked Misbah about his sudden disappearance from the scene and whether Shaharyar Khan was correct in stating what he did (in his book).
“It’s a matter of perceptions,” he answered, guardedly. “I personally want to believe that politics or whatever is not what kept me out of Inzamam’s team. I don’t think any captain would like to keep out a player he thinks would be good for the team. I think with Younis, Yousuf and Inzamam so well established in the middle-order, it was always tough for a middle-order batsman like me to break my way back into the team. Then, all-rounders like Shoaib Malik, Afridi and Razzaq were also part of the Test and ODI squads in those days.”
Misbah’s diplomacy in the matter is understandable. He’s still the captain of a volatile cricket team of an equally volatile country. But I did ask him what made Shaharyar Khan, a highly respected diplomat and cricket insider; say what he did about his (Misbah’s) exclusion from Inzamam’s team.
“As I said, it’s a matter of perceptions,” he repeated. “That is how Shaharyar Sahib saw things. That’s his perception. Inzamam, I am sure, he has his (perception) about the issue, and I have mine. But I would like to believe that it wasn’t politics that kept me out.”
Sensing his hesitation to commit himself any further to the topic, I return to talk about his present-day critics.
During the Dubai Test, most of which I saw from the general stands, I noticed a genuine respect and admiration for Misbah by all sorts of folks who came to watch the game: Labourers, taxi drivers, young school kids.
It wasn’t the kind of raunchy, passionate reception players like Afridi get in this part of the world, it was something more subtle.
As the crowd saw Misbah yet again stand firm and try to stem the fall of wickets that usually stumble like nine pins around him, shouts of “Well done, Misbah,” “Jammahrai, Misbah” (stay there, Misbah), continued to echo around the stadium, even when he would just dab the ball for a single or two.
As he has gone on to accumulate big scores in Tests and ODIs, his fans have increased as well. In fact, he has also managed to attract some of his most vehement critics on to his side.
Former Pakistan captains and famous commentators, Ramiz Raja and Waqar Younis, both of whom had been critical of his captaincy in the past, were recently heard praising Misbah not only as a captain and batsman, but as a person as well.
Ramiz praised him for keeping things from spinning out of control with his calm and reserved disposition, whereas Waqar described him as being a thorough gentleman.
But, there still remain to be some former players who are not convinced. I asked Misbah that isn’t it strange that some former players, who understood the pressures of captaining a team like Pakistan, have continued to criticise him, considering the circumstances he was given the captaincy in?
“I always welcome criticism. I’m not afraid of being criticised. But sometimes when it becomes criticism for the sake of criticism, I begin to ignore it,” he explained.
What about his family, how do they cope with it?
Misbah breaks into a slight smile: “It’s tough for them.” But the smile slowly begins to fade as he continues: “My family members had actually suffered health issues due to the kind of things they sometimes have to hear about me. I have learned to ignore certain things, and I can escape all the talk by being on tours, but my family doesn’t always travel with me. They are sometimes hurt by what they hear on TV back home. They are a lot more sensitive to negative criticism than I am.”
Misbah is famous for absorbing all kinds of pressures on and off the field. Though known to be a very private, quiet and stoic man, he is also liked in the team for his dry sense of humour and subtle wit. Does this help him in handling pressure?
The smile returns: “I’ve always been this way. My love for the game has kept me going. I try never to quit. Thrice I lost my place in the side and thrice I came back, stronger than ever. One just needs to focus on the goals he or she has set for themselves, the rest takes its own course.”
So he keeps his wits about him?
“I have too. I have to make sure the team and I continue to enjoy playing the game.”
A year ago, Misbah lost the captaincy of Pakistan’s T20 side. He also lost his place in the T20 squad. The selectors believed that Misbah, now 39, was too old for the hectic pace of this format of the game.
And yet, he was the highest and fastest scoring batsman in the 2013 national T20 tournament. He was also in crackling form when he took his domestic T20 side, the Faisalabad Wolves, to India for the IPL, where he smashed 13 sixes in just two games. So, does he think he’s too old for T20?
“I believe I can still play all formats of the game,” he insists. “I enjoy playing T20 as much as I do Tests and ODIs. But when the selectors told me that my being in the T20 squad might be blocking the entry of some younger players, I stepped aside myself. I did it for the youngsters. But I am still available for the T20 format if the selectors believe I have a role to play there.”
Misbah was replaced by Mohammad Hafeez as the T20 captain. Hafeez has been Misbah’s vice captain in Tests and ODIs.
Last year when Pakistan was being taken to the cleaners by the South Africans in South Africa, media reports began to emerge about a possible rift between Misbah and Hafeez.
The charismatic former Australian captain and commentator, Ian Chappell, once said that behind every successful cricket captain, is a good vice captain.
There have been many examples of this in international cricket, and in Pakistan cricket too, some of the strongest captains have had solid (and loyal) vice captains.
Mushtaq Mohammad had Asif Iqbal; Imran Khan had Javed Miandad; Wasim Akram first had Waqar Younis and then the dependable, Moin Khan. Inzamam-ul-Haq had Younis Khan.
However, in most cases, these firm and successful partnerships ended in animosity between the skippers and their once loyal deputies.
At the end of his career, Mushtaq accused Asif Iqbal of underhandedly usurping the captaincy away from him (in 1979), whereas after Miandad finally replaced Imran as skipper in 1992, he accused the ex-captain of encouraging Wasim Akram to lead a players’ rebellion against him in 1993.
Akram himself was toppled in a players’ rebellion led by his vice captain, Waqar Younis, even though one of the rebelling players, Basit Ali, recently told cricket expert, Dr. Nauman Niaz, that the rebellion was mostly masterminded by leg-spinner, Mushtaq Ahmed.
When Inzamam retired, it was said that his vice captain, Younis Khan, had had a falling out with Inzamam during the latter’s twilight years as skipper.
Misbah has now become a deserving candidate for joining the ranks of other renowned Pakistani cricket captains such as Hafeez Kardar, Mushtaq Mohammad, Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram. And in Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah has found an able deputy, with a sharp cricketing brain.
But was the media right in pointing out that the pair was starting to experience the dreaded captain and vice captain fall-out?
“The whole episode was dreamt up in the minds of some journalists,” says Misbah, dismissively.
“There has always been very good understanding between Hafeez and myself. Even when we played domestic cricket together, we used to willingly let go of the captaincy for the benefit of the other. The media made Hafeez look like a man who was hungry for the captaincy and was willing to do anything to get it,” Misbah softly chuckled.
“Absolutely not!” says Misbah, his usually stable and steady stare getting a tad intense. “He never ran after captaincy and neither have I. We just like playing cricket. If, for example, tomorrow the selectors select me in the T20 squad, I will have no problem playing under his captaincy.”
As media reports about the rift began to become the main topic of sports shows on local TV channels, Misbah and Hafeez decided to hold a joint press conference to quash the rumours. They were largely successful and the rumour gradually faded away.
We now come back to how Misbah’s team has been forced to play all of their matches on foreign soil. I asked that though the UAE is said to have become a home away from home for the Pakistan cricket team, does the team feel the same way?
“Not really,” says Misbah. “I mean, we get good crowds of Pakistanis supporting us at the stadiums here, but it’s still another country. None of us can go to our real homes after the day’s play. We all have to go back to a hotel.”
What about the pitches? Does he have as much say in their preparation here as he would have had in Pakistan?
Misbah slowly shakes his head: “Unfortunately not. In Pakistan, a captain would personally know a groundsman and vice versa, and it would be easier for him to get the kind of a pitch that would truly help him gain what is called, the home advantage.
Here (in the UAE) sometimes I’m not even sure who is going to prepare the pitches. For example, I didn’t get the kind of pitches I was looking for against the South Africans and the Sri Lankans. Back home, the groundsman would fully understand the strengths of our bowling line-up and prepare pitches according to this understanding. Here, somehow, something gets lost in communication. For example, for the first and second Tests against the Lankans, I had asked for hard and bouncy pitches that would help our quick bowlers who hit the deck hard. These kind of pitches then go on to help spinners like Saeed (Ajmal) in the latter stages of the Test. Instead, we got pitches that had grass and seamed on the first day, but then totally flattened out. In the second Test, the Lankans won a crucial toss and bowled well on a seaming wicket.”
After going quiet for a bit, he added: “Maybe it was the uncharacteristic weather. It was colder and wetter than usual in the UAE this year. Conditions were good for swing and seam bowling. Our bowlers rely more on pace and bounce.”
At least twice, young Pakistani cricket fans tried to interrupt and asked Misbah for an autograph. He politely declined saying he was doing an interview.
Then one of the four main lifts in the hotel lobby opened and out came the team’s Australian coach, Dav Whatmore. With him were his wife, the team’s fielding coach, and physio.
After glancing at Misbah, they sat down on a nearby cluster of sofas, ready to leave for Sharjah. Moin came back through the front door with Misbah’s wife and they joined Whatmore and company.
But Misbah did not flinch even once. He stared at me again, waiting for another round of questions.
“All set for Sharjah?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders: “Yes. We are leaving today.”
As he said this, left-arm spinner, Abdur Rehman, and young opener, Shan Masood, arrived with their luggage as well. Both are expected to get their first games in the Test series in Sharjah.
I asked how the atmosphere in the team was these days. It had been highly volatile when he took over as captain, with infighting and the team tarnished by cases of spot-fixing.
“Things are settling,” he said. “But the team is quickly evolving. Lots of young players are coming in.”
Before Inzamam took over as captain in 2003, the Pakistan cricket teams were known for their flamboyant ways both on and off the field. Players were extremely outgoing and loved their bit of partying.
Things began to change in this respect under Inzamam. Introversion and inertia crept in and the players’ interaction with the other teams and with the cultures of the countries they were touring reduced drastically.
Things got even worse when Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were hurled up and kicked out for spot-fixing.
When Misbah took over, he was given a team harassed by the media, suspected by the ICC, and asked by the PCB to keep a low profile at all times.
Misbah agrees: “It was very tough. We would go straight to the hotel from the stadium, and stay there.”
What about now?
“It’s much better. We’ve given some good performances and a lot of youngsters have come in. Their presence has infused a lot of new energy into the team’s culture,” he smiles.
He also praises Moin Khan for this: “Ever since Moin’s appointment as Manager, we have become more outgoing. He comes from that era of Pakistan cricket when cricket was much more than just being about batting, bowling and fielding. He encourages the boys to interact more with other teams and go out for dinners and to events outside of cricket.”
Moin was made the Manager by PCB’s caretaker chief, Najam Sethi. Sethi, a well-known liberal journalist and TV anchor, was asked to head the PCB by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year.
But his powers were seriously curtailed by the Islamabad High Court. This meant his decision to name Moin as the new chief selector was reversed by the court. Sethi responded by making him the manager.
As Sethi waits to see whether he would be allowed more powers, Misbah does not appreciate the instability created by the court’s decision: “These sorts of things affect the team. You strike up a good working relationship with the management only to see it being neutralised.”
He seems to have struck a good relationship with Sethi and Moin. And he hopes things don’t take a drastic turn at the board level.
“A stable team requires a stable management,” he quips.
(Editor’s note: On January 15, Sethi was removed as PCB Chief by the Islamabad High Court. The Court reinstated Zaka Ashraf as PCB chairman, even though it had been the same court that had removed Ashraf).
Seeing the players slowly gathering in the lobby, I asked Misbah whether he’s had any players who have been tough to handle.
Captains in the past struggled to reign in highly talented but temperamental players such as the late Wasim Raja and Sarfraz Nawaz. Inzamam had no clue how to handle firebrands like Shoaib Akhtar.
“Not as such,” Misbah says. “The seniors are very professional and most of the team is still very young.”
I tell him how during an interview of his when he was captain; Imran had said that a captain has to get along with even those players he may detest as people, as long as the players were beneficial to the team’s cause.
“Exactly,” Misbah responded. “But I see it slightly differently. I see teams like being large, extended families with all kinds of people. They play, work and rejoice together, but they may also develop differences, just like in any family. But a family knows that it has to stick together to survive, and survive successfully. That’s how I see my team. We are a family of different individuals but with similar goals.”
It is quite apparent that Misbah has successfully won the loyalty and respect of the team.
He has a quiet but strong presence that demands a lot of physical and mental space around him, because no player or official attempted to even come close to the area where I was interviewing him.
It was only after he got up, shook my hand and bid farewell that the players who were there began to gravitate towards him.
The team and its captain may be in perpetual exile, but home seems to be the foremost thing on their minds. And each one of them knows, that though they have done relatively well abroad, their individual records and that of the team’s could have been twice as good had they also been playing on home grounds, in front of home crowds.
But till that comes about, Misbah will take whatever life throws at him as he grows into becoming Pakistan’s senior most cricketing statesman in a world that would not come to Pakistan.