Misbah-ul-Haq — Rewriting Pakistan's story

Published November 17, 2014
Misbah is not dictatorial, yet commands authority. — AFP
Misbah is not dictatorial, yet commands authority. — AFP

Men gather in a room for what is to be a secret meeting. Out comes the Holy Quran, hands are placed on the sacred book and a solemn oath is taken; players revolt, resign and retire. Some conspire with the press, others refuse to pad-up and play in their required positions and a few intentionally under-perform. They are out to destroy your career.

Often, it is you playing against eleven in the opposition and five in your own team, while your administrators are waiting to give you the sack and bring in someone they favour at a given time. Gangsters and bookies threaten you and politicians befriend you. It is difficult to judge who a true friend is. Chances are there are few who you can trust. Alas, a 180 million people are also charging for your throat, as the media is having a field day at your expense.

Welcome to the world of Pakistan's cricket captain; the hottest chair in the country. Odds are that you will burn before you are comfortably seated.

In 1952, the first Pakistani team, built under the leadership of Abdul Hafeez Kardar, took the cricketing world by storm. However, it was soon followed by a long dry spell of unassertive cricket while Fazal Mahmood, Imtiaz Ahmed, Hanif Mohammad and Saeed Ahmed fought for captaincy. Each were embroiled in power politics, either as an offender or as a victim, in most cases both, depending on which side of the story was being told.

After Kardar, the next great captain and perhaps the first to have changed the Pakistani mindset was Mushtaq Mohammad. He made Pakistan bold and brash, the timid team under his predecessor Intikhab Alam, now stepped on the field not just to participate or avoid defeat, but to win.

Mushtaq’s men were not afraid to sledge back or stand tall against the mightiest; they turned a page in Pakistan cricket, to say the least.

However, like all Pakistani teams, it was power politics that was its undoing. Out of the men who played under Intikhab Alam’s captaincy as many as seven also captained Pakistan at some point; Mushtaq Mohammad, Javed Burki, Wasim Bari, Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas and finally Imran Khan.

 Celebrating captain Khan’s birthday.— Courtesy Photo
Celebrating captain Khan’s birthday.— Courtesy Photo

Imran brought to the fore a combination of Kardar’s aura and Mushtaq’s valor. Most importantly, at his side was a master tactician and the hardest nut of them all; Javed Miandad. Javed in his own right might have become a greater captain and actually holds a better record than Imran, but it was always Imran who was the natural leader of men.

With the 1992 World Cup glory, Imran arguably became Pakistan’s first captain to retire with complete dignity.

However, history soon repeated itself in a more brutal, ugly and disdainful form.

Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saleem Malik, Ramiz Raja, Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail and Moin Khan, all lay claim and became Test captains, multiple times. The team left behind by Imran in the 90’s was arguably Pakistan’s most talented bunch of cricketers, but clash of egos, infighting and the greed for power left it in tatters. A team that was full of individual brilliance and match winners, but a unit that consistently underperformed. It was as if the entire team was full of captains. Tragically, it often was.

 Too many captains in one pool. — Photo courtesy Rashid Latif’s archive.
Too many captains in one pool. — Photo courtesy Rashid Latif’s archive.

The gravest sin of them all, the loss of integrity had also seeped into its ranks; Pakistani national colors were now presumably also up for sale.

While Wasim Akram successfully captained Lancashire through the decade, he could never fulfill his potential for Pakistan. The golden-eyed prodigy of Imran Khan was in the thick of the rot that diseased Pakistan cricket at its root.

After a clean-up operation by chief selector Aamir Sohail in 2003, Inzamam-ul-Haq became captain of last resort. He was the ninth captain from the Imran's 'dream team'. Under Inzamam the team not just jelled as a unit on the field, but also on the prayer mat off it.

Head and shoulders above his teammates in experience, stature and performance, Inzamam commanded respect and became the leader few had ever expected him to be. Though, his lack of pro-activeness, tactical skills and cricketing acumen always brought about his undoing as captain.

With his departure Pakistan was once again at the crossroads it somehow always ends up at. More than half the team was wooing for the hot seat. Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik came up as immediate successors to Inzamam. Expectedly, they never saw eye-to-eye with one another.

The culture of internal team politics, seeded at the time of Kardar’s exit, had deteriorated to a level of profanity never seen before. Now the media was free and highly involved as well, and this 'reality show' provided more entertainment than fiction ever could; all at the cost of Pakistan cricket.

 Though successful in the five-day format, Shahid Afridi
Though successful in the five-day format, Shahid Afridi's patience with Test cricket ended with just one match as captain of the team. —Reuters

Afridi was brought in but retired from Test cricket after just one match as captain in 2010. Though he led the team to the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup, his clash with the then chairman Ijaz Butt led to his sacking. Salman Butt was then handed the helm of affairs by the controversial Ijaz Butt, this arguably led to Pakistan cricket’s lowest point.

Amid security concerns, no international cricket was being played in Pakistan. Captain of Pakistan along with its best fast bowling resources were put on trial in the United Kingdom on spot fixing charges; back home it was viewed as nothing less than treason. The fan base had drastically reduced, the nation had lost the trust of its players, and some of the most talented players of the country ended up in jail, facing a five-year cricket ban.


Misbah carves his path

Due to the lack of options, one more time a leader was unearth from an unlikely source. Misbah-ul-Haq was made captain in 2010. Today, four years later, in a drastic change of events, he is the most successful captain in Pakistan’s Test history.

There are so many records that Misbah and his men have broken in the last couple of weeks that it has become difficult to keep track off. Even the great Sir Vivian Richards has been taken to task by Misbah’s accolades. But the legacy of Misbah-ul-Haq goes far above statistics and beyond whitewashing England and Australia.

The stability Misbah has brought to Pakistan cricket is often spoken about and is said to be unparalleled, that too in its most turbulent time. To pinpoint his cohesion, five out of the top six batsmen that took the field against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi were the same that were there in Misbah’s first series as Test captain. The sixth (Taufeeq Umar) is waiting in the wings and is playing the second Test. Retaining your top six batsmen over a period of four years is an achievement of sorts for any Pakistan captain.

In Saeed Ajmal’s own admission, he was ready to quit cricket completely in 2009, but it was upon the encouragement and backing of Misbah that he continued to play. The rest as they say ‘is history’.

While all Pakistani captains have been marred by revolts, infighting and political turmoil, only Kardar, Imran and Inzamam were undisputed leaders of Pakistan cricket. Their reign, though, was of a patriarchal nature. No one would dare say anything to or against them. They selected teams at will and operated in great autonomy from the cricket board. Merit itself was subject to their personal likings, but by design their loyalty was never to be questioned; not by the fans, the cricket board and not least by the men they led.

However, Misbah is perhaps the only one who fits the category he has created for himself. He is not dictatorial, yet commands authority. He is not assertive, but provides surety to his men. He has earned the utmost respect of his players and the cricket board, not through an overpowering or overbearing presence, but through patience and his unfaltering calm demeanor. Not one revolt, not one controversy in over four years. Not even an enemy to show for.

On many occasions the forces in the cricket and media fraternity have tried stirring up rifts within team Misbah. But Misbah’s potential replacements, the likes of Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi were neutralised not by his clout in the administration, but out of sheer regard amongst his peers.

 Misbah’s honesty, dedication, and patience have served him well. — AFP
Misbah’s honesty, dedication, and patience have served him well. — AFP

In all, Pakistan has changed captains 65 times and 30 different men have led the Test side. That is more than one change in captain every year, including the years there was no cricket.

The hallmark of success for a Pakistani captain is his longevity. And in only four years Misbah has become Pakistan’s third most capped captain at 32 Test matches, only two behind Miandad. More so, he has done it with complete honour and grace within his ranks; virtues that have eluded almost all Pakistani captains.

It is difficult to compare captains across different eras; just statistics in isolation portray an incomplete picture. For example, the contribution rendered by Mushtaq Mohammad to Pakistan cricket is unparalleled, even by Imran Khan. Or the services of Kardar cannot be put in a win percentage column. Similarly, Misbah has earned a place of immortality in this list of great Pakistani captains.

Mohammad Yousuf recently said that the current Pakistani team is devoid of stars, of quality and of match winners. This highlights Misbah’s achievement even further. Team Misbah is full of players that have followed Misbah’s path; hardworking, focused and above all, extremely high on integrity. How Mohammad Amir, if and when he returns, fits into the side will be interesting but Misbah’s honesty, dedication, and patience have served him well, and there is a lot that the younger generation seemed to have learnt from him. Hopefully!

As for the general fan base of Pakistan, a large part of it still yearns for flamboyance, feeds on splendor and craves for the swagger that Pakistan cricket once was. And team Misbah lacks the glitter and glamour that Pakistani teams were previously famous for. Many would rather see Afridi hit sixes than Misbah grind for five days. However, there should be no reason stopping them from appreciating and enjoying both forms of play, as long as it brings more success to Pakistan.

Like most epic love stories, there is a tragic end to all great Pakistani teams. Misbah, like his predecessors has been unable to groom a successor and PCB will most likely falter in appointing one.

Misbah is 40 and the writing is on the wall. Ahmed Shehzad, Asad Shafiq, Azhar Ali, Mohammad Hafeez and even Sarfraz Ahmed could become Pakistan’s next captain. Odds are that because of the lack of surety to one, each one is already harboring ambitions. And going by historical records of Pakistani captains, each will strive and get a slice of the cake.

But all that can wait, for it seems Misbah isn’t done, not yet. He was the best batsman on Pakistan’s domestic circuit from 2003 to 2007. Inzamam-ul-Haq skippered 30 Test matches in that same period and Misbah could not find a spot in even one. Whispers of insecurity, social and sectarian differences and personal dislike have run through the grapevine for many years.

But Misbah has never openly spoken about it, like many other headlines, he keeps his emotions buried. Perhaps it will provide great material for an autobiography one day.

Inzamam retired in 2007, and later that same year Misbah returned to the ring. He was 33-years-old and had only played five Test matches over a three year period in 2001-2003. He had been absent at international stage for the last four years. The best part of his career could have easily been behind him. But extra ordinary men become exceptions to the rule, push human limits and break preconceived barriers.

Seven years later and 51 Test matches down, Misbah is among five batsmen in Pakistan’s history to boast an average of over 50. In his mind he seems to be only half way through his career. Every Test run makes him thirstier and every Test win adds to his hunger. Defying age, he looks fitter every day, making up for lost time.

The final chapter of his cricketing story lurks in the foreseeable future, but his current focus will be on the job at hand against the Kiwis. He is in the fast lane to glory and consciously aware enough to realise the importance of momentum.

The secret oaths, back stabbing friends, media leaking mates, ganging up group leaders and aspiring captains may need to wait a little bit longer, captain Misbah-ul-Haq is still in-charge.

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