Recently a respected British newspaper declared Pakistan’s Misbahul Haq as the best contemporary Test captain in the cricket-playing world.
As captain Misbah-ul-Haq has been unique. He might also be the modern-day game’s first ‘war-time captain’.
When he was recalled to the Pakistan side and handed over the captaincy in 2011, the country was in the midst of an existential crisis. Extremist terror outfits were bombing mosques, markets and shrines, unabashedly downing civilians, cops and soldiers.
Apart from good, consistent cricket, the skipper must have leadership skills found in a military general or in a political leader
The country stood on the brink of a war that today has come to pass; a war that is now actually promising a safer Pakistan.
But back in 2011, Pakistan was staring into the abyss. Its rulers, military and polity were unsure how to contain the rampaging monsters of militancy, extremism, corruption and crime. The country was also facing growing international isolation. For example, no Test side was willing to tour Pakistan after the Sri Lankan team was attacked in Lahore by militants in 2009.
Misbah has never led the Pakistan cricket team in Pakistan. He’s never had what in cricket is called ‘the home advantage’. Ever since 2009, most of Pakistan’s ‘home series’ have taken place in the UAE.
More than in any other sport, in cricket, teams have to do well on foreign tours and in front of foreign crowds, to fully prove their mantle. That’s what the Pakistan team has been doing ever since 2009 but especially after Misbah took up the captaincy in 2011.
All of Misbah’s games as captain have been played, won, lost and drawn on foreign soil.
The irony of it all is that Misbah, who today has risen to become Pakistan’s most successful Test captain, was not even in the team when he was hastily made captain!
When he was given the captaincy, he was making his third comeback to the side and that too at the ripe old age of 36 an age when most international cricketers either retire or start thinking about retirement.
He had made his debut for the national squad in 2001, but lost his place (due to loss of form) in 2002.
However, despite the fact that he continued to perform well in the domestic circuit, he could not break back into the side till years later when he was finally recalled in 2007.
He almost became a hero in his first comeback event, the T20 World Cup in South Africa. And what a comeback it was.
Misbah’s batting helped Pakistan reach the finals.
He almost turned the final (against India) on its head. Pakistan’s batting collapsed while chasing the Indian score. But Misbah held his nerve and then began smashing the Indian bowling attack to all parts of the stadium, getting Pakistan ever so close to a stunning victory, but only to get out in the very last over.
Alas, in 2010 he lost form again, and also his place in the side.
Between the retirement of former Pakistan skipper, Inzamam (in 2007), and Misbah’s elevation to the post of captain in 2011, the team went through five captains!
The team could not play at home, because that home kept plunging into extremist violence and political turmoil. During this testing period, the squad was also being torn apart by continuous infighting, players’ rebellions and charges of spot-fixing.
What’s more, when a bewildered Pakistan cricket board decided to hand over the captaincy to Misbah, he was still struggling to gain the kind of form required to play international cricket.
It was a temporary arrangement. He was asked to be a caretaker of sorts till the board could come up with a more permanent candidate for the captaincy. But this is when Misbah began to play his best cricket.
After consolidating his place in the team again as a solid middle-order batsman, Misbah slowly began to peel off whatever that was left of the culture weaved by Inzamam’s four-year-captaincy stint (2003-2007).
Under Misbah cricket alone became the thing with which to measure a player’s worth. He also tried to subdue the team’s reputation of being frustratingly unpredictable and impulsive by encouraging a more watchful, planned and cautious approach towards the game.
He was fervently criticised for this by critics and fans alike. But quietly he managed to pull the team together and out of its existential doldrums and inspired its slow march upwards in world rankings.
But Misbah’s steady approach and tactics not only supported the curbing of flashy cricketing skills (because they smacked of recklessness), they consequentially made the role of spinners more prominent in the team than that of the quick bowlers.
This was a clear break from the past. The fast bowlers had been in the forefront of Pakistani attacks ever since the mid-1980s. Under Misbah, the spinners took precedence, and this precedence saw him introduce one of the finest and most innovative off-spinners in the game: Saeed Ajmal.
Under Misbah, Ajmal became the team’s main strike bowler. Batsmen exhibiting patience and good technique were preferred and encouraged (Asad Shafique, Azhar Ali), even though, the bulk of the batting load was largely shared between Misbah and the team’s other old warhorse, Younis Khan.
Ever so slowly but surely, Misbah’s tactics began to bear fruit. However, on the way, he also managed to gather some exceedingly vocal critics who seemed enormously disturbed by his curious, cautious attitude and the way he was dismantling the team culture designed by Inzamam and then by the short-term captains that had followed Inzamam in quick succession.
Teams under good and influential captains begin to reflect the personality of that person. Mushtaq Mohammad and Imran Khan’s teams reflected the flamboyant and intrepid ways of their captains, and same can be said about the team under Wasim Akram.
Like Inzamam’s personality, the team culture under him too had become reticent and contrary: socially introverted, but exhibitionistic in matters of the faith, even though as a batsman he was extremely flamboyant.
The team under Misbah evolved a more stoic and determined dimension. Like Misbah, the team did not wear its faith on its sleeves. Faith once again became a strictly private matter in Pakistan cricket.
Misbah’s team was neither as colourful as the teams under Mushtaq and Imran, nor anything like what it had become during Inzi’s captaincy.
By 2013, Misbah had plucked more Test and ODI victories than most Pakistani captains.
Two years later in 2015, he finally overtook the joint Test captaincy record of former greats, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, to become the Pakistani Test captain with the most wins.
His batting average as a captain has remained to be over 50, and he has notched up more fifties and hundreds as a skipper than he was able to during any other stage in his career as a batsman.
It won’t be incorrect to suggest that with a stoic, quiet but stubborn determination, Misbah has admiringly faced a number of some unprecedented challenges.
The kind of circumstances he as a captain was faced with, such as cricketing controversies that he was never a part of, and the violence and turmoil in his country that threw Pakistan cricket into exile he had to beat much bigger odds to become a great captain compared to those faced by his contemporaries in the country’s elite group of captains.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 23rd, 2015
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