PT Barnum, serial entrepreneur and owner of a travelling circus, offered the best advice to anybody considering retirement. ‘Always leave them wanting more,’ said Barnum, a man who understood how to win a crowd. In professional sport, timing when you exit the limelight and condemn yourself to the shadows is particularly hard. It is harder still if you are the ringmaster of the travelling circus called the Pakistan cricket team.
For a moment, pity the man Misbah-ul-Haq. You wait until your thirties to establish yourself in the Test team, and it is only after your national team is in desperate shame and exile that you are appointed captain. ‘Here’s a steaming turd,’ say your cricket board, ‘we need you to polish it.’ Up to then your claim to fame is an adventurous shot that loses a world final against your country’s bitter rivals. You are a man of honour and integrity. You want to restore your country’s fortunes. In the face of lazy curses about ‘that shot’ you take the job of polisher in chief.
Now, what happens next is an utter mystery. Instead of disintegrating and disappearing to the woeful level of Bermuda, the United States, or other such obscure cricket outpost, your country rises and keeps rising, in Test cricket at least. This rise is in no small part down to you, your commitment, your personality, and your skill. Many times you stand alone against the opposition. A superhero known as Captain Pakistan or CaptainMisbahPK, since on Twitter you attach the words that mean most to you to your name. ‘Captain’ and ‘Pakistan’, these words sum you up. But many people still don’t like it. ‘You can’t polish a turd,’ they say, but you are doing it. You are doing it so well that you make fools of your critics. They don’t like your selections. Your team performs. They don’t like your tactics, your ‘negative’ mindset and slow batting. You make the fastest Test hundred. They don’t like your success. You make your country number one in the world. You don’t rub their faces in it. Instead you are humble and you manage a dignified smile.
You are already 42, a number that is by some accounts the answer to life, the universe, and everything. You really shouldn’t be playing anymore but you are. You should retire now, on a high, but you don’t. You are still performing, although less frequently. And this is all acceptable while your team is winning. But then it loses. Again and again. Six times in a row, a record number of consecutive defeats, five of them under your leadership. Your selections and your tactics look wrong. Only half the batsmen have remembered how to bat. The bowlers have forgotten how to bowl. The fielders never knew how to do it. Your country is playing in a land where it has never won a Test series. What difference do a captain’s decisions make when a team stops performing in Australia? Aggressive captaincy and defensive captaincy are both ways to win, but only if enough of your players perform. If most players don’t perform then your captaincy is irrelevant.
But it isn’t the loss to Australia that damages you the most. It is the run. Losing to West Indies and then in New Zealand are the defeats that really hurt, teams that the number one team in the world can’t lose to. It feels like the end of an era even before you land in Australia. Nonetheless, you are there, fighting for your team, your people, and your country. You see it as your unshakeable duty but you fight in vain. Your critics are dancing on the grave of your losses. You gave everything to the cause. You sweated blood and grew a beard to stroke in moments of despair. Yet these six losses are undoing your inhuman sacrifice of the last six years. You are 42. Your form is gone. CaptainMisbahPK can’t stand alone anymore. There is only one way this will go. Your form may flicker but your cricket life is in a fast fade.
You leave Australia, give up the Big Bash, to prepare for the PSL. You buy yourself time to think. Should you stay or should you go now? There are questions to ask yourself. Does your own form earn its place in the team? Even if it returns how long can it possibly last for? Is there a successor to your captaincy? The answers, for once, are simple. Your form is gone. If it comes back, it won’t be for long. In Younis Khan and Azhar Ali, your team possesses elder and younger torchbearers for Pakistan cricket. The answers are simple, but in the near distance of your mind is a tour of the West Indies. A temptation. Low hanging fruit to feed your farewell party.
There is only one decision to make. Is it now or after the West Indies tour? Pity the man Misbah-ul-Haq. ‘Captain’ and ‘Pakistan’ attached to his name and his nature, these words imprinted on his soul. He must let one go to serve the other. He must leave them wanting more. Misbah-ul-Haq, captain of Pakistan, it is time enough for you to retire. Put down your cap and walk away with your pride. When the ringmaster is gone, the travelling circus of life rolls on without you.
Published in Dawn January 17th, 2017