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Misbah's story: How the almost forgotten cricketer rose to become an icon

Updated May 18, 2017 05:01pm
Photo: Cricing.org
Photo: Cricing.org

Misbah-ul-Haq’s cricketing story is quite remarkable. It almost reads like a plot of what would certainly make an engrossing film, or at least a TV series.

Today, sports writers from around the world are not only dishing out article upon article about him, publishers are also lining up to be the first to put out a Misbah biography.

Yet, it is only from 2015 onward that his story began to be told by these cricket pundits.

One reason why so many journalists and writers came this late to the party is that unlike most known cricketers who often cultivate and maintain ties with their favourite sets of journalists, the media folk found Misbah to be elusive and detached.

Throughout his career, he never had a pal or two in the media whom he could call to action if his chips were down or his image needed a boost.

Secondly, his story, now being repeated over and over again and further added upon, hardly ever came from him. It was mostly compiled from the words of those who played with and under him; or the bits and pieces he (painstakingly) allowed himself to reveal during the few interviews he agreed to give.

Considering he had become Pakistan’s most successful Test captain back in 2014, the interviews are few and far between.

Misbah became an ‘icon’ not too long ago. He wasn’t considered one when he was the captain, and not even when he went past the record number of wins once jointly-held by two former greats, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. Piling on the runs and almost single-handedly keeping intact a brittle batting line-up from falling apart — a task he was greatly aided in by another veteran, Younis Khan — also did not seem to be good enough.

Also read: Misbah: A great player. A leader of cricketers. A maker of men.

The fact that within six and a half years he gradually rose from being perhaps the most criticised (and misunderstood) Pakistan cricket captain to becoming one of the country’s most respected and loved sports icons is what makes his story so extraordinary.

Even more remarkable is how he managed to accomplish these feats after two discourteous ousters from the side, a long span in wilderness, and two comebacks — the last one as captain at the age of 36.

When Misbah made his Test debut in 2001 (against New Zealand) under Moin Khan’s captaincy, I thought his batting style was very 1980s. Those who played quality club cricket in that era like I did, would agree that most young batting aspirants of the 1980s, from Salim Malik and Rameez Raja to those who were playing for local clubs across Karachi and Lahore, were all trying to shape their batting styles in the manner of men such as Viv Richards, Javed Miandad and Majid Khan.

I was greatly impressed by Misbah when I first saw him as a Test player. I had no clue who he was, but he looked good. His defence was solid and yet, when he wanted to, he could strike the ball with immense power.

He had risen through the ranks in domestic cricket and was given five Tests between 2001 and 2003. He didn’t impress much, even though he did relatively well in the handful of ODIs which he played during his first two years as a member of the Pakistan team.

During a tri-nation ODI tournament in Kenya in 2002 (which included Australia, Pakistan and the hosts), Misbah smashed 139 runs in three games at an average of 69.50. The great fast bowler, Waqar Younis, who had replaced Moin as captain, was very impressed.

I remember, speaking to the press at the end of that tournament, Waqar had described Misbah as one for the future and a possible member of the squad which was to travel to South Africa for the 2003 World Cup.

Misbah in 2002. He had made his Test debut in 2001 and ODI debut in 2002. — Photo: Cricket Archive
Misbah in 2002. He had made his Test debut in 2001 and ODI debut in 2002. — Photo: Cricket Archive

During the 2002-3 series against Australia in which the mighty Aussies demolished Waqar’s side, Misbah was one of the many batting causalities. Then, in an ODI tournament in Sri Lanka just before the 2003 World Cup, he stroked a rapid 47 in the only innings he was required to bat, yet, he failed to make his way into the World Cup squad.

As usual, the media went about its business of asking why so-and-so was (or wasn’t) in the squad, but not once was Misbah’s name mentioned. This had surprised me. I thought he was rather good — at least in the ODI format. And then I forgot about him as well.

2002: The Aussies cut short Misbah’s already short Test career. — Photo: Reuters
2002: The Aussies cut short Misbah’s already short Test career. — Photo: Reuters

In January 2014, when I interviewed him for Dawn.com in Dubai, I had no memory of the fact that after Pakistan’s disastrous 2003 World Cup campaign, Misbah had actually returned to the side for Pakistan’s first series after the World Cup debacle.

Misbah had reminded me that he had played one Test and two ODIs against the visiting Bangladesh side in 2004, and one ODI against Zimbabwe the same year — before vanishing once again.

Sports journalist Hassan Cheema in a recent piece on Misbah’s ‘wilderness years’ (for ESPNCricinfo) wrote that age was one of the main reasons why Misbah was discarded. He had turned 30 in 2004 and Pakistan was looking for younger players after the 2003 World Cup catastrophe and the retirement of some its established stars.

This made sense, and yet Misbah never mentioned this in the long interview which he gave to me back in early 2014. But he did say (and what Cheema also states in his excellent article), that even after the retirements, the Pakistan team had managed to construct a very strong middle-order, especially under Inzamam-ul-Haq's captaincy. There was just no room for a struggling and inexperienced 30-year-old middle-order batsman.

But Misbah continued to play domestic cricket as Inzamam and coach, Bob Woolmer, went about reconstructing the Pakistan side, also changing the team’s cultural complexion by introducing a large dose of religiosity.

The current chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Shahryar Khan in his 2013 book, The Cricket Cauldron, openly alludes that Inzamam — who was not very educated and did not come from Pakistan cricket’s two main urban centres, Karachi and Lahore — did this as a way to reign-in the traditionally capricious and chaotic nature of the Pakistan cricket team and impose some sense of order in the dressing room.

In a 2005 news report in the country’s largest Urdu daily, Jang, the reporter quoted former ‘bad boy’ of Pakistan cricket, Shahid Afridi, as saying that he (Afridi) had decided to ‘mend his ways’ and that now no Pakistani player goes to nightclubs.

Those days are over, Afridi had told the Jang reporter. He then added: Instead, we now spend more time praying together.

Apparently, Woolmer backed Inzi’s policies, and former Pakistan cricket captain and current TV commentator, Rameez Raja, often remarked that Inzi’s idea of gaining respect and infusing discipline through religious ritualism was working.

The same 2005 Jang article also briefly mentioned that all this was keeping players such as Misbah and Saeed Ajmal out. The article did not elaborate exactly how.

Nevertheless, I remember when I read that piece I was surprised to learn that Misbah was still around. It was only recently through Cheema’s piece that I learned that at the time of the team’s ‘spiritual reformation’, Misbah was quietly leading the second-string Pakistan A side.

In his book, Shahyar Khan also claimed that even though Misbah had continued to nudge the selectors through some good performances in the domestic tournaments, Inzamam had blocked his entry. This was because he (Inzamam) was never likely to let in "a highly educated and urbane man" into the side who could eventually end up challenging Inzamam’s mandate as captain.

During my 2014 interview with Misbah, I had asked him whether Inzamam’s insecurities in this respect were a reason he (Misbah) was kept out from the side between 2004 and 2007.

Misbah had gone quiet for about 30 seconds or so when he heard this question. Then after managing half-a-smile, he told me that he can never imagine a captain would deliberately keep a good player out of his team due to personal reasons. He then explained that the Pakistan middle-order was just too full and strong at the time and it was this that kept him out.

After the interview (and off the record), I asked him if this really was the only reason behind his ouster. This time, he smiled widely and said: "At least, this is how I saw it and still see it. There may be other reasons, but they do not matter anymore."

But in January 2014, they did matter. The interview took place just before the start of the 3rd Test of Pakistan’s 2013-14 series against Sri Lanka. Pakistan were 1-down in the series and Misbah was continuously being lambasted for being ‘too defensive’ and ‘unimaginative’ by the usual talking heads on TV.

He was constantly being compared to the more attacking and flamboyant former captains, such as Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, and the street-smart Javed Miandad.

What’s more, some so-called experts had also claimed that he was behind the declining careers of the Inzi-era players, such as Abdul Razzaq and the stylish batting genius, Mohammad Yousuf.

He wasn’t, of course. They had lost their form, and instead of going back to the basics to regain it by playing domestic cricket (like Misbah had done), they had spent more time talking on TV, especially Yousuf.

Talking to Misbah at the team’s hotel in Dubai in January 2014. — Photo: Amber Paracha
Talking to Misbah at the team’s hotel in Dubai in January 2014. — Photo: Amber Paracha

Just a few metres away from us sat Uzma, Misbah’s wife. It was as if she was closely (but subtly) monitoring the situation. After all, till even after almost three years he was made captain, Misbah had given just a handful of interviews; in fact, he was hardly ever asked for one. So at the time, him being interviewed in detail was still something fairly new (for both).

Misbah spoke about how he was able to ignore all the incessant criticism, but what had hurt him the most was the manner in which it upset the two most important people in his life: His mother and his wife.

Misbah married Uzma in 2004. She is a cousin of his and like him, she too has a master’s degree. She is also a painting enthusiast and paints rather well. In his piece, Cheema quotes her as saying that between 2004 and 2007, they lived very self-effacingly.

Misbah earned rather moderate sums playing domestic cricket. He also managed to bag a position in the state-owned gas company the SNGPL mainly as a player in the organisation’s first-class cricket side. He often thought about giving up cricket for good and of finally making use of his MBA degree to bag a job in a multinational corporation.

But as Misbah mentioned in his speech at the end of his dramatic farewell Test on May 14, 2017, it was Uzma who encouraged him to stick to his dream of one day making it back into the Pakistan side.

Misbah marries Uzma, 2004. — Photo: Uzma Khan
Misbah marries Uzma, 2004. — Photo: Uzma Khan

As Misbah was travelling around Pakistan representing SNGPL in drab domestic tournaments, Uzma was commuting between home and the university where she was a master’s student.

When after two years of their marriage Misbah was still unable to break back into the side, Uzma told Cheema that she believed she was unlucky for him. Unlike the reserved and subtle Misbah, Uzma is more of an extrovert; more expressive and emotional and yet, as resolute and insightful as him.

In 2007, Misbah told Uzma to give him six more months; if he could not break back in to the Pakistan side (during this period), he will quit cricket and get a regular (and better paying) job. At the time, the couple had just Rs17,000 in their bank account.

Photo: Gulf News
Photo: Gulf News

The year before, a tiny window had opened for him to sneak back into the side when Inzamam was handed a one-match suspension (for forfeiting a Test in England). The side’s Vice-Captain, Younis Khan, was asked to lead the side at an ODI tournament in India (Champions Trophy).

In a May 12, 2017 article which Younis wrote, he revealed that when the team for the 2006 tournament was being picked, he had asked the selectors to include Misbah as Inzi’s replacement. Though it was to be a stop-gap arrangement, it would have at least given Misbah the chance to prove that he was still good enough to be in the senior side. But the selectors thought otherwise. Misbah was 33 and thus (they believed) too old for the ODI format. Younis, a mercurial character, was livid. He refused to lead the team saying he didn’t want to be a ‘dummy captain.’

Younis Khan in 2006. — Photo: Umer Farooq
Younis Khan in 2006. — Photo: Umer Farooq

Well, Inzamam returned and Misbah was again forgotten. But Inzamam, one of the finest stroke-makers the country has produced had to bow out in the most heart-wrenching manner when Pakistan were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. Pakistan lost its first two games including one against cricket minnows, Ireland.

Even sadder was the sudden demise of the team’s much respected coach, Bob Woolmer. The team was devastated. Inzamam immediately announced his retirement, despite the fact that he was still good enough to play for at least another two years or so. It was a sad end to a rather fruitful and memorable career.

Contrary to what had been portrayed by Ramiz and some other experts about the wonders of Inzamam’s new order, all had not been well in the team. Reports penned by team manager, Talat Ali, and the squad’s media manager during the 2007 World Cup, PJ Mir, were leaked.

In the leaked portions of the reports the managers (and later Shahryar Khan in his book), lamented that the team’s top two batsmen, Inzamam and Mohammad Yousuf and bowling coach, Mushtaq Ahmad, seemed more interested in going on preaching sprees (looking for possible converts) than in spending time in the nets and planning ahead for the matches.

Till 2006, Woolmer was quoted as saying that the infusion of religiosity in the side has helped a lot of players perform well. But in the leaked reports, he was being quoted as complaining that the team’s senior players were too preoccupied with religiosity and were not paying due attention to cricket.

Inzi bids farewell. — Photo: SportsBio
Inzi bids farewell. — Photo: SportsBio

The young all-rounder, Shoaib Malik, replaced Inzi as captain. After a series against Sri Lanka in Pakistan, Shoaib dropped a bomb just ahead of the inaugural 2007 T20 World Cup in South Africa. He asked the selectors to drop the veteran Mohammad Yousuf and bring in the 33-year-old (and long-discarded) Misbah-ul-Haq.

The selectors were dumbfounded. They had thought Misbah wasn’t good enough for ODIs, let alone for the frantic new T20 format. But Shoaib was clever. He knew the selectors and the cricket board could not afford another bust-up with a captain after what had happened in the West Indies. They reluctantly agreed to include Misbah in the squad.

Read further: Misbah’s choke lock

Eight years later in 2015, Malik told a reporter that even though the selectors were finding it difficult to justify Misbah’s inclusion to the media, he had played with him in local matches and knew well about his abilities to smash huge sixes.

Misbah celebrated his return in the most emphatic manner. Under pressure to justify his inclusion (at the expense of Yousuf’s exclusion), Misbah smashed 218 runs in seven games at an average of 54.50.

He helped Pakistan reach the final (against India); and then when it seemed the Indians had pushed Pakistan completely out of the game, he almost turned the tables by smacking some towering sixes to suddenly bring Pakistan within a stroke of victory.

But, alas, though he had constructed his innings by playing innovative strokes, he tried yet another such stroke (the scoop) to seal the game, only to be caught. Pakistan lost the match by just five runs. It was a bitter sweet return.

So near, and yet so far: Misbah is distraught at the 2007 T20 World Cup final, falling five runs short of what could have been a victory entirely orchestrated by him. — Photo: The Cricket Monthly
So near, and yet so far: Misbah is distraught at the 2007 T20 World Cup final, falling five runs short of what could have been a victory entirely orchestrated by him. — Photo: The Cricket Monthly

But a return it was. Soon Misbah also found his way back in the Test and ODI squads. He prospered with the bat in all formats and became a Pakistan regular, until two years later when he began suffering a gradual slump in form during the 2009 series against New Zealand. By the end of 2009-10 series against Australia, the form was gone.

The slump in Misbah’s form began during the series in which the visiting Sri Lankan side was attacked by terrorists in Lahore. The last Test was abandoned half-way and from then on no international team would be willing to tour Pakistan. The country had been completely engulfed by terrorism and political chaos.

Misbah lost his place in the side again.

He was at home contemplating taking out and dusting his MBA degree again when the country’s cricket starkly began to reflect the chaos that had erupted in Pakistan.

Malik had huffed out in 2008 and was replaced by Younis, who, despite leading Pakistan to victory in the 2009 T20 World Cup, also burst out the door, complaining that his players were losing games on purpose.

Afridi was made skipper, but he buckled, saying he was only interested in captaining the ODI and T20 sides. He retired from Test cricket.

Salman Butt became captain, but during the 2010 series in England, he enticed 18-year-old fast bowling prodigy, Muhmmad Aamir, and swing bowler, Mohammad Asif, to accept money from shady bookmakers. All three were caught and thrown in jail.

The Sri Lankan team boarding a Pakistan Military helicopter at Lahore’s Qadhafi Stadium, after a terrorist attack on the team’s bus in 2009. It is interesting to note that it was during this series that Misbah’s form (after his comeback in 2007) began to slump.  — Photo: AP
The Sri Lankan team boarding a Pakistan Military helicopter at Lahore’s Qadhafi Stadium, after a terrorist attack on the team’s bus in 2009. It is interesting to note that it was during this series that Misbah’s form (after his comeback in 2007) began to slump. — Photo: AP

In a 2016 article that Misbah penned for the Cricket Australia website, he wrote that just before the 2010-11 Test series against South Africa in the UAE, the then chairman of the PCB, Ijaz Hussain, arranged a "secret meeting" with Misbah in a clerk’s office.

Misbah at the time was not even in the team. The squad was being torn apart by spot-fixing scandals and severe in-fighting between players. Also, cricket teams had stopped touring Pakistan as incidents of terrorism continued to rupture everyday life and Pakistan had to look to playing ‘home series’ in other countries.

Ijaz offered him the captaincy in total secrecy and asked him to keep the offer to himself, which he did, not even telling Uzma.

Related: I was offered captaincy in clerk’s room: Misbah-ul-Haq

Suddenly he was back in the side at age 36, and this time as captain. And thus began the more fabled portion of his story. By the end of 2011, he had also became the ODI and T20 captain.

But some critics hated him. He was too thoughtful and calm for their liking, it seemed. Pakistan teams had always largely depended on flamboyant batsmen and fiery fast bowlers to win matches. Misbah turned this tradition on its head.

He used a new string of quick bowlers to give him economic spells; he nourished and retained batsmen who had discipline and were able to exhaust the opponents with long, slow innings. He turned spinners into his main bowling weapons, beginning with his friend, Saeed Ajmal, who he first coupled with Abdul Rehman, and then with Zulfikar Babar. And when Ajmal was suspended for questionable bowling action, Misbah pushed in the once obscure Yasir Shah, who eventually became even more impactful than Ajmal.

Abdul Rehman and Saeed Ajmal. — Photo: Coastal Digest
Abdul Rehman and Saeed Ajmal. — Photo: Coastal Digest

With Yasir Shah. — Photo: CricCountry
With Yasir Shah. — Photo: CricCountry

Just like the former great Pakistan captain Imran Khan’s performances had bloomed after he was made captain, so did Misbah’s. He became the mainstay and backbone of a brittle batting line-up, scoring at a healthy average of over 54 as skipper.

When I met him in January 2014, he wasn’t an ‘icon’ yet. Till then he had captained 25 Tests, won 10 and lost seven. His journey towards being hailed as an icon, I believe, began when he went all-out to square the 2014 series against Sri Lanka, throwing caution to the wind (a very non-Misbah thing to do, mind you), by chasing over 302 runs in less than 60 overs on the last day of the 3rd Test of the series in Sharjah.

Misbah gestures to coach, Dav Whitmore, after winning the Sharjah Test. — Photo: CricBuzz
Misbah gestures to coach, Dav Whitmore, after winning the Sharjah Test. — Photo: CricBuzz

As captain, Misbah became the most productive and dependable batsman in the side. — Photo: CricBuzz
As captain, Misbah became the most productive and dependable batsman in the side. — Photo: CricBuzz

Though he failed to win a World Cup, his iconic status finally reached fruition and achieved widespread recognition when in 2015 Pakistan came back 2-1 down against a strong England side (in England), and squared the series 2-2. Misbah’s century at Lords during this series was one of his most sublime, made at the age of 41.

With his down-to-earth attitude, thoughtful disposition, subtle humour, reserved demeanour and batting consistency, he had truly become the elder statesman of Pakistan cricket. If he had an ego, he never showed it. Or at least never let it come in the way during his interactions with his players and the cricket board.

And the cricket board, especially under Shahryar Khan and veteran journalist and publisher, Najam Sethi, continued to recognise these qualities even when he was being battered in the media.

Being men of experience, they knew in a country which has been torn asunder by violent tragedies, scandals, isolation and instability, having a thoughtful, dependable and diplomatic cricketer as captain was exactly what its top sport needed.

Pakistan’s internal problems and external image are now far better than what they were when Misbah took over captaincy in late 2010. It is thus sad, that despite becoming one of the most successful cricket captains in Asia (26 Test wins), he was never able to lead the side at home.

He was to cricket what Mr Spock was to Star Trek. A creature of calm and reason in a chaotic universe. Adios, skipper.

By 2015, Misbah had become an elder statesman of Pakistan cricket. — Photo: GeoTV
By 2015, Misbah had become an elder statesman of Pakistan cricket. — Photo: GeoTV

PCB’s Najam Sethi and Shahryar Khan fully backed Misbah. — Photo: 92HD
PCB’s Najam Sethi and Shahryar Khan fully backed Misbah. — Photo: 92HD

A happy ending. — Photo: AFP
A happy ending. — Photo: AFP