The ‘tuk tuk’ king

November 26, 2011

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As Pakistan completed an impressive 4-1 series against Sri Lanka, headlines were being written and TV shows were being structured as odes to Shahid Afridi. Without doubt, he was the man who defined the series, and won it for Pakistan; but in the midst of it all, one man was being overlooked. Rarely has a Pakistani captain had a better win record than Misbah, yet he is damned with faint praise, often with the phrase: “oh, he handled Afridi well.”

The public similarly has focused on Afridi, despite Misbah having lead the team to 5 unbeaten test series and the best record in ODIs in 2011 (although Afridi was the captain for the first half of them). He even led Pakistan home in the only T20 against Sri Lanka on Friday. The reasons for this apathy, though, are obvious. Misbah-the-captain is treated as such because of his association with Misbah-the-player and Misbah-the-man. Sure, he might have the record of Imran, but he doesn’t have his personality. Secondly, every Pakistani fan seems to believe that Pakistan are recklessly gung-ho and always have been, and Misbah is trying to remove that identity.

The mythology of Pakistan cricket states that Pakistan were another-ran till the late 70s when they discovered their mojo and have been an attacking team since then. Yet, the country’s greatest-ever team was built on the same defensive foundations that the fans seem to abhor today. The determination of Mudassar Nazar, Shoaib Mohammad and Iqbal Qasim was as important as the flair of Imran, Qadir and Javed. In the words of Rob Smyth, they were the water-carriers that allowed the aforementioned trio to walk on water.

The team of the 90s, admittedly, was attacking. But it had no other option. Mudassar Nazar was replaced by Saeed Anwar, the middle order of Inzamam and Ijaz (later Yousuf), and the most diverse and potent of bowling line-ups were attacking, because that was the only way they knew how to play. They were occasionally innovators (using Saqlain in the death overs), and often followers (the large number of pinch hitters used in the second half of the decade). Yet the 1980s team was a far greater Test side, and an equal in ODIs (Win-to-loss ratio of 1.25 from 1982 to 1992 and 1.22 from 1992 to 2000).

The first decade of this century – the lost decade – has been spent trying to play like the Golden Generation without the equivalent talent. Nothing better exemplifies this than the host of “attacking top order players” (Butt, Farhat, Imran Nazir, Hafeez and Kamran Akmal) that have failed on the international stage because unlike their precursor Saeed, and their contemporaries (Gayle, Sehwag et al) they have neither the talent, nor the application to succeed whilst playing ‘an attacking game’. Similarly, one-man armies of Shoaib (when fit) or Asif (when available) have failed to produce the results that their predecessors did, for obvious reasons. The only time Pakistan tried to remove itself from the 90s to route and back to the 80s was under Inzamam – and then, like now, the captain was repeatedly criticised for being too negative. (Remember the repeated assertions for Younis to replace Inzi as he was more ‘attacking’?)

Misbah, with the team that Waqar built, has been able to get Pakistan back to the 1980s formula: lay the foundations at the top – regardless of the format – and then proceed; when bowling, force the team to give their wickets away, rather than pursuing them. In the absence of bowlers the quality of Imran and Wasim, it’s the trio of spinners who are the stars. And each of the trio takes his wicket by choking the batsman until he submits rather than the swift blow to the head preferred by the stars of the 80s and 90s. But, this is a strategy acceptable to Pakistan only under Afridi, but not under Misbah, it would seem.

The indifference towards Misbah stems from his refusal to go for targets, firstly in the South Africa series last year, then again in the recently concluded Sri Lanka series. However, what he does is logical. A team with the history of poor chasing and collapses – particularly in fourth innings – has every reason to be cautious. Furthermore, isn’t that what Imran did? After all, Pakistan’s greatest captain – that paragon of aggression – drew more than half the matches he led. His reputation as the leader is built upon his captaincy in ODIs. But isn’t that what Misbah does: cautious in Tests, attacking in ODIs? In the age when 300+ scores are commonplace, his team have managed to restrict the opposition to less than 250 in all of his 15 ODIs; his captaincy in the last three matches when fielding was as aggressive as could be wished for.

Alas, it comes down to his associations though. He will forever be the man mockingly nicknamed ‘tuk tuk’. A product of the always-maligned domestic system who came good playing with his head rather than his heart, and relies on logic and emotion will never have the love of the public that his predecessor – as dissimilar a man to him as can be possible – had. In simple terms, his reputation as captain when compared with Afridi’s comes to the old adage: “Its 70 per cent how you look, 20 per cent how you sound and 10 per cent what you say.” What you do can change opinions but who you are, is what forms them.

The writer is a sports nerd, and does not believe that opinions other than his own are valid. He can be found presenting his opinions as fact on his blog and twitter.

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