Cricket is perhaps the only sport in which the captain is a lot more than a person with an armband or a '(C)' scribbled in front of his or her name. In cricket not only is the captain supposed to be a fairly talented sportsman, he has to be an astute strategist, a lucid communicator, a diplomat and I dare say a shrewd politician as well.
Some of the finest skippers in the modern version of the game have all been clear examples of such qualities. Take Clive Lloyd, Ian Chappell, A K Pataudi, Steve Waugh, Arjuna Ranatunga, Steven Fleming, Graeme Smith and Imran Khan, for instance.
What's more, sometimes a cricket captain has had to be a better strategist than a player to propel his team to multiple victories, as was the case with England's Mike Brearley — a mediocre batsman but a masterful strategist and communicator.
In Pakistan and Indian cricket, a successful captain is required to not only be an immensely talented player and strategist, he has to be a sharp politician as well who through example and diplomacy can lead a coalition (as opposed to a unit) of players from diverse ethnic and class backgrounds (and thus vulnerable to break into self-serving groupings).
The two most successful Pakistani captains, A H Kardar and Imran Khan, had to couple their cricketing and strategising talents with a dictatorial attitude to curb the divisive volatility of their teams. They became like military generals. As captains both Kardar and Khan were products of their own times. Kardar symbolised the authoritarianism Pakistan's early ruling elite emphasised to unite a diverse and struggling new country with an enforced (and somewhat artificial) ideological singularity, whereas Khan, though in his playing days a secular and colourful personality, rose as skipper during one of Pakistan's longest and staunchest military dictatorships (that of Ziaul Haq).
Whereas another shrewd and successful Pakistani captain, Mushtaq Muhammad (who was made skipper during the Z A Bhutto regime), had used the localised variety of liberalism and populism of the Bhutto era to unite the team, Kardar and Khan used authoritarianism backed up by their own individual performances. Uniting a Pakistani cricket team, usually brimming with outstanding talent but always vulnerable to disintegrate along class and ethnic lines, has been one of the leading priorities of Pakistani cricket captains.
In the 2000s, another ploy in this respect was experimented with players like Waqar Yunus and Inzimamul Haq. After the controversies and divisions that plagued the captaincies of Miandad and Imran's handpicked protege, Wasim Akram, new skipper, Waqar Yunus, began dabbling with the idea of using religion to bring the players on a common platform. Though it was Yunus who first allowed members of the conservative Tableeghi Jamat (TJ) to visit the players' dressing room for inspirational lectures, the idea was taken many steps further by Inzimamul Haq.
A naturally gifted batsman, Inzimam came from a southern Punjab’s middle class background and didn't have Kardar and Khan's education or elitist authoritarian underpinnings nor Mushtaq Muhammad's social adaptability skills. He became a stark reflection of the growing trend of religiosity that cut across society after 9/11. Joining the TJ, he moulded the team to operate like a willfully isolated TJ unit, but with corporate sponsorship and cricketing abilities.
The exhibitionistic unity-in-piety ploy did keep the team intact for a while, but it could not eliminate the many vulnerabilities that still plagued the unit. Just like Pakistani society of the last decade or so, religious piety and material greed conspired to actually (and destructively) complement one another, and thus, by the end of Inzimam's topsy-turvy tenure, Pakistan cricket suffered from serious infighting, groupings and stumbled from one horrendous controversy to another. Until Misbahul Haq arrived.
In a short span of a little over a year, Misbah has already become an inspirational success story captain. Though educated, Misbah does not belong to Kardar’s or Khan's elitist-authoritarian school of captaincy. Instead, he is highly diplomatic and consciously retains the perception of him being low-key, private and media-shy.
Though his shrewd, calculated and inspirational captaincy has been making headlines, he remains elusive and private. And quietly he has also dismantled the religiosity factor introduced by Inzimam, as well as the perception that only an authoritarian figure can captain the Pakistan cricket team.
So what made this most unlikely of heroes tick? Common sense and the fact that he has continued to score prolifically even at the age of 37. Also, he does not seem to have a raging ego. His neutral, selfless appeal, thoughtfulness and egalitarian posturing and largely democratic approach seems to have helped him make a renegade, volatile and diverse bunch of players unite, not behind or under, but around him.
He has learnt that he does not need to have a charismatic authoritarian stature or exhibitionist religiosity to bag the players' and the media's respect. He just needs to be Misbah — a contemplative selfless professional who articulates only on matters he knows best but is extremely private about his social and religious musings. Perhaps every other player needs to become a Misbah (and seems to have become); and maybe so does the Pakistani society as a whole.