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Happily hunting Misbah

February 28, 2013

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The problem with Misbah’s appreciation seems to be that his individual “failures” in one format, limited overs cricket, are taken to beat him with in terms of his Test captaincy. -Photo by AFP

In the aftermath of Pakistan’s loss to South Africa, the favourite topic of a certain section of the Pakistani ‘fans’ has been on the cards once again: how to blame Misbah-ul-Haq for all the evils in the world. It is somewhat understandable, considering that we always need an individual scapegoat, regardless of the profession, to soothe our anger. The most frequent, and frankly ridiculous, assertion has been that all his achievements are now nullified since he couldn’t win outside Asia; and winning in Asia is a given for Pakistan.

That mindset assumed that Pakistan had been a juggernaut in its home conditions prior to Misbah’s appointment. From late 1995 –when they lost to Sri Lanka at home – Pakistan lost more series at home than it won (7 to 8). Even if that is increased to include all series in Asia, Pakistan’s record still doesn’t come in the black: 12 wins and 12 losses in 28 series from 1995 to 2010. All this despite this period having Wasim Akram’s team of the late 90s and Inzamam-ul-Haq’s team in mid-2000s; both teams were criticized at the time, and are glorified in hindsight. Winning in familiar conditions is no birthright of Pakistan’s; in fact when Pakistan won in New Zealand in Misbah’s second series, it was the team’s first series win in four years – and the second of seven consecutive unbeaten series for him. Add to that the fact that Pakistan, for the first time, beat – nay, shellacked – the team considered the best in the world at the time in their sixty year history, he deserves to be put on a pedestal and not a burning cross.

The problem with Misbah’s appreciation seems to be that his individual “failures” in one format – limited overs cricket in his case – are taken to beat him with in terms of his Test captaincy. For many in Pakistan, apples and oranges remain identical. His supposed defensiveness as a batsman makes many fair-weather fans assume that he’s a defensive captain. Only five times in the 39 innings that he has captained has he allowed the opposition to score beyond 400. Even a cursory glance at the fields he gives the likes of Junaid Khan and Saeed Ajmal is a rejection of that assertion. He was criticized heavily for playing defensively in the 2nd innings at Newlands – yet as the morning after’s play showed, there was a reason why he needed to protect his wicket; that tail doesn’t offer much confidence. In fact, it is arguable, that if he hadn’t been so attacking in the 2nd Test – especially on the third morning – Pakistan might have come away with a win. He allowed Robin Peterson to score runs by not spreading the field out, and he decided to take the new ball when the soft old ball was far more difficult to score on (but also far more difficult to take a wicket off). But since that goes against the popularly held opinion, there’s no point in discussing that.

As for the third Test, the result was pretty obvious long before. Not only because of Pakistan’s record in dead rubbers– but also just by being in his presence. He was pretty despondent in the press conference immediately after the loss; but more revealing was how little he had moved on from that when I met him the following day – still ruing the mistakes and the lost opportunities, even with almost 24 hours having passed. It was a state that was highly different from other players involved in that defeat.

But all that’s water under the bridge, hopefully. When Misbah was made the captain, he unconsciously had three aims to achieve. The first – the short term goal – was to make Pakistan difficult to beat, overachieve with the talent at his disposal, and make the team stable after a disastrous first half to 2010. He did that, and then some; changing the culture of the underachievement that had plagued the team since Oval 2006. The second – in the medium term – was to evolve the team from the group of journeymen at the start to something bigger. The introductions of Junaid and Nasir Jamshed, in addition to the increasing roles for Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali, have meant that a new generation exists to pass the torch on to. Perhaps this evolution has been a little too slow – the enigma that is Umar Akmal, and the mystery that is the non-selection of Fawad Alam, have contributed to that feeling. But the overall account is still in the black. The third, the long-term aim, would have been to make Pakistan competitive outside Asia for the first time in over a decade. That is something that the team has arguably failed to achieve. But to be fair to his team, their only audition for that was a series against the best side in the world, on the back of 12 matches unbeaten and 7 months of hard cricket, in their home conditions. Misbah’s men went to South Africa undercooked and it was never a recipe for success. The tragedy, of course, is that Pakistan do not play another big non-Asian series till 2016, by which time both Misbah and Younis Khan would likely have gone. You can only be judged on the opportunities at talent you are given; and surely Misbah has done enough not to be considered the Zardari of his profession.

On we go to the limited overs series now though. Here, Misbah and his team have never been as successful. And despite the series win against India, the composition and permutation of the team still remains deeply flawed. Here the criticism for him will actually be deserved and fair. That is, of course, assuming that Pakistan fail to win this. But it doesn’t really matter, the results have never been enough to pacify the doubters. And so it will continue to be.