Misbah the Misunderstood

Published in The Express Tribune – with thanks to Babar Khan

There are some wonderful patches of prose out there on Pakistan and India meeting on the cricket pitch; ‘war without the shooting,’ isn’t one of them. But sportswriters are the last to let cute clichés go, and so it was when the two sides clashed in South Africa in 2007. The press could be forgiven; they and millions of South Asians had white-knuckled it through the first-ever T20 world cup, and the finale meant the two archrivals going eyeball-to-eyeball in Johannesburg’s Wanderers Stadium, dangerous on the best of days.

It wasn’t pretty. Mohammed Hafeez’s much-talked-about talks-about-strategy failed to put him past three balls. The sad and bad Kamran Akmal was smacked out for a duck. Having giggled that Irfan was in fact no Pathan, Shahid Afridi was bowled out by the same pretender, going home with a pedigree as spotless as his score. As dominoes went thud-thud, Misbah-ul-Haq, a man not yet known for tuk-tuk, stepped up to the crease. Having sidled into the (literally) massive middle-order void of another ul-Haq – the gifted Inzamam – Misbah proved magnificent.

It was hapless Harbhajan Singh that Misbah clobbered for three sixes an over, and having dragged Team Green back into the game kicking and screaming, belted Joginder Sharma with another six down the ground (even critics agree the man can put away sixes big and tall). Six little runs were needed off four balls too many. Since it seemed Misbah had about won us the match, it was his to lose.

Which he did. As usually happens with time running out, stable, staid old Misbah switched over to his lesser-known side – the berserker – and went for a deranged scoop shot. The ball, and blue victory with it, sailed right in the hands of Sreesanth, trolling opponents since 2006. Though Pakistanis everywhere were scratching their heads, they were hard-pressed to find fault; the 33-year-old star had fended off New Zealand, India and Australia all in the same tournament.

It’s a recurrent theme in the Misbah saga, minus the people’s patience. The captain believes, like the Aesop’s Fable, that slow and steady wins cricket matches – except when he doesn’t. Then, as with Mohali, Misbah will bat boring (and be boring) even as his teammates hara-kiri themselves all around him. When it’s at last apparent not quite as many seconds are left, Misbah the M.B.A. will hedge his bets and aim for the skies. This usually gets him out, which usually writes off our batting, which usually means we lose.

Because the man from Mianwali forms the stubborn defence to Pakistan’s tottering, trembling batting lineup, a brick wall to his fans and face-numbing tuk-tuk to his foes. Taking the wider view, his captaincy is a blip of calm on an otherwise crazy radar, and with reason. A terrific defence by Sahibzada M. Irfan covered these pages last year, ‘his record has been one to make the most successful captains envious…Misbah has led Pakistan in 22 One-Day Internationals to date, of which Pakistan have won 16. In T20s, he has led Pakistan to six wins in eight matches.’

Mr Irfan also brought up Geoff Lawson’s letter to incoming coach Dav Whatmore, and it makes for telling reading, ‘(Misbah) is a bright, well-educated man…ask Misbah who should be in the team and he will give you players who aren’t someone’s second cousin’s brother’s uncle…He sets a perfect example in work ethic and discipline, and it does make a difference when the senior players are doing all the right things, especially in their culture of age and respect going hand in hand.’

A difference Mohammad Amir might relate to. It seems easy to forget now, after three years of Misbah’s sobering effect, how Salman Butt raped Pakistani cricket. It was sport brought low; Mazhar Majeed caught by Murdoch’s News of the World rag counting piles of cash, Salman Butt oozing sleaze with denial after denial, twin talents Asif and Amir sent to jail and juvey.

Yes, Misbah took up the captaincy when there was more risk than reward, clenching his teeth through question after question on spot-fixing and sport-killing. Normalcy, an adjective long denied to Pakistani cricket, made a comeback (if ever it put in an appearance).

But the people aren’t pleased with how slow (or stable) this skipper is, and he knows it: between Zimbabwe and South Africa, he went from zero to hero back to zero again: ‘the most vilified captain for no fault of his’ according to Rashid Latif. ‘If I was listening (to critics),’ Misbah once sulked, fit at nearly-40, ‘my career would have been finished in 2001.’

A lot of this is jazbaat. Nine times out of ten, Pakistanis will prefer charisma to consistency. Here Misbah has neither the Disney-movie heroics of an Imran, nor the sleepy-eyed genius of an Inzamam. Unlike Javed Miandad, he won’t attempt murdering today’s Dennis Lillees with a paddle shot.

He is also the antithesis of the man he succeeded as O.D.I. captain, a diva who rides bikes even in shampoo commercials. Shahid Afridi represented the public he played for in ways Misbah never can: undisciplined and unpredictable, ill-tempered and big-hearted, destined by fate to waste talent that was God-given. Lala is a symptom of the best and worst of his countrymen…and is beloved for it. Put up against the ball-chomping, blonde-highlighting Boom Boom, cynical, clinical Misbah is like a German nurse the audience can’t quite relate to.

And it’s exactly what cricket needs right now – the soothing touch – which no one could put better than Mukul Kesavan in 2011. Calling Misbah a straight man in a band of clowns, Mr Kesavan nailed the team of our times: ‘It isn’t a touring cricket side…it’s a lunatic repertory company…There’s no team in cricket that has more electricity about it. Even its profligacy, the extravagance with which it wastes its prodigious gifts, is a spectacle that’s worth the price of a ticket…Because even when (Pakistan plays) like the Keystone Cops, the script in their heads is always Ocean’s Eleven.’