Misbah: Late Bloomer, Timely saviour!

At the turn of the last century, former Pakistan cricketers were clamoring about the absence of a cricket academy in Pakistan, at the time of writing this piece, many former -and current- cricketers are running their – sometimes successful- academies. Almost all of those academies are located in the cricketing hubs of Karachi and Lahore. Cricket in Pakistan for as recently as the last decade, was a feud between the two cities, or two cultures for that matter: Lahore bred bowlers, Karachi batsmen.

Mianwali is nearer to Lahore than to Karachi, and it’s still so far out from Lahore that it is regularly demanded to be included in a separate province. Hailing from Mianwali, Misbah almost certainly didn’t go to any of those academies. He started his cricket so late in life most first-class cricketers are looking for other options at that age. It was even later that he started his first-class cricket at 24, to put that into perspective, Imran Nazir and Umar Akmal were both dropped from the national side by their 22nd birthdays.

His international debut was in the 21st century. It’s still 15 years ago. It was the time Pakistan cricket team had a very formidable middle order comprising primarily of Inzimam and Yusuf, augmented by an underrated Younis Khan. So he went one bumper season after another becoming a somewhat domestic giant. Still, it wasn’t before the inaugural T20 world cup that he had his chance at the international stage. There, he captured the minds of the Pakistani cricket fans, only to break their hearts at the very last hurdle. He went to India the following tour and continued his dour methods of first-class cricket with success, but he was still in and out of the team. At one point he says he felt like burning his kit, more than one domestic cricketers would tell you he actually did burn it!

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In 2010, before the spot fixing debacle, if a sage had told Misbah that in five years time the same board would be asking him to not retire, he probably would have bitten his hand off in joy. The PCB, like other cricket boards, doesn’t ask players to consider delaying their retirement, especially a guy who’d be comfortably 42 years old by the next test assignment. In Misbah’s case, they’ve done exactly that and he has hinted at considering, he’s quite certainly earned that right.

The Oval test was forfeited in 2005. Whatever Salman Butt’s motives were in involving in that fateful deal with Mazhar Majeed, it definitely did plunge Pakistan to the nadir in the culmination of almost five years of cricketing misery. Sure it did have bright spots in defeating England, India and Australia in test matches and winning the world T20, but the agony – losing the coach through death, first round world cup exit, the assault on the Sri Lankan team, being revoked the hosting rights of the world cup, the infamous Sydney test, the ill-advised ball-biting by Shahid Afridi, having Yousuf and Younis both banned for life, a wicket keeper filing for asylum after having gone missing mid-tour, and then not being able to play any cricket at home- was seemingly greater than the joy.

In came Misbah, he was 36, but he was probably used to being late at cricketing milestones by then. His first assignment was in the UAE, playing the South Africans -arguably modern cricket’s best travelers – in a two-test series, one which they were expected to lose heavily. They drew both tests. In fact, they were criticized for playing for a draw in the second test when victory was reachable. They haven’t lost a test series at home- an adopted one albeit- since then. Misbah stands as the winning-est Pakistan test captain, their most prolific century-maker-captain, the only one in the last 34 years to score more than one, and the only one in the last 86 years to score four centuries after turning 40.

But more than his run-making, it’s probably the way he has led this Pakistan team that is more laudable. As a cricketer, he still finds inexplicable ways of getting out almost always against the run of play – in the Dubai test recently, he started the day’s play on two occasions and got out without adding to his scores of more than 100 and 80 respectively- but as the captain, he maintains the kind of graceful aura not many after Imran Khan have had when put in charge. In Pakistan, captaincy has always been about taking the credit- except the famous ‘all-credit-goes-to-the-boys’ Inzi cliche- but he seems happy to let others bask in glory while apparently looking unperturbed. As recently as this July, Younis was seemingly coaxed into blurting about being unhappy with being compared with Misbah. The captain’s reaction was a matter-of-factly remark citing Younis’ undeniable contribution to his team’s winning ways. In effect, what could easily have spiraled into a public dispute in the naturally gifted 90’s All-star team, was dead-batted by Captain Tuk Tuk. That the last five years have almost always been a ‘dull’ state of affairs in Pakistan cricket has everything to do with Misbah’s ability to deal with potential troubles in the way it shows he actually did earn his degree in business management.

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So is he really Pakistan’s greatest test captain? There’s obviously no definite answer. And Misbah doesn’t have a cancer hospital to show for an ability to transcend cricket. But he has done what many before him have not been able to do. He’s made Pakistan a predictably good competitive test side. Pakistan is chasing what could possibly be their best ranking in the modern system. Sure, the only way after the spot fixing saga was up, but we can say that now with the benefit of hind sight. Pakistan cricket team is now reportedly consistently rated as one of the most well-behaved units in international cricket.

The last Sharjah test may well turn out to be his last international match. It’s always better to sign-off when people are asking why, instead of why-not. And Misbah would know best if he has it in him to match Jack Hobbs as the scorer of most centuries after turning 40. For Misbah, age definitely seems to be just a number, for he has always been a late bloomer, but for a scarred Pakistan side teetering after the spot fixing debacle, he couldn’t have come at more appropriate a time.

 

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