Posted by: tootingtrumpet | February 13, 2012

In praise of Misbah-ul-Haq

He's been cool while winning for a long time.

Misbah-ul-Haq is the most important cricketer in the world. In his hands, he cradles the butterfly-beautiful, butterfly-fragile future of Pakistan cricket. He’s supported by men of substance in Mohsin Khan (reported to be switching roles from coach to selector to allow the widely respected and experienced Dav Whatmore to work with the players) and PCB chair Zaka Ashraf – the antithesis of previous incumbent Ijaz Butt. But only one man is in the dressing room, only one man calls the shots on the field and only one man is close enough to the players to know what whispers are spoken into which ears, for the prize for snaring a cricketer is as attractive as ever to the corruptors of youth. A mis-step here, a guideline left unfollowed there, a text message received or sent, and Pakistan, already unable to play on home soil, may not be able to play at all – a price cricket cannot afford to pay.

Though Misbah has been in and out of Pakistan sides for a decade, he first caught my eye in the match that changed cricket forever – the World Twenty20 Final of 2007. With wickets falling around him (Shahid Afridi out to a skyer from the first legitimate ball he faced), Misbah appeared to have timed the chase badly having made just 17 from 24 balls leaving his team with 54 to get from four overs. Three sixes in an over brought Pakistan right back into it, but wickets stayed momentum and 13 were required off the last over. Another six had the game on a knife-edge, before Misbah miscued, provoking celebrations all over India and a business proposition from Lalit Modi.

Though victory was not his, Misbah had shown the coolness under pressure, the acceptance of responsibility and the willingness to back his own judgement that would emerge more fully on his assumption of his country’s captaincy amidst the wreckage left by Salman Butt. Since then, he has led his team to nine Test wins and just one defeat and is yet to lose a series. If that wasn’t enough, he has backed up his team’s five day excellence with 13 wins and one defeat in ODIs and four wins from four T20Is. Misbah knows how to win.

His leadership skills are not immediately obvious to the naked eye: he lacks the glamorous charisma of an Imran Khan or a Shahid Afridi; he doesn’t grab hold of innings and bend them to his will like MS Dhoni; and he doesn’t have the kind of bowling attack that made captaincy easy for the likes of Clive Lloyd or, more recently, Andrew Strauss. His is a leadership of patience, of winning the key moments, of an old-fashioned approach to Test cricket.

His stamp is all over the batting unit. Since becoming captain, he has only twice failed to make at least 40 in first or second innings of his 15 Tests (and both those matches were won), compiling 12 fifties and one ton to average 65 at a calmness-inducing strike rate of 42. In company with Younis Khan, he has raised a century partnership on five occasions and has three such stands with Asad Shafiq. Tellingly, as captain, he has never batted with Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal or Shoaib Malik – talented players all, but not what Misbah looks for in a Test player. He has earned the right through his results and his example to dispense with mercurial individuals and demand that batsmen play solely for the team, grinding out winning positions.

Creating those winning positions is one thing – driving them home is quite another, and it is here that Misbah’s work is at its most impressive. Mohammad Asif was a great bowler, Mohammad Amir was a great bowler with the potential to be an all-time great and Danish Kaneria had experience and success all over the world – none have played under Misbah. Instead, he has worked with the wholehearted Umar Gul who averages less than 30 per wicket under Misbah; Abdur Rehman, the thirty-something left-arm spinner who pays less than 27 runs for each of his wickets at the parsimonious economy rate of under 2.5 per over; and the devilish legerdemain merchant, Saeed Ajmal, who gives runs away as reluctantly as Rehman and takes his wickets at a Wasimesque 23 runs each. Misbah is getting the most from his bowlers by setting attacking fields when it’s time to attack and defensive fields when it’s time to defend – and if that was as easy as it sounds, all captains would do it!

Perhaps Misbah’s greatest strength as a captain is his own temperament and the way it seeps into his team. In this, he reminds me of Mike Brearley, England’s skipper famously described as having “a degree in people” by the ockers’ ocker Rodney Hogg. My father, always wary of public school liberal intellectuals, was won over by Brearley while watching him at Old Trafford – he noted that the players were always looking at the ageing, undemonstrative man and how keenly they listened to his words, summoned or dismissed from his presence by the raising of an eyebrow. “He is a captain this bloke Brearley, isn’t he?” was my father verdict and I think he would say the same for all the same reasons about Misbah, who commands his team with enigmatic half-smiles and quiet words, letting extroverts like his senior batsman and senior bowler do the broad smiles and big celebrations. Whether a giant talent like Younis, a late bloomer like Rehman, an inconsistent performer like Mohammad Hafeez or a young man making his way in the game Azhar Ali, Misbah finds a way to reach them, to inspire them and to (crucially) lead them.

Notwithstanding his individual excellence and his team’s success, Misbah’s greatest achievement has been tiptoeing round the minefield that is Pakistan cricket’s internal politics. A misplaced word or deed there and not only would his own career would be gone (he’s nearly 38 after all) but Pakistan’s toehold in the international game might go with it. He hasn’t put a foot wrong yet.

Misbah deserves the chance to lead his men on his own soil and, though his recent 3-0 trouncing of England falls outside the period under consideration, I contest that he deserves the accolade of Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World come April. I hope he, like his predecessor as captain, gets his just deserts.

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Responses

  1. Great article Gary. Hard to disagree with any of it.

  2. misbahulhaq is the best and lucky captain for pakistan cricket team and i hope pakistan will be the no1 team in the world under its captancy

    • Jetinder – He has some way to go before then, but he’s got a great foundation to go forward.

  3. I remember the first World T20 final. What innocent days before T20 became the domestic monster that it is now.

    That tournament was so much fun. Robih Uthappa bowled in one of the bowl offs in a round robin game.

  4. Great piece. And rapt for Pakistan cricket.

  5. Misbah is definitely holding Pak team & board without further rifts

  6. misbah is a late bloomer, his calmness comes with the fact that he started being regular in pakistan team after Inzimam retired, he was already well into his 30s so you can no expect fireballs from an oldie. though his presence has helped Pakistan alot.

  7. Misbah ul Haq is one the greats of Pakistan Cricket that we will surely miss.
    In recent Pakistan Cup 2016 in first match, his team’s openers were gone early and he was there to play captains knock. He scored 82 runs and his team came out of crises to win the match. Hopefully youngsters will learn and follow his footsteps


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