Misbah-ul-Haq: From a fringe player to the most successful captain
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Almost a decade ago, a 31-year-old player agreed to play an exhibition match in Toronto, Canada, that was meant for retired cricketers from India and Pakistan. Former Pakistan pace bowler Aaqib Javed, short of a few players, had asked Misbah-ul-Haq to join the team.
As it turned out, Misbah was recalled to the Pakistani Test side just a few months later.
“This is what they call luck,” says Javed, over the phone from Lahore. “Such was the competition for a middle-order berth in the Pakistani team that I once asked him to try opening and he did that too, but failed. Nobody knows what would have happened if Salman Butt and others had not been found guilty of spot-fixing on the 2010 tour of England.”
Javed was the bowling coach during that 2010 tour.
With captain Butt, along with Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, being caught for spot-fixing, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) appointed 35-year-old Misbah-ul-Haq as the leader of the national team in October 2010. Just before this, Misbah had publicly spoken about his possible retirement.
Prior to Butt, the PCB had (unsuccessfully) tried Mohammad Yousuf and Shahid Afridi as Test captains in 2010. It turned to Misbah, then, as a last resort. He had played only 19 Tests till then; the years that followed would see a remarkable turn in fortunes.
He has won a record 24 out of 53 Tests as captain (10 more than any other Pakistani captain) and has the opportunity to add a few more in his swansong series of three Test matches starting 21 April in the West Indies. Misbah has announced that he will be retiring from Test cricket from May—he quit One Day Internationals (ODIs) after the 2015 World Cup.
“I will not talk about the controversies of the past but yes, that was a difficult period and he took care of the team. His was definitely a clean period and he never had any controversies with fellow players, which is a big plus,” says former Pakistan captain and batsman Zaheer Abbas.
“Cricket teams need captains like him. You don’t need hyper characters like (Javed) Miandad who wanted to get involved in a lot of things. They can’t last longer since it’s a team game and like (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni, Misbah understood how to manage things under pressure,” says Javed.
After making his Test debut in 2001, against New Zealand at Auckland, Misbah struggled for close to two years. He failed to get a 50-plus score in five Test matches and nine innings.
He didn’t play a Test for the next four years.
His comeback series against South Africa in 2007 wasn’t spectacular either; he again struggled to go past a 50 in three innings. In the next series in India, however, he not only scored his first half-century (in Delhi) but also scored two back-to-back hundreds in Kolkata and Bengaluru.
That tour remained his best outing in away conditions (464 runs at an average of 116). The 42-year-old is now likely to end among the all-time top six run-scorers for his country. He is 111 runs short (4,951 runs from 72 Tests) of Abbas’ 5,062 runs in 78.
“Along with Younis Khan, he has been one of the greatest (contemporary) Pakistani batsmen,” adds Abbas.
“Misbah will be remembered as a dogged individual who tried hard, was not naturally gifted, but made good use of his first-class experience. He started late but he loved this game so much that he never gave up,” says former Pakistan opener Ramiz Raja, who is in West Indies as one of the commentators for this tour.
For someone slapped with the uncharitable tag of “tuk-tuk” for his slow batting style, Misbah remarkably holds the record for the fastest 50 in Test history—in just 21 balls (against Australia in Abu Dhabi in the 2014-15 season). He still jointly holds the record of second fastest Test hundred in just 56 balls (with Viv Richards).
Yet world cricket in general and Pakistan cricket in particular will remember Misbah as a leader, a saviour. No Pakistani captain has won more (10 out of 22 bilateral series) than him, even if his contribution is assessed from the prism of the circumstances under which he took over the reins of a beleaguered team.
“His greatest achievement was to make Pakistan great again after the spot-fixing scandal. I think he will be remembered for doing that,” says Raja.
He took Pakistan to the pinnacle of the ICC Test rankings in 2016 (even if for just a brief period), Misbah has never been hailed as a great leader, like the more charismatic Imran Khan, who won the 1992 ODI World Cup.
“No, I don’t think so,” disagrees Raja. “I believe that Misbah has got his due. He was rated by Pakistani fans as a good leader.”
Sometimes numbers only tell half the story. Imran Khan won 14 Tests out of the 48 he captained. Outside Asia, he won three—Misbah has won eight.
Of course, unlike any other captain, Misbah rarely enjoyed “home advantage” since Pakistan has been hosting its matches in the United Arab Emirates for the last eight years—Misbah has never captained a Test match in Pakistan. In comparison, only six out of Dhoni’s 27 Test wins have been outside India.
“Playing in front of a home crowd is certainly advantageous for any player—you can ask Dhoni or (Virat) Kohli on how they feel about this,” suggests Abbas.
But purists will argue that Imran Khan’s wins were bigger because the opponents were tougher.
“Imran left a legacy; he turned mediocre players into giant killers. Misbah was happy playing on one particular surface (UAE). He didn’t have a quality side but he managed to find a way to win whereas Imran introduced superstars to world cricket,” argues Raja, who played under the talismanic former captain.
“Imran was more dominating and had his own ideas and convictions but Misbah listens to others and takes everyone along. For me, he was the Rahul Dravid of Pakistan cricket who always put the team’s interest over personal glory,” says Javed, who too played a lot of cricket under Khan and also spent time with Misbah (when he was leading the Pakistan “A” team) as “A” team coach.
Misbah doesn’t have the same aura as Imran Khan. But if Khan’s Oxford education made him an elitist in a hierarchical society like Pakistan’s in the early 1970s, Misbah’s MBA from the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, perhaps helped him too at a time when Pakistan needed a modern, educated and articulate captain.
“He found a way to win. His tactics were not aggressive and it was all about waiting to pounce on the opposition and, when he did, he made sure Pakistan won. It was a typical Misbah way of winning a contest and an unusual way for a Pakistani team, which always believes in aggression.
“That way, he was different but pretty efficient,” concludes Raja.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide and tweets at @Vimalwa.