Misbah does more with a shrug than most men do with a gun
Misbah guides the ball to third man at Lord’s, it makes him a hundred. Usually, that is the big story, but as the old MCC men slowly rise, this man – very nearly as old as some of them – sprints past the crease, smiles at his balcony and salutes. It might have been the least Misbah thing he has ever done, and the most Misbah thing he has ever done.
Flowing locks, young, beautiful, carefree, a sense of swagger, maybe some danger, a heart-breaker, a person who you notice when you enter a room, a person who demands you notice them when they enter a room, that is what Pakistanis think of when they think of their ideal forms. Every country has this mistaken romantic view of their perfect beings, the all-American square-jawed boy next door, the cheeky but tough ocker Aussie guy and Pakistan’s is this charismatic hybrid of Shahid Afridi and Imran Khan; the sort that could ride topless into a battle on a white stallion clutching only his bat, with his men following behind him.
An illustration of Misbah doing that would be for satire. When he talks at press conferences, he often just stares at the base of the cameras and gives flat answers. His TV work is often that of the disinterested professor. Even when he remembers to dye his beard, there is no eternal youth of Afridi. He is certainly not an ugly man, but he’s certainly not hot, and he’s not getting mistaken for a stud. There is not a father in all of Pakistan who could legitimately object to Misbah marrying his daughter. He comes across as friendly, intellectual and maybe with a touch of dry humour to him that he only uses in exceptional circumstances.
Stare at any father making a long road trip with wife, kids, and a car full of stuff, and you can see a bit of Misbah in all of them.
He is not the warrior leader, bat flashing above his head, Pakistan thought they wanted.
For the longest time, this was counted against him. He didn’t have the passion and fierceness of Younis Khan, he wasn’t like Shahid Afridi in any way other than they are both mammals, and he wasn’t Imran Khan. In fact, there were probably a few things that they shared, the Imran Khan of our dreams, arms raised, green shirt on, is not the only Imran Khan. The other Imran Khan is the one nervously explaining to Ian Chappell what a cornered tiger does. But our Imran Khan, he’s a magnificent stallion, a world boss before there was such a term. Misbah is a bookkeeper at a belt loop manufacturer in comparison.
In Gladiator there is a scene where the son bemoans that the father never respected him. Commodus says to Marcus Aurelius:
“You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but ... there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn't want me for your son.”
Misbah could, if he wanted, probably trot out all of his amazing virtues, academic, dispassion, sturdiness, and focus all essential in a leader, but he is not the warrior leader, bat flashing above his head, Pakistan thought they wanted.
Imran might be the Pakistani of folklore, Afridi might be the Pakistan of fantasy, but Misbah is the Pakistan of reality.
A suited man with a round face who seemed to have no real place with the Pakistan cricket team followed them around England. He was no coach, nor administrator, his cricket background was mainly as a fan, and he wasn’t Pakistani, but English. But the reason this man was with the Pakistan team in England was that they were concerned with what might happen on their first tour back since the fixing ordeal.
Would the tabloids attack them? Would cynical English cricket writers question every move their players made, looking for more criminals? Would the right-wing writers use them as a punching bag? Would they bear some of the brunt of an England that was becoming increasingly Islamophobic? Or worst of all, would one of their players make another terrible error?
Read more: Is Afridi Pakistan's gift to cricket?
So a cricket team that is plagued by unprofessional attitudes and political interference made a stunning choice, they hired a PR consultant. And it was that man, the pleasant Englishman Jon Collett, who was on hand in case any PR nightmares occurred. A few weeks into the tour, his job was largely redundant, Pakistan were a popular team, there was no hint of scandal, barely any non-cricket press at all, and the cricket press were won over from the very first time Misbah sat down in front of them.
By the time Misbah had made his hundred at Lord’s, Collett might as well have spent the next few weeks on a Spanish beach. A man who looks as unsuited to PR work as he would be to being an MMA fighter was suddenly the greatest PR man Pakistan could have asked for. Pakistan would draw the series in England; Misbah would win over England.
There could be no review of Pakistan’s year that doesn’t include the worst moment in Misbah’s year, his bright orange shoes. They are like your uncle in his 50s who starts to wear tie-dyed shirts. But there are other things that Misbah has had trouble with; he was suspended for slow over rates, which for a team that relies so heavily on spin, is poor.
They also lost a Test series to New Zealand. Two years ago, losing a Test series to New Zealand would have been fair, when Misbah’s polar opposite McCullum was leading them like some Pathan warrior poet. But New Zealand had been weak for quite a while when Pakistan had arrived. There were reasons for Pakistan’s loss. Whoever thought it was a good idea to play a back-to-back series in the UAE and then head straight to New Zealand was crazy, and putting only one warm-up match on – which was washed out – made it worse. But Pakistan was poor, they looked limp and confused, and they didn’t look like the team that had just gone to number one in glory.
When he talks at press conferences, he often just stares at the base of the cameras and gives flat answers. His TV work is often that of the disinterested professor.
That also wasn’t their worst series, they sleepwalked through their series against the West Indies, almost losing the unlosable in the first Test, and then finally losing the last Test to what is a fractured second string, coachless rabble of a West Indies team. In another year this would have been poor, but this was the year of Pakistan cricket, their moment in the sun, the year they finally became the world’s best after 60 years of trying. They had worked so hard, they deserved better.
Pakistan would play 11 Tests this year, they would win four and lose seven, and yet, this was Pakistan’s year. Test cricket’s ranking system may be flawed, but it rewards you over a period of years, and for that, 2016 was the year Pakistan were crowned for the years before where they had earned it.
But, because of the series and Test losses, by the end of 2016, Pakistan’s year, it was India who everyone believed to be the best Test team.
No home Tests, rotating coaches, jobs for the boys, flawed selection structures, a lack of funding, archaic analysis, unfit athletes, no grasp of the new world of cricket, poor administration, internal and external cricket politics, match-fixing, jail and terrorism. That isn’t a complete list — or even close to what Pakistan overcame to become the number one team in Test cricket, but it is some of the biggest problems. No team, ever, has had to overcome this to get to the top. Pakistan’s journey is as unique as most things about their cricket.
You could probably explain away, if you wanted, how each and every one of these problems has been as Homer Simpson might put it, a crisitunity. You could argue that in not having home Tests, Pakistan have had to adapt to a near-permanent life on the road. Or the UAE has better facilities than Pakistan, and the pitches still very much suit their strengths. Perhaps the lack of funding has made their team more hungry and less content. Maybe all those good ol’ boys that get useless jobs they are vastly unqualified to hold means that the Pakistan players are only listening to the few good men who sneak into their system. It could be that their failure to move with the new ways of cricket has allowed them to rise up in Tests, to the detriment of the limited overs matches.
But the last three, match-fixing, subsequent jailing and terrorism, are harder to see a silver lining in. Forget even the death, corruption and jail time, and just think what these things do to an already fragile national cricket team. Captaining a standard Test team is hard enough, you could argue Virat Kohli has the toughest on-field leadership job in sport, but captaining this Pakistan team was perhaps the hardest job in cricket, and for those first few years after the non-stop crisis, it was perhaps the toughest in cricket ever. But had Pakistan not had players in jail, not been homeless through terrorism, and just been a normal, occasionally successful Test cricket team, might they have turned to an old man with a poor record as their captain?
His average at the time was 33 with the bat. The average of all modern-day players, no matter where they bat in the order, is 34. So Misbah was worse than the average of all players. He wasn’t even average, in an era of champion batsmen, he was well below the average average.
The reason he was put in that position wasn’t because of his batting; it was because of his utter Misbahness. His leadership potential was probably always evident. The hand gesture he does when things get rough on the field, where he puts both hands out and gestures as if he is touching an invisible piano, that isn’t just a cricket thing. You could imagine him in any situation, being the person to bring everyone down from their emotional peaks and think about what has just happened. You could see him in front of a charging bull, and suddenly stopping it with those calming hands and slightly tilted head.
And Pakistan cricket is a charging bull.
The Lord’s test was incredibly tense for days. Two beautifully flawed teams crashing into each other with cockiness and insecurity. The final day as England chased, there was a perfect time for a Pakistani implosion. You know the one, where there isn’t one captain on the field, but 300 million of them. Jonny Bairstow, on top of being an incredibly gifted hitter of a cricket ball, doesn’t just want to win, he wants to beat you. Partnered with the mild-mannered gormless Chris Woakes, a natural talent, Bairstow is the sort of player who can incite violence or rage in any of his opposition, and this was the type of Test, and the sort of low chase, where auto-combustion happens.
Pakistan bored at them with Yasir, but he couldn’t get through. They threw all of Wahab at them, as hard as they could, and nothing. And England were crawling through the razor wire and broken glass traps of Misbah’s plans towards a victory as Pakistan watched on.
Many flashpoints could have taken Pakistan down a bad path. Running on the pitch, big shouts in which they believed with all their hearts, staring matches with Bairstow, that all, on a different day, could have led Pakistan down a bad path. But through every moment of drama, there was Misbah, barely moving, barely conveying a message, barely doing anything, Misbah does more with a shrug than most men do with a gun. Pakistan was about to fly away and lose the match; he was determined to anchor them. It was 10 men vs one anchor, and the anchor won, and Pakistan won. And at the end of that series, they were number one.
The madness of Pakistan cricket had made Misbah, and Misbah had stopped Pakistan cricket’s madness.
There could be no review of Pakistan’s year that doesn’t include the worst moment in Misbah’s year, his bright orange shoes.
Three years ago I had a talk with my Pakistani friend about Misbah, and she was telling me that he is no good, not the right kind of leader, and that Pakistan cricket would be better off without him. She is not an unintelligent person, she’s quite accomplished, bright, and very much the future of Pakistan, but to her, Misbah is a boring loser without any leadership quality.
These days you are more likely to read a piece about how hated Misbah is, than read a piece that is full of hate for him. The tuk-tuk days are long gone. The man who almost won, and then lost, a World T20 final against India, is just part of his narrative. The fact that he (and to be fair, no human being in the world) could make the ODI team successful doesn’t matter. Because Misbah brought home the Mace.
The Mace has little symbolic importance in cricket. It is mentioned, but cricket still doesn’t embrace the Mace like other sport’s love their trophies. Australia received it not long before Pakistan, and it was handed over in a closed ceremony in Sri Lanka.
When Misbah held it, it was perhaps the first true time that the Mace stood for something. Maybe it wasn’t about cricket, but about Pakistan, the team with the flashy reputation, the green-shirted phenoms, cricket’s great dramatists, the silk-haired homeless boys, the cornered tigers, and now, for such a short but beautiful time, the best in the world in Test cricket.
They would have shared the photos, the memes, the joy, if it had been a World T20 or World Cup, but it wouldn’t have meant as much. There was Misbah, the former tuk-tuk, wearing aviators and holding onto cricket’s greatest phallus, try hating that. He looked cool, far cooler than he ever could be, in his green Pakistan jacket, stony-faced behind the sunglasses, Mace in hand. Hell, just for a moment he looked like the Pakistan of their dreams.
But then he remembered himself and took the aviators off, and behind the sunglasses was an awkward middle-aged man, who didn’t know how to look at the camera casually while holding a massive trophy. But in his awkwardness, without the wind blowing through his long beautiful flowing locks, it was clear, the Pakistan of their reality was just as legendary.
Sometimes cricketers have to do drastic things to change the perception of them. All Misbah had to do was keep being Misbah and conquer the world.
There was some worry from Pakistani government figures that Misbah’s army salute was a tacit support of the armed forces. It was a thank you to those who helped him prepare. But more than that, Misbah’s push-ups are really about showing his men, his nation, that it isn’t enough to be talented. If you want to make it to the top, to be the best you can, to get the most out of yourself, you have to work hard, harder than you ever have before, harder than anyone else. It wasn’t a novelty thing from him. It was a message to Pakistan, and a thank you to the men who helped prepare his team.
Misbah does push-ups, Pakistan follows. Misbah leads, Pakistan follows. Misbah believes, Pakistan believes. They believe in Pakistan, and Misbah.
This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print
The writer contributes to ESPNcricinfo and was the co-director of Death of a Gentleman. He tweets @ajarrodkimber