Misbahul Haq: Leading from the front

Updated Apr 08, 2017 03:15pm


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Misbahul Haq poses with the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup Trophy in front of Badshahi Mosque in Lahore | Arif Ali, White Star
Misbahul Haq poses with the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup Trophy in front of Badshahi Mosque in Lahore | Arif Ali, White Star

At Lord’s last July, a sizeable crowd had gathered for the first day of the first Test match between England and Pakistan. In the third session, all of them – English supporters as well as Pakistani – held their breath for Pakistan’s captain Misbahul Haq, on 99. They collectively gasped when he popped a ball in the air from England’s pace bowler, Stephen Finn, but away from any fielder. Then he placed another ball from Finn safely to third man to complete his century on his debut at the Home of Cricket.

Through the quirks of selection policy, that debut had been delayed until he was 42, an age when most modern international cricketers have long retired. He was the oldest visiting captain since Australia’s Warwick Armstrong, nicknamed The Big Ship, in 1921 (and about half The Big Ship’s peak tonnage of 140 kilos). He was the oldest captain to score a Test century in 90 years; only Australia’s Warren Bardsley was older in making one at Lord’s in 1926.

These achievements, gabbled hastily by commentators, had already conquered the spectators’ hearts. Misbah delighted them still more by his impromptu press-up celebration on the ground, a tribute both to the team’s army trainers who helped them before the tour and his own energy, although, characteristically, he criticised himself for not going the full distance on each press-up.

English as well as Pakistani supporters gave Misbah another great reception when his team came out to celebrate their series-levelling victory at the Oval. This time he had made only a modest contribution as a batsman. But he had rallied his team after their defeat at Edgbaston, in a match they had dominated for two days.

Other Pakistan teams might have had a collapse in morale after such a defeat but Misbah told his men that they were still a fine team and that they should focus on victory. One Pakistani after another rose to the occasion, Sohail Khan, Wahab Riaz, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Yasir Shah, and above all, Misbah’s great lieutenant, Younus Khan, who had thus far had a lean and skittish series. In England’s second innings, when it looked as though they might set an awkward fourth-innings target, Misbah kept calm, kept his team calm, produced a few inspired bowling changes and snuffed out England’s resistance.

In England, as elsewhere, Misbah showed a priceless gift on the field for looking as though he had a plan. Former Test cricketer Mohsin Khan has paid tribute to this quality. He was chief coach for Pakistan in 2011-2012 when Misbah became the first captain to complete a 3-0 whitewash of England in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “He is a great player and a great gentleman,” Mohsin Khan told us, adding, “Misbah and I always had two or three game plans, and if one didn’t work we switched to another.” Misbah himself has a gently humorous explanation for his strategic sense: his love for snooker, at which he was a district champion in 1992. He told us: “Snooker develops your thinking, because you have to pot a ball, then look for colours or safety. You have to make a plan for your break, so it’s a thinking game.”

Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq walk with stumps as they leave the green | AP
Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq walk with stumps as they leave the green | AP

Misbah’s was the most popular Pakistan team to visit England since Intikhab Alam’s fine teams in the 1970s; it was fitting that Intikhab Alam should be their manager in 2016.

Their reception was all the more gratifying since it was set against the grim background of British media stereotyping of Pakistan (which is set out in Peter Oborne’s history, Wounded Tiger). Broadly speaking, this began when Pakistan advanced from their status as talented losers and started winning matches regularly against England. None of England’s opponents have ever been so vilified as Pakistan for so long, not even the West Indies, even when their bowlers regularly threatened English players with injury. Attacks on Pakistani players, including from respected English writers, have been tinged with racism. Almost every possible charge has been thrown against them, from rudeness on the field to outright cheating and crime.

The British media had a field day on Pakistan’s last two tours of England: 2006 ended in chaos, acrimony and the controversial forfeiture of the Oval Test, after Pakistan were accused of ball tampering; 2010 ended with three players, including the captain, in the legal mire after accusations of spot-fixing. Cricketing relations between the two teams, and the two nations, went down to their lowest ebb.

That was the legacy awaiting Misbah last summer. One foot wrong on the tour (literally, in the case of Mohammad Amir) and the British media would have pounced again. But, more than anyone, Misbah made sure that this did not happen.

In a sense he was lucky to have missed the last two tours, although he no doubt felt differently at the time. It meant that he arrived in England with no unwanted baggage and allowed him to impress his own personality on the media and the public.

He was ideally suited for that task. Misbah showed many qualities which the English admire in cricket captains, perhaps more so than Pakistanis. They appreciated his soft, taciturn speaking style, relieved by shafts of sly wit, his phlegmatic personality on the field, his determination in adversity and his almost visible integrity. Any number of English actors could have played him in a movie — perhaps David Niven or Trevor Howard, who were great cricket fans.

English fans, therefore, shared Pakistan’s joy a few weeks after the Oval Test, when rain wrecked India’s Test match against the West Indies. That enabled Pakistan to claim the number one spot in the world Test rankings for the first time since these rankings were created in 2003. In Lahore in September 2016, he accepted the International Cricket Council (ICC) Mace for that achievement in a characteristically laconic but gracious speech. He paid tribute to “every player that played, every coach and every selector. A captain or leader cannot do anything without resources. The last series against England was the real test for this team and all the players performed out of their skins”.

Out of the cricketing wreckage of 2010, Misbah created a Pakistani team in his own mould, hard to beat and resolute in adversity. It is no longer a collection of disparate talents; its players work hard for each other and accept personal responsibility towards their team and their country.

Late in December, as 2016 shrivelled to a cold ending, he became the first Pakistani to win the ICC Spirit of Cricket Award. He again credited his team for his achievement, for “playing within the rich traditions of the sport with a positive mindset and approach”.

He is statistically Pakistan’s best-ever Test captain. The Oval victory was his 22nd in 46 Tests as captain. His next four Tests produced two more victories followed by two defeats, making 24 victories from 50. He is the first Pakistani to reach the milestone of having captained his side for half a century of Test matches, a testament to Pakistan’s profligacy with captains. Even Sri Lanka, which entered Test cricket nearly 30 years after Pakistan, has produced a captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, with a longer reign. Imran Khan, whose family comes from the same Niazi tribe as Misbah’s from Mianwali district in west Punjab, had 14 wins in 48 Tests as captain (in fairness, Imran often disdained playing against Pakistan’s weaker opponents). Javed Miandad also had 14 wins, from 35 matches.

Misbah’s results are impressive enough. What makes them extraordinary is the scale of the obstacles he has had to overcome. Summoned to lead at a late age in his cricketing life, he took over a defeated outfit, demoralised by corruption and crime, despised by most of its opponents.

As he has narrated, Misbah was actually offered the captaincy in a clerk’s room by the then Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman, Ijaz Butt. “He wanted to keep the meeting confidential. He didn’t have many options. I kept it a secret too, and owing to the state of affairs at the time, I did not share it, even with my family.”

Since the terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankans in 2009 in Lahore, the headquarters of Pakistan cricket, Pakistan have not played a single international match at home apart from last year’s short one-day series against a makeshift Zimbabwe team. Misbah has spoken eloquently about the impact of exile. For the players it entails camping for most of the year in foreign hotel rooms. It means playing “home” matches in gleaming empty stadiums in the UAE, without help from atmosphere and crowd encouragement — and with no influence on pitch preparation. In accepting the ICC Mace, Misbah was right to claim that “we have played all our matches on grounds which are foreign to us. Even Dubai and Abu Dhabi are foreign grounds”. (To rub in this status, Pakistan’s players actually require visas to play there.) Misbah added with some feeling: “The families of the players have really sacrificed a lot too. We have to spend almost six to seven months out of the country without them.”

Misbah is Pakistan's most successful captain | Reuters
Misbah is Pakistan's most successful captain | Reuters

International exile deprives Pakistani supporters of personal contact with their stars. It robs youngsters of opportunities for inspiration and mentorship and it forecloses chances for domestic players to make a sudden breakthrough into the national team, like the brilliant teenagers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, or the inspired net bowler, Tauseef Ahmed, did in their day and time.

Misbah has also faced recurring selection problems, particularly in finding an opening combination and an all-rounder and in the loss of key bowlers. To win the two Tests in England, his team had to dismiss a powerful batting line-up twice with four bowlers, none of whom had taken 100 Test wickets. The loss to international cricket of Saeed Ajmal not only deprived Misbah of his most productive bowler but also of his closest friend in the team, the man who best understood his thinking — and his understated jokes.

Misbah has had to cope with the huge weight of expectations which Pakistani administrators, media and supporters place on their cricket captains. His achievements have never silenced carping and even hysterical critics. Like many distinguished predecessors, he has seen himself burnt in effigy.

Misbah has coped much better with all this pressure and criticism than most other captains. He has never allowed himself to be upset by critics, except when they have upset his wife or his mother. When interviewed for our book, Misbah paid deep tribute to his family for their support at low points for him and his team, particularly his wife Uzma Khan. “Sometimes, days pass without us speaking on the telephone, but she tells me to concentrate on my duties to the team and give whatever I can to Pakistan.” Uzma, a professional painter, has an open and expressive personality. Misbah enjoys seeing television cutaway shots of her, and their 11-year-old son, Faham, in their full-on celebrations whenever he does anything good.

With a strong family unit helping to sustain his independence of spirit and acute powers of analysis, Misbah has stayed true to his methods as a batsman and as a captain.

He has endured constant mocking as a ‘tuk-tuk’ batsman (for his low strike-rate), plodding along like a driver of Pakistan’s ubiquitous auto-rickshaws. But he is entitled to take that as a compliment. In our experience, tuk-tuk drivers are brilliant in tight corners, have a great eye for any gap in the close field and can show startling bursts of acceleration. His Lord’s century was typical, coming in when Pakistan were wobbling; he set himself to build partnerships, scoring safely by placement, with passages of violence against his chosen target bowler.

Apart from being Pakistan’s most successful captain, Misbah is among the country’s best-educated sports leaders — right after Imran Khan and Abdul Hafeez Kardar, both Oxford graduates

No Test batsman with a substantial career for any country has shown such an improvement since taking over the captaincy. Before becoming captain, he managed 1,008 runs in 19 scattered Tests at an average of 33.60. As captain, before the Australia series in December 2016, he scored 3,867 runs in 50 Tests (that he played when he was aged between 36 and 42) at an average of 53.71.

Apart from being Pakistan’s most successful captain, Misbah is among the country’s best-educated sports leaders — right after Imran Khan and Abdul Hafeez Kardar, both Oxford graduates. That is the legacy of two strong-minded parents who were both educators, particularly his widowed mother who insisted that he complete his MBA at what is now Lahore’s University of Management and Technology in preference to full-time cricket. He has applied lessons from his MBA in captaincy, especially in man-management.

By all reports, he has largely dispelled the hierarchy that used to prevail in the Pakistan dressing room. Junior players are heard and senior players are expected to earn their respect rather than command their obedience. Both Wasim Akram and England’s former captain Nasser Hussain have called him a father figure to other members of his team. “When he speaks in the dressing room, the players listen. It’s always the sign of a good captain,” observed Hussain. “The players trust him and are buying into his ideas, but why wouldn’t they?”

Misbah has successfully reintegrated Mohammad Amir into the team, after initial hostility from Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez. Under his leadership, Amir came through an English tour which could have been a minefield of hostility from opponents, media and fans. Misbah has shown faith and visible appreciation towards his pace bowler who, although has not matched the personal achievements of his early career, has been a willing and hard-working member of a fast-bowling unit which lacks the express pace of a Shoaib Akhtar or the guile of a Wasim Akram but, more often than not, exhibits the dogged spirit of an Imran Khan. In the recent Test against Australia at Brisbane, Amir broke down with an injury which looked terrifying and even terminal. He returned within a few overs to bowl a superlative although unrewarded spell, and then served Pakistan nobly with the bat.

Crucially, Misbah has forged a powerful relationship on and off the field with Younus Khan, although they have different personalities and there have been occasional reported clashes between them. Besides their multiple batting partnerships (totalling over 3,000 runs at an average close to 80), they have provided a moral spine to their team, setting expectations of application and behaviour that they have always been willing to meet themselves. If Misbah chooses to write it, an account of his personal fitness regime would be a global bestseller.

Misbahul Haq posing with the Test Championship mace at Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore | M Arif, White Star
Misbahul Haq posing with the Test Championship mace at Qaddafi Stadium, Lahore | M Arif, White Star

In English conversation, the word most frequently used by both men is “responsibility”. It is more noticeable with Misbah, since he uses words more sparingly than Younus does. He took it as a personal mission to make Pakistanis, and the rest of the world, proud of their cricket. He is delighted with the response he has received from his team. He told us, “All credit to the boys, they really tried to help me. They also thought that Pakistan’s image had really been hit by scandal and it was their duty to restore it. They made extra efforts to get respect back from fans and keep out of any sort of controversy.”

Out of the cricketing wreckage of 2010, Misbah created a Pakistan team in his own mould, hard to beat and resolute in adversity. It is no longer a collection of disparate talents; its players work hard for each other and accept personal responsibility towards their team and their country. Many past Pakistan teams would have accepted their fate meekly after being pummelled for four days, as was the case in the Brisbane Test. Although he was unable to make a personal contribution, Misbah’s team rallied to win Australian hearts with one of the finest fourth innings in cricket history.

Pakistan cricket has always been closely identified with the state of Pakistan. Its founding father, Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius, intended it to be so, and actually linked control of Pakistan cricket to the country’s government. The health of Pakistan cricket has always been intimately bound up with the successes or setbacks of the nation itself.

Misbah’s team have given the world an image of what Pakistan itself can achieve by thoughtful, principled leadership.

That is why, as two foreign friends and admirers of Pakistan, we would have loved to see him as the Herald’s Person of the Year.

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.

Peter Oborne and Richard Heller have co-authored a book on Pakistani cricket, titled White on Green.