April 26, 2013

The life of Misbah

Early signs suggest that 2013 could see the emergence of a new Misbah, a man more open to change

Misbah-ul-Haq: time for a final re-emergence? © Associated Press

Two Pakistan veterans have been on trial over the last few weeks. Shahid Afridi and Misbah-ul-Haq may be about the same age but their career paths have little in common.

Afridi, whose tete-a-tete with Ijaz Butt recently made the headlines, is an unusual case. He was celebrated at the start of his career as the epitome of all that is Pakistani. His crests and troughs have mirrored those of the national team. But for perhaps the first time in a decade, his place is up for question. Excluding matches against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the Associate nations, he only has six double-figure scores in his last 18 matches. But then, his batting has always been like a cheesy pick-up line - you're always surprised when it succeeds. More worryingly, though, during this period he has a bowling average over 100.

While Afridi has forever been the team's mistress, forgiven his misdemeanours, Misbah is the dutiful wife, whose every failure is frowned upon. He has been stuck with the nickname "tuk tuk", a result of his defensive style, though his career has been far more nuanced than that would suggest. And unlike Afridi's bowling graph - a bell curve - Misbah's career can be separated into four distinct phases.

During the first, from his Test debut in 2000-01 until he was dropped from the ODI squad - for what seemed like the final time - in 2004, he was a domestic bully. A modern-day Shafiq Ahmed, he couldn't translate first-class success to the international stage, and his highest score in 12 matches was 50 not out. He could argue that his career might have been more fruitful had he been given an extended run. But neither would this complaint be new nor would it be the last time a domestic high-achiever would voice it - as Fawad Alam's case indicates.

Misbah's 2007 resurrection, after Mohammad Yousuf was dropped for being "too old" for T20, was controversial, not in the least because Misbah was older than the man he replaced. Perhaps for the first time in his life, all eyes were on Misbah, and he shone under the spotlight.

Many recall his misbegotten scoop at the end of the World T20, but till then he had been a revelation. He was the third-highest scorer in the tournament despite not having batted in the top five once. It was almost as if he was taking a dig at conventional T20 logic. The only two batsmen who scored more were openers (Gautam Gambhir and Matthew Hayden), and Misbah's strike rate of 139.74 was higher than those of MS Dhoni, Virender Sehwag and Brendon McCullum.

Over the next 18 months he was Pakistan's finisher-in-chief. He often batted at No. 6 during this period and averaged 40.6, with a strike rate of 85.7. India - his nemesis in the past - suffered the most: he averaged 47.7 at a strike rate of over 100 against them. Misbah recently implied that all one needed to boost one's international stats is a tour of India - it's likely he doesn't find Indian conditions and their bowlers too challenging.

Misbah's career seemed to be over in the second half of 2009 with the return of Yousuf and the rise of Umar Akmal. But like the proverbial phoenix, he rose from the ashes of the team's spot-fixing saga. Though he wasn't captain, he was a leader of the side's batting. He probably did more than anyone to haul the team from the depths of the 2010 English summer, and led them to what was probably Pakistan's greatest Test series win.

While Afridi has forever been the team's mistress - forgiven for his misdemeanours - Misbah is the dutiful wife, whose every failure is frowned upon

His role, he says, was to stay at one end to give freedom to his partner, and then let loose in the death overs. His desire to protect his wicket would eventually backfire, in terms of how he was viewed, and it was during this phase that he was handed the nickname "tuktuk"; he became a heretic in a land of mavericks.

The numbers show that both parties had a point. While an average of 43.7 is commendable, a strike rate of 67 clearly isn't. Perhaps a better support cast would have made his role easier to stomach - among his team-mates only Nasir Jamshed and Umar Akmal average over 35 in ODIs, and the constant failures of the middle order (Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, Kamran Akmal and Asad Shafiq, who all average under 30 with strike rates under 80 during his current reign) could have nullified Misbah's desire to be the sheet anchor. The fact that he refused to change his stance or batting strategy meant that he was the first to be targeted for the team's losses.

Misbah says those days are long gone. His detractors had much fun at his expense when he said he would only play his "natural game". This despite him having proved that his natural game is far different from what we have become accustomed to. He indicated - though not explicitly - that the call for his head after the ODI series win against India played a part in him adopting this new viewpoint.

Former and current players, including ex-team-mates, have urged him to be the player he was at domestic level for over a decade. And early signs suggest that 2013 could see the emergence of a new Misbah, a man more open to change. In South Africa he was Pakistan's best batsman by a mile, scoring 227 runs at a strike rate above 80.

He followed that up by being the best batsman in the Super Eight T20 Cup, with an average over a 100 and a strike rate above 140 - numbers straight out of his pre-captaincy era. And he led his team, SNGPL, to the semi-final of the President's Trophy, Pakistan's most prestigious 50-over tournament, averaging 74 with a strike rate above 120 - not numbers you would expect from a man mocked for conservative batting.

This may well be only a phase. Or perhaps it's just good form. But in conversations - both in South Africa and Pakistan - he has repeatedly said that this change has been a conscious decision.

It would seem that he will lead Pakistan to the Champions Trophy - a situation that looked nigh-on impossible through most of his ODI tenure (as was made obvious by the fact that he was in contract talks to play for Worcestershire this English season). And Pakistan, whose semi-inexperienced batting order could struggle in English conditions, will need the new (or is it the old?) Misbah.

To understand how far outside the realm of logic Pakistan cricket operates, consider this: barely two years on from the semi-final defeat in Mohali, Pakistan could start an ICC tournament with Misbah as their only hope.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here