July 21, 2013

Enough about Misbah already

Pakistan needs to look beyond the captain at the real problems that afflict the team

Misbah: the focus of Pakistan's attention © AFP

One January morning in Lahore, a well-groomed young man, having walked up Davis Road to the Mall, turned to Charing Cross. His hair was sleek and shining and he wore sideburns. His thin moustache seemed to have been drawn with a pencil. He had on a brown overcoat with a cream coloured half opened rose in his buttonhole and a green felt hat which he wore at a rakish angle. A white silk scarf was knotted at his neck. One of his hands was slipped into a pocket of his overcoat while the other held a short polished cane which every now and then he twirled jauntily. (Excerpt from Ghulam Abbas' short story "Overcoat", translated by CZ Abbas)

One of Pakistan's greatest writers started his most popular story with these lines. I was reminded of his work earlier this week, while watching Pakistan's tour of the West Indies. Those of you who have been following this series are well aware that it is the largest televised event of competitive mediocrity since Simon Cowell's last show.

The question that came to mind while watching Pakistan bat in the first two matches had to do, inevitably, with the captain, Misbah-ul-Haq.

Misbah has spent almost all of the last year (and indeed his captaincy) coming in to bat within the first Powerplay; all three openers dismissed, and the score lower than a news channel's sense of ethics. He has then proceeded to play at a very slow pace, and sought to consume deliveries while minimising the risk of further losses.

The question therefore was whether this is the only way Misbah can bat, or if he has had no other option but to bat in such a manner.

For his fanatical followers, battling in a reactive, defensive style is the only recourse available to him because of the situations he faces. They argue that without Misbah's constant rearguard heroics, the team would keep breaking the record for the lowest conceivable total. They further point out that he has shown his ability in domestic tournaments (and earlier in his career) to play the big shots, and that it's the cruelty of circumstances that prevent him from bringing out this aspect of his batting in the international game.

For the multitude of Misbah's detractors, however, the glass is half-empty, poisoned, or perhaps even a figment of the imagination. They claim that Misbah doesn't know to bat any other way, and if he did, he has long forgotten it. They claim that his approach has suffused the team so deeply that erstwhile go-getters like Nasir Jamshed have also tamed their strike rates. And most importantly, they hold Misbah's approach to be the reason for Pakistan's miserable failures of late, arguing that not only is his style killing all flair, but that his approach means that any batsmen coming after him have too much on their hands to try to increase the run rate and don't deliver a competitive score.

It was during the middle of one such debate that I first thought of "Overcoat". At the story's conclusion, Abbas' protagonist is involved in a car accident. When he is taken to the hospital and his clothes are removed, we see the truth revealed about him.

Beneath the scarf, there was neither a tie nor a collar ... not even a shirt. When the overcoat was removed, it was found that the young man was only wearing an old cotton shirt, full of holes. Through these holes, one could see the dirty vest in an even worse shape than the shirt. The young man had wrapped the silk scarf in such a way that it concealed most of his neck and chest. Layers of dirt covered his body. He could not have had a bath for at least two months. Only the upper part of his neck was clean and scented.

The young man had been a pauper who had meticulously crafted his outward, debonair appearance to cover up his impoverished reality. And this is where #TeamMisbah comes in.

The debate in Pakistan so far is between one set of people that believes Misbah is the only person holding this terrible team together, versus another set that feels Misbah is the reason the team is so terrible. In essence, Misbah is either the lovely, fragrant overcoat or the tattered, sullied body underneath it.

Unfortunately, such a view obfuscates the larger, necessary debate. When we finish reading "Overcoat", we do not feel contempt for the protagonist, because his deception was not malicious. The contempt we feel is towards our own obsession with appearances, and how debilitating that can be.

We need to look beyond either crucifying or beatifying Misbah, and think about the reasons that have caused our team, and particularly its batting, to regress so alarmingly. We need to discuss issues of governance in our board, failures in our coaching and management, the sickening approach to selection, and the abdication of responsibility by the ICC and other boards. We need to talk about structural solutions, long-term plans for players and coaches, templates and institutions for guaranteeing success. To debate one player above all else is to be precisely the sort of short-sighted judgemental fools that Abbas exposed so masterfully.

For the good of Pakistan cricket, it's about time we looked beyond our overcoats.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 23, 2013, 8:17 GMT

    Pakistan is in the same problem that India faced for a long time. A set of reliable openers is needed. Going down 30 for 3 inside 15 overs means that most of the other batsmen do only a repair job. Pakistan needs to decide how to play 50 overs cricket. First, they have to last 50 overs. Pakistan does not feature the top 5 run accumulators in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy in any team of theirs. Nasir Jamshed is a talented player & can be persisted with but at 2 & 3 Pakistan need a typical technically sound grinder who will look to play the 50 overs. After that the Afridi's & Akmal's can take the attack to the opposition. How to play? That is the question.

  • Ahmer on July 23, 2013, 8:05 GMT

    @Anushrut Ramakrishnan Agrwaal A valid critique. I think the title slightly misleads though, since my intention was to talk about the debate and its pointlessness, rather than offer solutions or indeed details on where to look next.

    Lots of really interesting points in here, and I think the questions over Misbah's tactics are valid to an extent too. But we are also in an era of quite reactive captaincy (i think) and Misbah has used his bowlers in particular a lot better than many other captains.

    But I think if (as the PCB seems to have decided) Misbah's going to be captain in WC2015, there needs to be a lot of work done to identify and develop the core of the side. Afridi, as much as I worship him, has no place in this side now let alone two years down the line. And Hafeez, if he stays, needs to be no. 5 or below battling. We need a lot of other youngsters to be blooded in ASAP.

  • Raad on July 23, 2013, 7:33 GMT

    I think Umar Akmal should be promoted up the order, so that if there is an initial collapse he and Misbah can steady the ship. This will allow Pak to rescue initial collapses without losing the RR too much. Then Haris Sohail should come in, he is talented enough to compliment either. Finally, I believe Hafeez should come in, by this time the ball would have lost movement and he can score more runs. My batting order: 1. Shehzad 2. Jamshed 3. Umar Akmal 4. Misbah 5. H Sohail 6. Hafeez 7. Afridi. By WC 2015, hopefully Shafiq can take over Misbah's anchor role and Hammad Azam or Umar Amin can replace Afridi as a pacing allrounder, since Hafeez is good enough as an spinning allrounder. Another possible replacement for Misbah as anchor is Azhar Ali.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 23:57 GMT

    my comments are rarely posted on this website perhaps its selection policy is on par with pakistan cricket selection in which case my non selection is; I have not heaped praise on the author. Any how, Misbah is a poor captain, poor tactician and very often makes suspicious selection such as that of wahab riaz. The debate remains on him due to his poor showing in the champion league and his inept ability to take control in difficult situations.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 22:59 GMT

    It is a pity that 40 yrs old is our best batsman. The problem is that we can't identify young talent and give them enough chances. We tend to give 2 or 3 matches and then we drop them. Asad Shafique is a good example. He looks a complete player. But not getting a proper opportunity. While umar Amin is another talent. We need to give these players 10-15 matches in one go. Invest in young talent. While afridi should only get selected for t20. They need to find batting all rounder for no7 spot. Shoaib malik, umar Amin or Hamad azam can do the job.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 21:59 GMT

    Misbah in last few months whenever has come to bat he has hold the innings together. Its amazing to see a Pakistani batsman as consistent as Misbah. He has without any partner in the team has been Pakistan's batting HERO since WC 2011 . Hafeez has one good series and then poor run in 10-12 matches. Younas Khan in Odi's by a distance has not stood to his class, in Tests he has been astonishing . Shahid Afridi after the captian's controvesy had not stood up with the bat. A match winning 75 against SL at Sharjah, A match winning 50 against SL at Hambontota in T20 an the recent knocks against South Africa and WI after two consecutive comebacks there is nothing to show. Nasir Jamshed came an scored three hundreds against India and people thought he might be the man but his technique was exploited in South Africa. In this scenerio Misbah took all the responsibilty of Pakistan batting line-up and has had an amazing run last 12 months or so

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 21:57 GMT

    ugh.It isn't even about the way Misbah bats anymore.I truly hate his batting style but that isn't the point.The World-Cup is in 2015 and do you seriously expect a 41-42 year old Captain to lead your side to it? That is insane. Asad Shafique was put under the gun in India in the semi-final, when he wasn't even ready to play.Playing against the west-indies, its not about winning the series anymore.Series such as these should be a chance for youngsters to come in and show their worth.A middle order of hafeez, and misbah as our 3 and 4 just isn't good enough anymore.Look at South-Africa with its team of youngsters.Look at Australia and India.Here we have, a 40 year old man leading a side an year and a half before the major tournament.Beyond insane.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 19:21 GMT

    I will say Misbah is MR.Consistent for Pakistan, he took responsibility with cool mind, though the situation he came out to bat in is always more than worse. No doubt MS is great captain but if we put him in place of Misbah, than MS will be far behind in his performance.More importantly who can field better than Misbah in present eleven of any team by comparing the age, Misbah 39, is being amazing in his field with his acrobat fielding.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 19:19 GMT

    Pakistan does not lack cricket talent, it lacks cricket management and administration talent for sure! I see no reason why Umar Akmal, probably the most complete batsman in the team, has to come and bat with tail enders? Why Hafeez has to be in the top 3 when he is not competent to be top 3? Why we still perceive Afridi as a batsman as opposed to as a bowler and a tail-end batsmen? So many questions but same approach by PCB.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2013, 16:50 GMT

    Pak need 2 or 3 good batsmans who can bat around Misbah, if other guys are throwing their wickets. what is the fault of Misbah?

    Abdul Razzaq is 10 times better than Afridi, don't know why PCB is not selecting Razzaq, He is a consistent performer in domestic and at International level he is a match winner unlike Afridi or Hafeez.