January 21, 2014

Misbah's moment

The Sharjah chase was perhaps Pakistan's best ever, owing much to the collective spirit that the oft-vilified captain has nurtured

Misbah-ul-Haq: got glory this time to go with his guts © AFP

Sometimes sportsmen defy expectations. When that happens, your heart leaps for joy and events on a field transcend the mundane routine of everyday existence. Such cheer is even possible on Blue Monday, the day designated by believers in scientific nonsense to be the most depressing day of the year. If anything, it was the build-up to this Blue Monday, and not the day itself, that killed the spirit. Sri Lanka, a nation of exuberant cricketers, chose a path of demoralisation, run rates below 2.5 an over threatened to suck all life from the final Test.

Perhaps Pakistan didn't like what they saw? Sri Lanka's dull beat was a reflection of the performances that have characterised Pakistan in these gruelling wilderness years. Gritty, pragmatic cricket has brought some measure of stability but frustrated supporters who seek a more daring team to follow, a captain to love. Misbah-ul Haq, Pakistan's admirably unflinching leader, is deemed to be the architect of this humdrum philosophy. Misbah is dismissed as a goat, a donkey, even a jackal, depending on which beast at the moment best represents a spineless creature.

Misbah is none of these. A lion's heart thuds inside his chest. An ice-cool brain governs his decisions. It takes guts to defy a nation pleading for instant thrills. It takes more guts to defy your own instincts, for Misbah is no plodder of a batsman. His T20 record dismisses that charge. His range of shots and intermittent spasms of aggression in Test cricket betray the art of a batsman of high order.

Misbah is no blocker. Rather, he is a man biding his time, waiting for a moment to cut loose. Those opportunities have been too infrequent in recent years, thanks to the consistent failures of Pakistan's top order. Misbah is thus shackled, three years a slave to necessity. He still holds his head high. Critics remain sceptical because critics are as susceptible as any human to jealousy and stubbornness. Misbah makes mistakes, both as captain and as batsman, but the verdict on his achievements can only be one of admiration.

Misbah has had many successes as Pakistan captain, but his record missed a signature victory, a glorious tale to testify to his legend. He has it now - in Sharjah, Pakistan cricket's stadium of legends. It was a remarkable victory for several reasons. Scores of over 300 are rarely achieved in the fourth innings to win a match. In two sessions? Forget it. Pakistan's fourth-innings record is particularly poor. A diabolical top order usually condemns Misbah to a lonely vigil, yet Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed, three young scamps under pressure to establish themselves, shared their captain's burden. All three delivered when they were expected to fail.

But, most impressively, Pakistan dared to chase Sri Lankan's challenging total. It was audacious, a heartfelt desire among supporters, but quite unexpected. Sri Lanka helped. They bowled erratically and set fields that allowed runs to easily accumulate. Still, this victory was one of Pakistan's best ever, perhaps the best-managed run chase by Pakistan in Test cricket, owing much to the collective spirit that Misbah has nurtured.

There is a moment in the career of every great player, a tipping point, when questions about quality seem impertinent and irrelevant. Pakistan won a memorable Test match in Sharjah, but it was also the tipping point in Misbah's career, the moment a vilified captain crossed a threshold to join the greats of Pakistan cricket. Misbah has won many matches as captain, but our minds dwell on heroism, on victories against the odds. This was Misbah's moment. In Sharjah in the twilight, Misbah won the love of his people and banished the blues, not just from Monday but from his career.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here