November 5, 2015

Pakistan's faceless duo

They don't have the flair of their team-mates, but they have plenty of mettle and their contributions speak volumes

Sideliners: did you notice the contributions of this unassuming pair in the series win over England? © Getty Images

If you saw him out of context, would you be able to explain what he's doing? Moving in loops and leaps like a 19th-century toy made of wood and springs, his actions are at once both ungainly and as mystifying as the movement of the cosmos - the points of his elbows and the angles of his wrists revolving like planets around his body.

If he looks like a cricketer, it's one from a sepia photo, taken at a time when there were more colonies than countries in the world game and tours involved steam ships and stopovers in the Pacific. He looks like a player from the era when his country had just gained independence and its players wore Brylcreem in their hair and had jazba in their hearts to win matches abroad. He might have fit well in that era, walking away from The Oval in a wide-shouldered overcoat, lighting a cigarette before ducking into a jazz bar.

But he is a misfit now.

Line up the current England team next to him to see the contrast. Almost all of them, even the one with flowing beard, are generally beautiful men. They have taut, trim bodies and eyelashes as long as their strides. When they stand together, they look like the finalists for a reality pop-star hunt, at once confident and bashful.

In contrast, he carries a quiet vulnerability that you can't help but admire, and then adore. You see it in his appeals lately. There was a time when they were more reliable than the umpire and the DRS combined. But after a tough first Test and unwarranted scrutiny about his place, he allowed himself a little more desperation: now he was just as exuberant for the "umpire's calls" as well, beginning each appeal with a confident turn before slowly crumbling, then briefly appearing shell-shocked, and finally turning his head away and nestling it in the nook of his arm. Entire ghazals would struggle to match the emotional ululation of each appeal.

In the future, when cricket stops turning to marketers and broadcasters and looks to trust and enjoy statistics and sabermetrics more, we might celebrate him more readily than we do now. They might have a system for measuring his value in exerting control and paving the way for others, of measuring his control and subtleties. They might give a cool, slightly ironic nickname, like Misbah's Moneyball, and chide this era's analysts for having called him a schoolboy bowler.

For a nation that lusts after its cricketers, these are the guys whose technique matches their appearance: neat and functional side partings in a land of mullets and manes

Three years ago, when his captain laid the ground for what would turn a foreign wasteland into a fortress, he had used an outrageously talented front-line spinner alongside a reserved, underrated one. The pleasing symmetry in the repetition of that narrative misses out on how remarkable it is that the bowlers involved have changed.

That wasn't the only duo at Misbah's command - he had another, doughtier pair, infused with far more grit and even less flair. Since 2012, the two had matured rapidly, though few took notice. Even now, line up their faces next to your ABs, KPs and MSDs and you would forgive most fans, even those from their own country, for not recognising them. Still, one of them managed to take on the ODI captaincy, his value belatedly recognised after a World Cup he wasn't picked for.

But what of this chhota?

The world, in general, and sport in particular, is not kind to little people, but cricket prizes its pint-sized heroes and has various roles for them. But even here, to be heard, the chhota has to have a big mouth or sublime talent, often both. This chap has neither. He has few fans, since apart from lacking an outsize personality or playing style, he is also seen as a nepotistic pick by the management in the format he struggles in.

His role is ridiculously thankless - he acts as the link between the world's currently most prolific middle order and its worst tail. And yet, no one has as many hundreds from his position other than a guy named Garry Sobers.

Time and again he is the paper that covers the cracks in his nomadic team. He can hide the fact that the team's mainstays are pushing the limits of their bodies, or that the top order continues to be a lottery. He has nudged his team's flailing body over many finish lines, despite being accompanied by a tail that is so old-school you can only hear it on vinyl. Each effort tends to get drowned out by the efforts of a senior player, or more often, a charismatic bowler.

Players like these exist as Schrodinger's scapegoats of a sort. When the team wins, their efforts are dismissed in favour of the feats of others; when it doesn't do as well (though this team rarely loses), they are the first names brought up as the reasons for failure. For a nation that lusts after its cricketers, they are the guys whose technique matches their appearance - and hence how they are perceived as players: neat and functional side partings in a land of mullets and manes.

Indeed, given I haven't mentioned their names or, you might not know either. They stand on the blurred edges of a team condemned to the blurred edges of the world game. But if you manage to stop glancing and actually look, if you can do away with the stereotypes or the apathy, then you will be able to see their works of subtle, restrained beauty. But even if you don't, it doesn't quite matter - the joy of what they do doesn't need our validation.

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. @karachikhatmal

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