Misbah's wilderness years
"How is it possible that somebody like Misbah, who will go down as one of Pakistan's best batsmen, starts playing Test cricket when he's 34? That's the age at which batsmen in Australia retire!"
There's a trope now in Imran Khan interviews (there's one "exclusive" interview every month, it seems like) where they end with the interviewer talking about something on a "lighter note" - invariably cricket, and so invariably Imran turns to his greatest bugbear: the state of domestic cricket in the country. For all that one could disagree with Imran's political viewpoints, he was pretty much a prophet as far as concerns over domestic cricket are concerned. Even if he didn't play any domestic first-class matches after 1981, he did realise, and was vociferous about, the faults in the domestic game. In the three decades since, domestic cricket in Pakistan has only declined further, to the point that the era when Imran preferred to play in England and Australia instead of at home is now considered a golden era of domestic cricket.
The failure of the domestic game to identify Misbah in due time is representative of how the first-class circuit fails to provide a pipeline to the national team. With quantity superseding quality, it becomes difficult to ascertain what is easy and what is worthy in terms of performance. And yet at the same time Misbah's career also represents how a failure to understand or appreciate the domestic game leads to a state where high achievers never get their just dues.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle - Misbah's career is a summation of Imran's warnings, and yet a rejection of those who believed Imran's words without ever considering the nuances they contained. Not the career that everyone is familiar with, but all that came before: when Misbah was a domestic dominator, the captain of the A team, forgotten on the international stage, and content to waste away his peak in front of empty stands.
"This was around 2000," Misbah said to me in an interview recently. "I had already played a season or two of first-class, and I had decided that I was going to go all in. I played that season like it was my last. And that approach turned out to be right."
In the summer before the 2000-01 domestic season, he had decided that he wanted to be more than just the guy who was known for hitting big against spin. Time was already running out for a player who had taken a unique path to the domestic game in a country where, if you didn't make your international debut by your mid-20s, international cricket was never going to be a possibility for you. Here was a man who had made his first-class debut at the age of 24! He had his MBA, but what was the point of that in a young man's sport?
The season before, in 1999-00, he had finished with 803 runs at an average of 38. Atop the scoring charts that year was another man fighting against the norms - Younis Khan had scored 1102 runs at an average in excess of 100. Younis' form would allow him to finish the season with a Test debut, and a hundred to boot. Here was proof that domestic numbers still mattered. So Misbah was going to buckle down.
The 2000-01 season was the start of one of the finest statistical runs in modern Pakistani domestic history. Misbah led the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy batting charts with 947 runs at 63, and averaged 50 in List A. And yet, as he is open to admit, that didn't mean he was a particularly good batsman at the time.
By the end of that season, he made his Pakistan debut, thrown into the deep end, sent in at No. 3 in the second innings in Auckland. He failed to score enough runs there, but what he gained became the basis for all that was to come.
"I had never even thought about it, that I would reach this stage, that I will share the dressing room with such greats," Misbah said in an interview to the Cricket Monthly in 2015. "There were so many greats at the time, Inzamam, Wasim, Waqar, Saqlain, Mushtaq, Moin and Mohammad Yousuf. They were such big stars, and they kept their distance from the juniors. But even observing them from so close was good fortune for guys like me. The professionalism they had, the spirit they had for the game was exemplary. Guys like Wasim or Waqar went into the field thinking, 'Uda dena hai, maar dena hai' [We have to blow them away, we have to beat them]. That conviction they had was what I carried from there on in. Whether it was a domestic game or a club game, I learnt from them that when you play, you leave everything out on the field."
Their professionalism wasn't the only thing that Misbah would gain from his international debut.
"At that time, unless you had played international cricket, you didn't know what you looked like when you played. So the season after my debut Test I totally changed the way I batted. I changed my technique. Before that I had no idea how your feet were supposed to move, how your balance shifts.
"That summer, I spent three months in the NCA, played for the Pakistan A team, and completely changed the way I play. The likes of Mudassar Nazar, Ali Zia and Julien Fountain really helped me get my foundations right in batting and fielding. It was only after I debuted in international cricket that I found out what cricket really is. Before that, all I knew was how to score runs, and nothing else."
The result of all this was another extraordinary domestic season in 2001-02: 846 runs at 94, finishing as the second highest scorer in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. The following season he was back at the top of the charts, with 963 runs at 107. No one else even went past 650 runs. At that stage he had a three-year Quaid-e-Azam record of 2756 runs at 83.5. But the numbers don't reveal the work he put in.
Saeed Ajmal, friend and foe for the best part of 20 years, describes how Misbah changed during those three seasons.
"One thing he always had is, he never gives up, he always finds a solution to whatever problem he has," Ajmal says. "And his commitment, even right now, is unquestionable. How many other cricketers would use the time between captaining a PSL team and captaining the national team to try getting their region promoted back to first-class cricket? He plays every game with that commitment, and he has done so since 2001. Before that he used to score hundreds but would take 350 balls to make them!"
This is no exaggeration. In November 1999, Misbah scored 129 off 451 balls against Ajmal's Faisalabad in his attempt to save a four-day game.
"When Faisalabad used to play Sargodha, we knew he was the leecharr player, that he wouldn't play a shot," Ajmal recalls. "But when he came back from the national team he had a different mindset. He would punish the bowlers and I think he might have doubled his strike rate during that time. The only thing that remained constant was that he remained first in training and in eating."
These memories are borne out in Misbah's numbers. In the two seasons before his international debut he scored at a strike rate of 38. In the two seasons following it, he scored at 57.
But Misbah's success didn't really translate to the international level. While he scored consistently (averaging 43 in eight ODIs in his debut year of 2002), his inability to score quickly and the sheer number of big names in the Pakistan line-up meant that he was never given a long rope, especially with the 2003 World Cup round the corner.
In the fine Pakistani tradition of the establishment not understanding what format a player is suited to, Misbah played only four Tests in the three years in which he dominated domestic cricket - the three matches after his debut came against Steve Waugh's Australia. That failure, apparently, was enough to discard the most dominant domestic batsman at the time; he would play only one Test in the next five years.
More than anything else, the reason for ignoring him was his age. After the 2003 World Cup, Pakistan cricket tried to enter a new phase - a whole new generation of cricketers was inducted, the first-class system was tweaked, and the domestic pitches were changed. Misbah was on the outside looking in. Between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, he would only play four ODIs to go with that lone Test.
"I've always had my age as a disadvantage," Misbah said recently. "When I entered first-class cricket or played international, it was the same. At that time you would retire at 32-33, so everyone said, if this guy is debuting at 27, he isn't a long-term option. I suffered a lot due to that, was discouraged by the lack of chances. But I survived because cricket is something I love. It was only because it was my passion that I continued to play as I did.
"I made my debut with Imran Farhat, Faisal Iqbal and Mohammad Sami. They were youngsters, so they were given chances after that. I think it was too early to give a conclusive judgement on someone who isn't even 30. That's when you get to your physical and mental peak. It's around 30 to 35 that you have to cash in on all the hard work you did in your 20s. Fortunately, I think after myself and Younis bhai, this thinking is starting to change. We are finally focusing on form and fitness and not on someone's date of birth. "
Discarded as someone too old to make a big mark in international cricket, he went back to the domestic game, resigning himself to a career of competence over excellence. Over the next three years Misbah would average 44 in domestic first-class cricket - decent numbers, but a far cry from what had come before. He would also average over 40 in six out of eight List A seasons before 2006-07.
At the same time he found new roles outside of traditional settings. He became one of the pillars of an active Pakistan A team, where, while his long-form numbers weren't that impressive, he averaged 54 at a strike rate just under 80 in one-dayers. And it wasn't as if he was the lone future big name in the A-team circuit at the time. In one tournament he was sandwiched at the top of the runs table by MS Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir - three men who would go on to play over 220 Tests combined.
In another, Misbah and Hasan Raza led Pakistan A to a tournament win against an India A team that had 11 players who had played or would go on to play international cricket.
Perhaps most significantly, of the 32 matches he played for Pakistan A (nine long-form and 23 one-dayers), he would captain the team in 27 of them.
Knowing the PCB's ways, his appointment wasn't part of any great plan. It was just the norm of having the oldest and the most educated member of the team leading them. But it was in those matches, noticed by no one, that the foundation of Pakistan's success in the following decade was laid.
This time was also significant for Misbah off the field. In 2003 he got a job at Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL), where he has played his departmental cricket since. And a fortnight short of his 30th birthday, he did what every desi male closing in on that landmark does: he got married. But his marriage to Uzma Khan wasn't your typical desi marriage.
"Finances were never a problem for us," says Uzma. "At the start he would give me Rs 10,000 to run the house and that used to be enough for us back then. And he got me a car so that I could travel to university, where I was doing my Masters, so I always had freedom too. But I did keep hearing - though not from his friends and family - that he was never picked for the national team after our marriage, and it was my kismet that was bringing him down."
In some subcontinental cultures, there is this idea that a bride brings her luck to her new home. "So I would blame myself for it," she says. "I would pray after Namaz, after Tahajjud, that God give him everything he had wished for. All I prayed for was for him to get back in the team."
And so Misbah ploughed on, becoming a casualty of the best middle order Pakistan have ever had. Three greats were complemented by either an allrounder or a young star - Misbah was neither of those things.
Here he was, a man with an MBA degree, with friends who were now bureaucrats or climbing up the corporate ladder, who was earning just enough to get by.
"I never thought I was missing out on something by not going to the corporate world," Misbah says. "They were doing jobs, I was doing something I love. Money was never a priority for me. That's why while so many other cricketers used to go to play league cricket in England, I rarely did. I would rather be in Pakistan, play four or five club matches a week, still have time for training and nets, and have great weather than be somewhere where you have one match a week, and that might be rained off.
"When I did go to play in England, it was so depressing. You would sit indoors all day, and when it was time to play, it would rain. How could I possibly improve there? All I wanted to do was play cricket, get better, and that's it. So I would play every club match, regional match, department match, whatever it was."
In 2006, with Inzamam banned from the Champions Trophy due to the Oval fiasco, Younis was appointed captain for the tournament. He fought for the selection of Misbah, and was instead given Faisal. Unable to get the team he wanted, Younis did what Younis does - he refused to compromise, and resigned. It was obvious that Misbah's time was running out.
A poor Patron's Trophy followed, to end 2006, and it seemed as if Misbah was on the decline. Thus, as he did in 2000, he decided he was going to go all in again.
"At the start of 2007 he asked me to just give him six months or so," says Uzma. "He told me he didn't want to go to any functions or weddings or birthdays. Just wanted to focus on his cricket.
"He had bought me a Sony video camera for our anniversary the previous year. He would take that camera to nets every day, record his batting, then come home and just go through that day's video during the night. That's all he did every night."
In the subsequent Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Misbah finished as the third highest scorer with 577 runs at 64.11.
"At that same time he had put in our savings to buy a car from someone, and that guy ran off with the money. That year Misbah was playing in England, and I couldn't go and meet him because we just had Rs 17,000 in our account, and I didn't know what to do. Thankfully he had to come back earlier than scheduled from England. Because he had been selected for the 2007 World T20 camp."
The rest, as they say, is history.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag