November 9, 2007

Misbah walks the finishing tight-rope

Misbah-ul-Haq's only flaw is that he doesn't yet finish, he doesn't leave an asterisk beside his name often enough



Misbah-ul-Haq's prowess to finish games has been tainted by his poor shot selection © AFP

Asif Mujtaba recently spoke about a couple of ODI innings against Australia, possibly among the best played by a Pakistani ever. The more celebrated is the unbeaten 56 in Hobart, finished emphatically by a last-ball six off Steve Waugh to tie the game. He had come in at 91 for 4 in the 31st over, chasing 229, and despite help from Rashid Latif, reached the last over still needing 16 to not lose.

He remembers every moment of that over, despite Waugh having bowled it nearly 15 years ago. But Mujtaba's favourite is the unbeaten 60 against the same opponents in Perth, back in 1987: understandable, as it sealed a last-over, last-wicket win, Pakistan were chasing a tougher target (274), and Mujtaba, in his fourth ODI, had come in lower in deeper mire, at 129 for 6.

It didn't matter much which was better for both made the same point, that in the days before the job was given a name, Mujtaba was as close to an ODI finisher as Pakistan had. About those innings Mujtaba spoke the way you suspect Michael Hussey, Michael Bevan might: Make sure you are there at the end no matter what the total, unforgiving on getting out before then because, once the end is attained, the means to it stand automatically justified, running hard, always calculating. "PIA, Karachi or Pakistan, my aim was to see the team through the end, bitter or otherwise."

He's remembered more, unfortunately, as a gentle, domestic champion, giant in nature, diminutive in stature, who never quite cut it with the biggest boys. But when overs were limited Mujtaba wasn't a bad choice. Against the West Indies, at the Queen's Park Oval in 1993, he helped Inzamam-ul-Haq add 131 in 18 overs to see Pakistan home to their target of 260 in 45 overs.

In that partnership, the role of a finisher was clearly demarcated. Great batsmen, as Inzamam was becoming and Javed Miandad was, were expected to finish games. But good, or even great, finishers are not expected to be great batsmen. Mujtaba was never a great batsman, but he was a good finisher: in that match, Inzamam made twice the runs (90 to Mujtaba's 45), but as contributions to a win, both were roughly equal.

Mujtaba is relevant today, if only to understand the contribution of Misbah-ul-Haq. You can see what Pakistan are desperately hoping to find in him. With Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan at their peaks, and Shoaib Malik also growing, Misbah as finisher rounds off the middle order nice and pat, capable of thrusting his team to a big total, or managing a big chase.

Misbah's only flaw is that he doesn't yet finish, he doesn't leave an asterisk beside his name often enough. In his occupation, it is a fatal flaw

He checks most of the boxes for the role. He calculates and controls run chases, he is an adept farmer of strike, he is a daring, alert runner, he uses the crease well, mostly keeps a cool head and has shots that would please both Alf Gover and Shahid Afridi. The only flaw is that he doesn't yet actually finish, he doesn't leave an asterisk beside his name often enough. In his occupation, it is a fatal flaw.

His 49 in Mohali, in one of Pakistan's greatest run-chases, was an uplifting, cheery little ditty but the needle jagged at the very end, almost scratching the whole song. Twice in the Twenty20, famously against India, he faltered at the very death, which overshadowed a fine hand against Australia.

For all the things he does adequately, he makes at least one bad judgment call per innings. For the finisher, a gambler by instinct, one is enough, for their work and indeed career is based wholly on those calls: should I have played that paddle shot, should I have gone for it an over earlier, should I have taken that tight single or that risky double? Because they operate in tight situations, failing these tests means failing completely.

Cricket, in fact most modern sport, increasingly taxes the mind, nowhere more than in this strange, unique role. It requires a particular, peculiar manner. Blemishes are generally of the temperament, not technical, and thus more difficult to redeem.

But the line between hero and villain, success and failure is desperately thin. Misbah is still perched on this line, swaying, making to fall on either side, but not doing so decisively just yet. At 33, time is not his to squander though, as Bevan always maintained, for the true finisher, there is always more time than you think.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo