January 16, 2012

The new, cautious face of Pakistan cricket

Exciting cricket used to be their calling card, but over the last year they seem to have moulded themselves in the image of their captain, Misbah-ul-Haq

They call it "tuk tuk" in Pakistan. The reference is not to an auto-rickshaw, but to painfully cautious batting, mocking the dull thud of an innocuous delivery being met with a flat blade and a dour posture. For better or worse, the term has stuck to Misbah-ul Haq. It is not intended as a compliment, and it may be harsh, if not entirely undeserved, but it confirms that Misbah's air of defensiveness - which colours not just his batting but his captaincy too - isn't sitting well with the fans.

The issue has become such a talking point that Misbah was recently forced to explain himself, and the coach, Mohsin Khan, felt compelled to come out in support. Misbah confirmed that he would rather draw a match by being defensive than risk losing through aggression. In backing Misbah, Mohsin implied that the defensiveness needed to be understood as a fear of failure.

Considering the turmoil that Pakistan cricket has suffered over the last few years, a fear of failure is not merely understandable, it is welcome. Importantly, the approach has yielded dividends, with Pakistan enjoying a string of successes through 2011 and boosting their ranking in all three formats. Yet the fans want more. They want their team to win, of course, but they would much prefer if it was done in style.

This is probably the result of an appetite spoiled by a relentless diet of instant cricket, and a team historically known for its panache. "We want a thrill at every step," says Sikander Bakht, the former Pakistan seamer, who has also served stints as the team's assistant coach, and now anchors a popular television sports show. Sikander agrees that the topic of defensiveness is on people's minds, but he thinks the public reaction is misplaced. "Misbah has got it right," he argues. "He may be risk-averse by nature, but he has managed to translate that into a cohesive unit that is showing results. That is a remarkable achievement."

Pakistan were not always an exciting team. In the mid-1970s, when Mushtaq Mohammad took over the captaincy, his tactical aggression was a revolution. It unleashed a uniquely exhilarating style and approach in Pakistan cricket that continued under later captains, including Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, and their protégés, and became an international brand of its own. In some ways Misbah's placid approach is a throwback to the decades before Mushtaq, when the team held opponents to draw after draw, especially on home pitches. Yet Misbah is held to a higher standard, and appropriately so, because he has greater resources at his disposal.

There is no denying that Misbah can be cautious to a fault. Mention his innings in last year's World Cup semi-final against India, and it still draws sneers and jeers. Coming in at 103 for 3, with Pakistan needing another 158 at about a run a ball, Misbah did not score his first boundary until he had played out 42 deliveries, including 27 dot balls that drove Pakistan's enormous television audience up the wall.

Taking charge of the team in the wake of an unprecedented crisis was nothing short of having to scale a mountain. Misbah considered his options, and proceeded to shift into low gear, which is the right way to tackle a sharp gradient. But after a winning year and a bump in the rankings, the slope has eased off

His captaincy posture hasn't been all that different. In a move so defensive that it almost seems an apology, he has invited the opposition to bat on six out of seven occasions when he has won the toss in a Test match. There is also the 2010 Test against South Africa in Dubai (Misbah's first Test as captain), when Pakistan worked themselves into a strong position chasing 451, but failed to go for the kill despite having gone past 300 with only three wickets down.

Interestingly, this restrained attitude does not extend to bowling, Pakistan's traditional strength. Over the period of Misbah's captaincy, which began in November 2010, Pakistan have conceded the fewest runs per over (2.92) and taken the most wickets per Test (18.42) than any other team. Even England, conceding 3.18 runs per over, have been a touch more expensive than Pakistan, and also a touch less destructive, picking up 18.17 wickets per Test. Pakistan's bowling aggression makes sense, because it is imperative for a winning record, especially if your team is defensive about batting.

When batting, however, the rest of the team seems to have moulded itself in Misbah's image. Under his captaincy, Pakistan's Test run rate is 2.86, which ranks ninth among the ten Test nations over the same period, better only than Zimbabwe's. While run rate may not be the most critical variable in Test cricket, it cannot be overlooked. The great teams of history - Australia under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting is perhaps the best example - have shown the merits of scoring quickly in Tests. It stamps authority, creates openings, and maximises advantage.

Ramiz Raja, a former Pakistan captain and now a leading commentator, agrees that Misbah has been too defensive. "This approach was fine with Sri Lanka," he says, "but we should have been more attacking against Bangladesh." Ramiz thinks it is not a lack of talent but a mindset that is behind this approach. The implication is that it is fine to go for safety, but Misbah seeks a very wide margin, perhaps unnecessarily so. Against England, particularly, this attitude is likely to come under strain. "It is important to work yourself into a secure position," Ramiz says, "but you also have to constantly keep looking for openings. More nimbleness is needed."

While cautiousness may be part of Misbah's innate make-up, it has almost certainly been compounded by the scars of his career. Despite making his international debut in 2001, he remained out of the side for two lengthy periods, during which it seemed he would never again play for Pakistan. The captaincy came to him through a combination of accident and default, after Salman Butt was ensnared in spot-fixing at a time when other credible leadership options, such as Younis Khan and Shoaib Malik, had already been exhausted.

At 37, Misbah understands the twilight opportunity that has now come his way is prized and precious, and he seems to be being extra careful with it. You can't argue with the outcomes he has engineered, winning six Tests and losing only one, winning 13 ODIs out of 14, and winning all five of his T20 matches. He has shown command, authority, maturity, confidence and poise. He has displayed an extraordinary ability to absorb pressure. And he has shown great responsibility, lifting his batting average to 75.76 in 12 Tests as captain, compared to 33.60 in his 19 other Tests.

It is tempting to see Misbah's mandate as an uphill climb, in which his guarded approach reflects a respect for the steepness of the terrain. Taking charge of the team in the wake of an unprecedented crisis was nothing short of having to scale a mountain. Misbah considered his options, and proceeded to shift into low gear, which is the right way to tackle a sharp gradient. But after a winning year and a bump in the rankings, the slope has eased off, and with top-ranked England as the next obstacle, the lay of the land is altogether different. For Misbah and his team, the time to move into high gear has arrived.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi