May 13, 2013

'I have decided to return to my natural game'

Misbah-ul-Haq talks about his approach to the captaincy, the criticism he has copped for his defensive style, and the lessons from the drubbing in South Africa

You are almost 40. As a cricketer, what does this mean for you?
My career has a lot of exceptions. I had a late debut in first-class and international cricket. Then the 2007 comeback, which was exceptional as it's hard to come back at that age. So I don't see age as a barrier in any way. I should be looking at how fit I am with regard to my endurance and performance. My body and mind are fully supporting me, and this is the reason I continue. It's all about how comfortable a player is with his age.

After the Sydney Test, you were almost done with your cricket career. Do you think you have been lucky?
It depends on how committed you are with yourself, and what you are willing to do for yourself. I was really disappointed that I wasn't consistent with my performance, and was thinking of quitting. But it was tough to call it a day on such a poor note. I went back to domestic cricket, rediscovered myself, and realised that I still had the passion and the interest. So I decided to play and leave on a high note.

There is a view that you deserve credit for bringing a much-needed calm to Pakistan cricket. How did you tackle the storm after the spot-fixing debacle in England?
Indeed [it was] a huge responsibility. It was a really difficult situation for Pakistan cricket. But it's unfair for me to take the entire credit. Everyone played their role: the board, the coaching staff, and the new players. I was given a task to rebuild everything from scratch with a group that was new and inexperienced. But the results after all those debacles - in 2009 and 2010 - were incredible.

The main driving force was the will to prove everyone wrong and regain credibility. Everyone was committed to moving on and starting afresh. As a captain it's always important to be trusted. They not only trusted me but also played as a unit.

Did captaincy transform you into a defensive player?
In 2007 my role in the team was a different one. As a No. 6 batsman, I was aggressive in the presence of Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan - who were taking most of the responsibility to play out all the overs and keep rotating the strike. But with Yousuf being dropped, it was a huge gap to fill, and the responsibility came on me. I was given a role when I led the team after the spot-fixing fiasco: to stay in the middle till the end. And this is the reason for the phase when I held my shots and didn't play to my strengths. When you play like this, you lose your confidence and can't give your best. But now I have given this approach a rethink and have decided to return to my natural game.

I was more concerned about positive results. Whether I was defensive or aggressive, what was important was to win. It was important to get results.

You were heavily criticised by the Pakistan fans for your approach. Do you feel a sense of siege with so much public scrutiny?
I understand people in Pakistan are very concerned about their cricket stars. These days cricket is being discussed and players are being analysed by everyone, irrespective of whether they understand the game or not. But as national cricketers, we are used to it. One must have belief in oneself. I do assess the criticism but also evaluate if there is any hidden interest behind it. If it's a logical and fair point, I do consider it and try to address it on the field.

So did you step down from Pakistan's T20 side because of some criticism that you felt had logic?
I left for one simple reason: I wanted to give a youngster a chance to fill my place. Pakistan cricket needs more players in their set-up for the future. Their development is also important, and T20 is a format where you can easily try out a youngster. Once you identify a future prospect, you can try him out in the T20 format and then decide to pick him for Tests or ODIs.

"Asad Shafiq is a sort of player who can give stability to the middle order. He has got a sound temperament and is technically good, someone who can replace a player like Younis or me in the team"

Was it easy for you to step down?
Leaving any format of the game isn't easy. Especially for me, since T20 was the format that had a significant impact on my career. In 2007 I made a name for myself because of T20. So it was a tough call, but I had to take a decision for the benefit of the team and future of Pakistan cricket. I continue playing T20 for the regional team and leagues but have no intention of returning to the Pakistan T20 squad.

Do you think people expect you to take a charismatic approach to the game? Like [Shahid] Afridi…
Every player is different. In a team of 11, each player has his role. Not every player can bat with a strike rate of 150. Afridi has his own strengths but also has negative points. That's the case with every player, including me. As a player you need to understand your game. If you go beyond the limits of your role, you are actually not doing what is good for yourself and for the team. You can't always win by being aggressive.

There is a persistent view that you are actually a defensive captain.
Maintaining a balance is very important. You have to be sensible enough to see the requirement. It is pointless to show unnecessary aggression, to attack when it's time to absorb pressure and stay on the back foot. It's a strategic thing that you have to manipulate according to the situation. And ultimately it's the results that matter. When you are winning, there is no point in showing off with unnecessary aggression.

Who would you want to pick out as your successor as captain?
At the moment I don't think anyone is ready. In Pakistan we need someone who has experience, and we need to develop a player's captaincy skills before handing him the responsibility. [Mohammad] Hafeez, in the meantime, has a strong case because he has ample experience of captaining various sides at the domestic level.

Which player can develop into the most assured one in the team?
Asad Shafiq. He is a sort of player who can give stability to the middle order. He has got a sound temperament and is technically good, someone who can replace a player like Younis or me in the team.

What are your thoughts on the future of Pakistan cricket?
Over the last two years things have been going well but Pakistan cricket has to lift its domestic structure. We can't rectify the limitations and shortfalls without mending the structure. The current set of youngsters, and those who are coming up, is seriously suffering with no international cricket being played on home soil.

The current lot has surely got talent but they are raw and things are moving very slowly for them. We can't get them to raise their quality without playing international cricket in Pakistan. But given the circumstances, things aren't that bad. Sure it's a bit inconsistent but we have the X factor, and we always have a chance of beating any team in the world. So I am optimistic about the future.

For many years, selectors have constantly changed the look of squads. For a captain how difficult is to lead a side with so many new faces in every series?
In the last five or six years we have lost so many established players in unexpected ways. Some retired, some were banned for match-fixing, and some went out of contention for reasons unknown. It's not easy to replace players like Inzamam, Yousuf and Shoaib Akhtar.

I agree that there have been changes in every series but we are in a transition and are trying out different players to get a good combination - which is obviously a drawback, as we can't produce results consistently. There is a lot of fluctuation in our performances but it is natural. We played Tests with a mostly consistent line-up for two years and produced good results, but unfortunately we aren't well settled at the moment. It takes time.

How much longer do you expect to be with the Pakistan team?
I have not taken a final decision. I'm happy with my fitness, form, and most importantly, passion for the game. My body is responding to what I want it to do. Obviously I can't be with the team all my life. But I haven't thought of the long term. When I feel I am losing interest in cricket, I will think of parting ways.

As a captain do you miss Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir? If they were in the side, would Pakistan be a better team than it is at the moment?
Indeed it was a blow. Amir and Asif were ruling while Butt was getting mature as a player. Replacing such players takes time. But in the end we have to rely on our available resources and plan for the future, hoping that they will give their best.

Let's not take away credit from those who rose in the time of despair and pessimism. We beat the world's best team, England, and had a splendid winning record.

What do you feel are the reasons for Pakistan's chronic batting problems? You, as a captain have admitted often that the batsmen have made mistakes, and vowed to improve. But that never seems to have happened.
Behind the scenes you try hard to improve but at the same time you have to keep in mind the quality of batsmen we have. Most of the batsmen are young and haven't played a lot of cricket. They lack experience. Of the six or seven regular batsmen, there are hardly one or two who have some experience. Even I haven't played a lot of cricket. We don't have star batsmen like most other teams. Nasir [Jamshed], Asad, Umar [Akmal] and many others are still young. They will gain experience with time.

There is a view that you avoid personality clashes. Is this a reason for your success as captain?
I have always tried to avoid conflicts. After the [spot-fixing] fiasco, there was a need for stability and to avoid disputes at any level. Obviously every player has his own mindset and a captain needs to be flexible to deal with this. We needed solutions rather than leaving things unsolved and making them more complex.

Pakistan was humbled in South Africa, losing the Test series 3-0. What do you have to say about this?
That was a really disappointing series. Teams visiting South Africa are always uncomfortable and we knew what to expect. We almost caught them by surprise in the second Test and that showed us that this side has the capability to turn things around. We should have grabbed the opportunity to go 1-1. We were flat and, no doubt, they were the better side playing at home.

But in the end you learn a lot in defeats and I am sure this will help us in the Champions Trophy next month.

Any regrets in your career so far?
A big no. I've always looked ahead and never tried to turn back. Sometimes things do get to you and you think about the past, but I have tried to make my future better rather than living in the past.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. He tweets here