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The man who breathed cricket

Australia, 2017: when it all changed for Misbah AFP

It seems so long ago now, but it was only New Year's Day, a Sunday - Morrissey's Sunday, silent and grey. The weekend was at an end and a dream had curled up and away like smoke, so that it was impossible to know whether it had even been there in the first place. Actually it had ended on Friday, the last day at the MCG, when Pakistan ran into the impenetrable walls of history. Friday had been too much for Misbah-ul-Haq. By its end he was questioning his own mind, and it left him on the verge of leaving the very thing that keeps him alive, that which he breathes every passing second, that which he cannot help but think or talk about for as long as is a piece of string.

On Sunday he and his team - family he calls them - were at Waqar Younis' Sydney home for dinner. New Year's Eve, with the team in his hotel room, had lightened his mood a touch. Now at the dinner he looked to be… slightly less inclined to retire, I want to say, but how do you ever know how Misbah is feeling just by looking at him?

This being a social occasion, it seemed impolite to ask him outright whether he was going to retire (whispers already were that he wouldn't). So a more roundabout approach: are you satisfied with what you have achieved?

The really short answer, which, being Misbah, he didn't give, was yes, just about. He recognised he had overseen a special time, something with enough force of its own to wake him up in these forthcoming mornings, when he will have fewer reasons to wake up than he has had for years. The long answer? Let's just say there are umpires out there for whom the cold stare of Misbah was never as benign and dead of feeling as it was for the rest of us. The most winning Test captain in Pakistan history cannot forget decisions that have incorrectly gone against his side, and cost, by his reckoning, five or six more wins. He remembers each umpire and, with a fair degree of accuracy, the scores of the batsmen and team at the time. It's not malice, just deep frustration.

He sidestepped into an obligatory fret about domestic cricket, as a function of his helplessness: the national side has had success, but as far as deeper change goes, he knows this was phlegm trying to put out a fire. He had no idea how painfully well that point would be illustrated a month later with the PSL spot-fixing scandal: cleaning up after the mess of one when he came in, leaving amid the mess of another.

Still, don't file it away alongside the standard gripes of other former players - Misbah knows the domestic game at a level of intimacy and familiarity that escapes most. It is a by-product of his complete devotion to the game. As recently as last month he was leading Faisalabad to the Grade II Quaid-e-Azam trophy. We are in a time in Pakistan where jokers on the fringes of national selection find ways to avoid playing domestically and Misbah happily leads a side at a level below first-class. On becoming Pakistan captain, not only did Misbah not abandon domestic cricket, he seemed to immerse himself deeper into it. He made sure he played as many domestic first-class games as he could: 14 doesn't sound a whole lot, but to name but two prominent, long-serving captains, Inzamam-ul-Haq played six and Wasim Akram two.

"Given how Pakistan had lost in Melbourne, cricket might reasonably have been the last thing he'd want to talk about. Yet cricket was his salve to the wound cricket had inflicted in the first place"

And he gave it value by relying on players who had toiled in it as long and hard as he had, not ones who had been fast-tracked parallel to it. Subsequently their successes were proof that the system Misbah had come from wasn't in as much disrepair as it was thought to be. As for how it is functioning now - you know what, Misbah has plenty of time on his hands now, and he'll happily take appointments and talk you through it.

He reminisced the rest of evening away, as you might do about the homeland when you've been away too long or can never go back. He did it happily, glumly, indifferently, but he did it unfailingly. Those days when he used to bowl "finger" in tape-ball cricket or legspin on cement tracks; or, when he chose to bowl medium pace, how much he could swing it. One day he got the yips, couldn't work out why and gave it up. Once, he bowled offspin to Imran Farhat in the nets. In Misbah's telling, he bowled him twice and drew an edge twice more. Another time, Taufeeq Umar was short on confidence facing Graeme Swann, so Misbah and Mohammad Hafeez bowled to him in the nets. In a short while, Umar packed up and left, lower on confidence. Misbah looked warmly at an old match ball on display in Waqar's dining room and then had the room in fits talking about the many you-know-whats on it.

It's not that unusual that he only talked shop. But given how Pakistan had lost in Melbourne, and the impact it had on him in the immediate aftermath - and we were only two days out of it - cricket might reasonably have been the last thing he'd want to talk about. Yet cricket was his salve to the wound cricket had inflicted in the first place. Without complaint or frustration, he even defended those plans for Yasir Shah. Too soon Misbah, too soon.

Except not for him, because what else is there? If you ever wonder what Pakistan cricket might do without Misbah, console yourself with the thought that the reverse is a more frightening prospect: what will Misbah do without cricket? He'll find a role, of course. Commentator, coach, director, something will come up. But what will he do off the field, without a helmet on and an attack to defy, or under the white floppy, with spinners to deploy, not bringing all his ice to the inferno of professional sport?

****

They didn't exactly sell the captaincy to Misbah. It was offered to him in October 2010 in a small clerk's room in Gaddafi stadium. The board wanted to keep it so secret, they couldn't even arrange the meeting in the chairman's room. Misbah was told there were no other options, which tells us Ijaz Butt's negotiation skills were not so sharp. Misbah kept it secret from everyone, even his family, for a week. It was as if everyone was embarrassed about what was happening.

He doesn't remember the team talk he gave on his first morning as Pakistan captain. He thinks he probably left it to Waqar, once his captain, then his coach. Imagine that dressing room, like a hastily arranged get-together at fresher's week: only two of the XI who played in that Test had played with Misbah in his last Test then, in January that year; only four of the XI had played in Pakistan's last Test, that one in August.

What he does remember is his unbeaten, final-day 76, which, along with Younis Khan's hundred, saved Pakistan. In the memory that Test passes mistakenly for a bore draw, and from a distance of over six years, it is easy to forget why he puts such great stock in the innings. The draw wasn't actually a foregone conclusion, not until the last hour, and there was something in that Dubai surface that day, some rough for the spinners, some reverse for an old ball. There was plenty of heat from an opposition expert at cranking up those pressures a new captain might be under. Misbah survived, in a style that would quickly become familiar - poker-faced, a whole heap of forward defensives, a close call or three, in constant motion against spin, in steady repose to pace.

Just imagine, though, that he had failed, and/or Pakistan had lost. Pakistan had been through four captains already in a year - what price a fifth? So what he did with that innings was to put in place the first, most crucial pillar of his captaincy: runs. To those who scoffed at the appointment? Runs. For those who didn't know who he was? Runs. To those who thought him ill-equipped to lead? Runs. For a side in trouble? Runs. For a side in control? Runs. Win, lose, draw, bore, thrill, dawn, dusk - runs, runs, runs. Seven fifties and a hundred in his first 11 innings as captain and just six months in, Misbah had set like cement. The runs never really stopped. Over 4000 as captain, an average over 50, and a clincher: until last winter's slump down under, the longest stretch he went without a fifty was four innings. He was never out of runs long enough to be challenged.

For a long while, this was the metaphor: Misbah saving Pakistan with the bat, Misbah saving Pakistan in toto. It was neat if dramatic and lazy, and it did him a disservice. Because once you peeled away the runs and all the stuff about his dignity and MBA, or his calm and stabilising influence, underneath it all was the man's fascination - nay, obsession - with the actual game. Every little challenge it threw at him on the field - trying to remove a set batsman, getting a field just right, tweaking an angle of attack, dousing the fire of an opposition bowler; these, rather than some grander diplomatic mission to right Pakistan's name, drove him.

After years and years - maybe, in fact, a lifetime - of discourse on Pakistani captains centred around personality traits, or imprecise diktats on how to play, here was sweet relief. Misbah could, and often did, break down in great detail his on-field moves, or the technique of a player, or just a particular passage of play. Just recently, in fact, in praising Younis' 177 in Pallekele, he pointed out the slight technical adjustment Younis had made - something even Younis has not spoken about. One day he may choose to make public his irritation with a coach who regularly encouraged the team to go and play positive: sure, Misbah would think, we all know to do that, but isn't it your job to lay out how, practically, we do that? If there was an "i" left undotted or a "t" uncrossed, you weren't in Misbah's world.

Pragmatism was a hallmark, not only specifically in the kind of batsmen he preferred but also in going all in with spin when pace resources were thin. Patience, too; in instilling the virtue into his side but also in working away at the lack of it in opponents. The Misbah choke was an acquired taste, lost on the more impatient, or to those obsessed with fancy, showy captaincy. But its subversiveness was grand - he was using the modern game against itself.

Dismiss all this as geek love, but put Misbah's sides up against any Pakistan side from history and nobody, not even the most casual follower, could fail to recognise it. Some appreciated how it was, some didn't, but this much is inarguable: that only the most influential captains can hope to imprint themselves so indelibly on a group of men that they are, unmistakably, his men.

****

The late twist though, because, this being Misbah, we cannot end without it. It has been the detail to so many of his innings, as well as the broad stroke of his career. Now his captaincy too: seven defeats in Pakistan's last eight Tests - including home and away to a West Indies side that would struggle to compete with their predecessors this century, let alone those of last century - is a twist as much as a twist is strictly interpreted as a downward spiral.

"This much is inarguable: that only the most influential captains can hope to imprint themselves so indelibly on a group of men that they are, unmistakably, his men"

Mark some of it as the inevitable comedown post England and the No. 1 ranking. That kind of high knows only a down. The rest has been life reminding us that it is real and not fairy tale, and that it creeps up on us before, one day of its choosing, boom, it is all over you. And then, the core inside men that makes them what they are starts to flicker and fade. Convictions shrink into doubts. Strengths betray you and turn up as weaknesses. Judgements become clouded. Decisions gain an unbearable weight, because their consequences mean more. The end, you can see, is a question mark, not a full stop. And if it brings relief, accompanying it is fear and uncertainty.

Life happened to Misbah in Australia, in the most crushing way imaginable, because it was the one that had come to mean the most. He made a series of bad calls with the bat. In the field he was a guitar out of tune, not by much, but enough. His sense of caution, usually well calibrated, now ate him whole, most visibly in his use of Yasir. How could he - of all people - have used spin so poorly?

No doubt it soured the taste a little. It was the gentle smudging of the ink at the bottom of a letter otherwise impeccably handwritten. He knows it too. And the question now is the question that has always been, first formed that day at the Wanderers. Are we to define Misbah by the scoop into Sreesanth's hands, or by the innings that preceded it, that breathed the life in the first place so that it could be eventually sucked out?

Me? Time will wash away the last six months. An Australian whitewash is part of the Pakistan constitution; New Zealand barely mattered, it happened so quickly; West Indies? Shit happens.

And then it will become clear that what he accomplished was a task similar in nature to the one that confronted AH Kardar, of building a side from scratch and orchestrating a nationalist project; that he then acquired the gravitas of Imran Khan, through results, individual performances, and from his effect on his side; that he even brought the sharpened game sense of Mushtaq Mohammad and Javed Miandad, but thankfully none of the annoying Karachi traits; and that he did it with a giant handicap none of them faced.

Forget that question. The answer is, he stands tall and proud, unbowed, undaunted and undimmed in any company of leaders we could wish to put him in.