Not long after Misbah-ul-Haq became captain of Pakistan, he spoke candidly of the challenge he had been saddled with. "It is bad for Pakistan cricket when people taunt us at home and abroad," he said. "It is a mental torture to go through such things."
There was torture at The Oval for Misbah, as his team-mates abandoned him one after another, like an incompetent conga line, stumbling over every piece of furniture in the room. But there were no taunts from the Oval crowd - only adoration. As each new batsman drove their innings nose-first into the dirt, the zindabads did not abate, and cries of "Misbah, Misbah" grew louder.
The ground is located in a part of town that is heavily settled by West Indians, and twenty nine years ago, they had packed it out during the Blackwash series. Today, maroon shirts only speckled the stands like bits of driftwood heaving in an ocean of green. The weather was cloudy and crisp, and there was no Karachi sea-breeze or Lahore dry heat, but a team that hasn't played in their country in four years with a home-town reception, as they so often do in England. Among the Pakistan batsmen, only Misbah seemed to appreciate it.
At times he would acknowledge their fervour. The Oval roared at every Pakistan single like a batsman had just blazed a hundred, or Saeed Ajmal had conjured a hat-trick - perhaps to make up for the cheers from Punjab or the Sindh, that this group of players may never hear. When there was a moment's relent from the clatter of wickets, Misbah would look up into the stands from the non-striker's end and breathe in the flags being flown around him. Only he can say how much the sight steeled his resolve, but how could it not? As a leader of nomads, he must find sustenance where he can get it, and today, Kennington was his oasis.
"When you're not playing at home you feel for it," Misbah said after the match. "It's always like that. You want to play at your own home grounds in front of your own crowds, but here, there was a big support for Pakistan wherever you looked in the ground. It looks like we were playing at home. It's a great feeling to be playing in front of your own crowd."
There was emotion in those words, but when he takes the field, Misbah has no interest in the flamboyance that has so often titillated and frustrated a nation. Foremost a pragmatist, he rarely played a stroke that ill-fit the circumstance throughout his innings.
Nasir Jamshed had perhaps set himself fifty for a target, and planned to counterattack thereafter, and two balls after reaching the milestone, he attempted to hit his first six and perished. Perhaps on another day, that stroke might have heralded a surge, but it was a high-risk strategy from Jamshed, who had looked untroubled for the last 50 balls of his innings, and did not need to throw away Pakistan's recovery. Misbah continued to graft securely, hoping that each new arrival could stay and do the same, and it was only when it became absolutely necessary for him to hit out, that he changed his stance, and his approach. The same hankering for safety sees him maligned when he refuses to pursue a Test win, with Pakistan sitting on a series lead. It is often said there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, but Misbah may never be one to approach it.
The pitch did not warrant such a low-scorer, but although West Indies should have made short work of 170, Pakistan managed a bowling performance worthy of the love flowing from the stands. Perhaps at another venue, Kieron Pollard might never have been kept scoreless for his first 17 deliveries. Maybe Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels would not have been scuttled, just as they had begun to sail smoothly after early losses. In the field Pakistan drew from their fans, and gave them plenty too, when the attack began to show why it had come into the tournament so highly rated. But it so often happens in cricket, that the fight begins when the battle is almost lost. Every time Pakistan made a breakthrough late in the match, it seemed ten runs too late.
Misbah should have made his first ODI hundred today. Instead he was left stranded on 96, when Mohammed Irfan fended the ball to Dwayne Bravo. After the game, he spoke of how special that first hundred is, and how the feeling stays with a batsman forever, but at the end of the innings, he affirmed Irfan for surviving so long with a pat on the back. It is not like he had really attempted the milestone anyway, turning down singles to throw his bat early in each over. When he left the field, he raised his bat to a standing ovation. Perhaps in their next match in Birmingham, others in the top order will add their own efforts to the labour of Misbah and his "home" crowd.