Ahmer Naqvi

Misbah and the art of wicket acquisition

Lord's presented us with a fine study in his methods, where bowler and captain showcase their styles while sticking to a larger plan

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
Joe Root was bogged down due to lack of scoring opportunities, which led to this miscued pull off Rahat Ali  •  PA Photos

Joe Root was bogged down due to lack of scoring opportunities, which led to this miscued pull off Rahat Ali  •  PA Photos

On Sunday night, as televisions beamed pictures of a joyous Pakistan team celebrating in a style that was deemed to be as offensive as urinating on the pitch or dancing a decades-old meme, one fan began tweeting pop-music analogies for every player on the winning side. For the captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, he wrote "Misbah: Rohail Hyatt's production career. He's awesome, but everybody complains when they are bored. Screw everyone."
For those who don't know, Hyatt produced the first six seasons of the wildly successful live-music TV show Coke Studio, which irrevocably shaped music in the region. However, by the final season, both critics and audiences felt that the show had gone boring and formulaic. It was an incredible complaint, given that even if the songs sounded familiar, season six saw them (for the first time) being performed by musicians from across the planet in conjunction with Pakistani ones. In other words, Rohail had taken an idea that grew from Pakistani culture and then showed how it could have a global relevance. Yet in the bare metrics of ratings and likes, the season was deemed subpar.
Back then, music critic Safieh Shah, reviewing the season, wrote in an essay of how "people become ensconced in the comforts of their jadedness, fearful of opening up their hearts and emotions... to the beauty of truth. This is what I felt [about] this season… that there is something profound that we miss when we don't know what to believe in."
The idea of not being able to see when you don't believe is one that applies quite well to how Misbah led Pakistan's relentless bowling attack to victory at Lord's. Despite the generally excellent coverage, the analysts on Sky often seemed bemused by the field placings, and blamed the fall of English wickets to losses of concentration or judgement. It didn't help that their Pakistani analyst, Ramiz Raja, spoke bizarrely of how Pakistan's bowling struggled with discipline and excessive aggression, completely missing the point.
In truth, Misbah's strategy of the UAE-inspired slow-spin strangle has been written about before. The likes of Younis Khan, Saeed Ajmal and Waqar Younis are to thank for its tactical evolution. But what was special about Lord's was that the same style of choking off runs and forcing the exact mistake you want, was transported to a foreign land. With possibly the most talented and balanced bowling attack he has ever had under his control, Misbah shrewdly used each them in a way where both bowler and captain showcased their styles while sticking to the plan.
The wicket of Joe Root, in particular, was perhaps the most evocative, and reminded me of a song from season six of Coke Studio called "Miyan Ki Malhar". Based on a melodic mode linked to the monsoons, it is performed by musicians from Serbia, Senegal, Nepal, Turkey and Pakistan. Three Pakistani women are the main vocalists, with each performing a certain part of the song. It builds up hypnotically, with intermittent sounds of thunder crashing across it, and elevates to a brief and muggy calm before crescendoing into an ecstatic and sudden sonic downpour.
The plan had been to force him to play his release shots off the wrong ball, from the wrong position. The world saw Root's crestfallen face and diagnosed a lack of concentration
Pakistan's dismissal of Root in the second innings built and climaxed similarly. To understand it, one must understand why Root is considered one of the best batsmen in the world. This is an age of what has been called "Batting 3.0", and proactivity is at the heart of it: innings are faster and shorter, and the mantra is doing what works. Modern batsmen are used to scoring shots, and the trick is to cut off the one they need the most. In an interview last year where he broke down his tactics, Misbah said, "Sometimes you see when a batsman is set on a plan, you want to mess with his mind a little. You see patterns, so you want to make him play differently, when there are chances of mistakes." Osman Samiuddin, the interviewer, added that, "[Misbah] plans for wickets by not giving away runs, not by setting unusual fields or asking his bowlers to do anything fancy or cute."
When Root came out to bat, he got two boundaries off his first six balls but only a single off the next 24. On the seventh ball of his innings, bowled by Rahat Ali, he first telegraphed his desire to pull the ball moving away from him to midwicket, where Yasir Shah fielded it. The hunt was officially underway.
He then faced two overs of Mohammad Amir, who had undergone a remarkable transition. Struggling to find movement, Amir took on Rahat's role as the dry, run-stopping bowler. Bowling over the wicket, he pitched it short of a length and let the angle take it away. For 11 balls, Root managed one scoring shot for a single, pushing at a wide delivery. The 12th ball Amir bowled to him was full and well wide of the stumps. According to ESPNcricinfo's commentary, he "drove at it a bit willy-nilly…[h]e wants runs". The vulnerability was now visible.
The next bowler Root faced was Yasir. The legspinner began with a couple that turned away off a short length, before bowling two that kept straight and were fuller. The fifth was tossed up and broke away, and Root stepped out to drive it and found the fielder. The final ball was shorter and with far more overspin, bouncing off a length and turning into Root, who was almost tempted into a fatal cut. One run in 22 balls, and there was a dark rumbling appearing over his innings.
The final act came in the next over, bowled by Rahat. By now, Root had been both starved of runs and had also been troubled by changes in length. It left his feet almost completely immobile, and he attempted a terrible shot at the first ball he faced, which seamed away from him. The next ball was shorter, and pitched outside the leg stump for a change. With his feet now in concrete, Root's attempted pull was barely a waft and the ball ballooned to the waiting Yasir. Cue the downpour.
The ESPNcricinfo commentary described it as the second time Root had "given his wicket away", yet in truth it had been slyly taken away from him. The plan had been to force him to play his release shots off the wrong ball, from the wrong position. The world saw Root's crestfallen face and diagnosed a lack of concentration.
Meanwhile, Misbah twirled his moustache, and perhaps took solace in the fact that like Rohail, he was producing something far more valuable than those in the present could appreciate.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal