In the eyes of the casual observer, Misbah comes across as everything that Pakistan had always been missing. However, this defence ends up being patronising
Pakistan's batting over the past week can be reduced to these two sets of numbers: 1 for 4, and 14 off 10. Against West Indies, they lost four wickets for one run. Against Zimbabwe, they put up 14 in the first ten overs of their innings. They are the sort of numbers that other sides dissolve boards or have their Test credentials questioned over. For Pakistan, those shocking numbers have inevitably become a debate about their best batsman in the tournament: Misbah-ul-Haq.
In fact, for Pakistani cricket, the past four years have been all about this very long, very monotonous debate: is Misbah holding Pakistan back or is he holding them together?
You are probably aware of how this goes. Detractors complain that Misbah plays too slowly and is too negative. His supporters find such sentiments shocking and almost offensive, arguing that he is forced to bat this way to compensate for his team-mates constantly failing.
The problem is that this debate never seems to come close to answering the question supposedly being asked. Misbah's critics, particularly in the media and among ex-players, blame spurious things like his family life or body language. He gets attacked personally over perceptions that those who know him know to be false. He is always blamed for not conforming to a gung-ho style that was never as successful or effective as it is imagined. In response, his supporters point to his fantastic stats. They argue that the reason he never gets to a hundred, that he gets forced to bat slow or that he does all those tuk-tuks, is that the rest of the batting is too weak and unreliable, and fails far too often.
Regardless of their relative merits, both sides try and channel all the blame on to the other. While the personal attacks are vile and also irrelevant, they are expressing a kernel of a legitimate complaint against Misbah's batting and captaincy.
For starters, his approach to captaincy has won him great success as a Test captain. Yet the same reactive, conservative cricket has seen the ODI team steadily slip behind the world. Modern ODI batting has profoundly changed in the last few years, particularly with the change in field restrictions. Its impact can be seen in rising scores, in rising successful chases and in fresh batting records. In contrast, Pakistan still employ an approach which looks to start slow and hit out at the end - which conforms to the ideal of the storied '90s sides.
There is no doubt that a lack of playing at home and access to the IPL, as well as injuries and form, have all affected the side. But it is also demonstrable that throughout this era, there has been a consistent conservatism to the tactics and selections of the team. A look at this tournament alone, where Younis Khan and Nasir Jamshed have been persisted with at the cost of Sarfraz Ahmed and Yasir Shah, gives an example of how fears about weaknesses have led to strengths being sacrificed. Moreover, batting tactics remain stuck in the past - 300 is still a mental block, chasing is still a cause for fear, rotation of strike is still an oddity, and the innings breakdown is far too often behind the boil.
Persistent problems have also not been addressed, particularly in the top order. In the past three years, Pakistan's partnerships for the second and third wickets have averaged around six to seven runs fewer than the average for Test nations. On the other hand, the average for the first, fourth and fifth wickets, are slightly higher than the corresponding averages. Pakistan also accelerate their innings far later than the average. This suggests that Pakistan lack a good No. 3 and that Misbah's impact shows up on the latter wickets.
Despite logic dictating that Misbah come in when longevity is more important than run rate, he comes in at a point when runs are needed at more modern rates. The reason for this appears to be his inherent lack of trust in the rest of the line-up, which is a reflection of his safety-first approach.
Many of his vociferous critics in Pakistan claim that such conservative choices are proof of his cowardice and lack of leadership, which is not only idiotic but also irrelevant. What is true is that even when Pakistan's batsmen click, their line-up and approach are not geared for the sort of big scores that have increasingly become commonplace.
Yet, how much of this is solely Misbah's fault? Ed Smith wrote recently about how most of the decisions that captains are criticised for are now taken by a large "brains trust". In a meddlesome environment like Pakistan cricket, the decision-making process is further diffused, which means that many of these issues with tactics and approach are not Misbah's alone. Almost everyone associated with the team, including the coaches and the selectors, have often shown preferences for similarly reactive, often even more defensive, choices. The entire top order has spoken about how their only instructions are to stay out there, with little concern about the scoring rates. Indeed, such outdated approaches are pervasive across the Pakistani cricket community.
And this is one part of where the Misbah debate gets obfuscated. Pakistan cricket is currently suffering from a variety of ailments that are all long-term and structural in nature. These range from board governance and the domestic set-up, to the terrorism-caused exile, to the loss of influence on the global stage. So much of the dissatisfaction with these profound changes, however, is expressed through personal attacks on Misbah, even when the solutions being offered by the critics are even more outdated than Misbah's conservative styles. Moreover, as reprehensible as these attacks are, the reaction to them also becomes part of the problem, particularly now with the eyes of the world on the team. In the attempt to defend Misbah, his team's actual failings are often ignored.
Perhaps one reason for that is that in the eyes of the casual observer, Misbah comes across as everything that Pakistan had always been missing. Non-Pakistanis forever see Pakistan as supremely talented but ill-disciplined, and in Misbah's humble, hard-working, honest limitations they see all that this underachieving side had been missing. To see him get blamed despite performing heroically causes many to leap to his defence. In many eyes, including those of Pakistanis, Misbah becomes a messiah, whose innings always carry the mark of nobility and who has been the reason that Pakistan have put an end to their off-field excesses and got some results together.
However, this defence ends up being extremely patronising to Pakistan. It was argued across social media that Misbah had no choice but to bat at fewerthan two runs per over at the start against Zimbabwe. Yet a look at the much less experienced Zimbabwe batting line-up handling a similar situation with far greater ease later on suggested this was not true.
But somehow the debate over Misbah and his team rarely comes to these cricketing terms, and is instead conducted using personality traits and perceptions. His critics blame their own despair and anxiety about larger issues on him, while in the quest to celebrate Misbah's undoubted commitment and humility, his supporters forget the cricketing reasons for why his side has fallen so far behind the rest.
The fact is that Pakistan play ODI cricket in an outdated way, and their approach begins not on the field but also in their squad and team selections, as well as their tactics. All the marvellous work that Misbah has done in carrying this side - and there is no doubt that he (almost) alone has done so - still hasn't prevented Pakistan from becoming a lower-tier ODI side. The answer to their problems will not be found in either the vices or the virtues of Misbah.