Hassan Cheema

The Younification of Team Misbah

This Pakistan team's ability to prove people wrong time and again is remarkable. So also the shaping influence of two elder statesmen

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
Pakistan's batsmen have learned how to convert, and they have Younis Khan to thank for that  •  Sena Vidanagama/AFP

Pakistan's batsmen have learned how to convert, and they have Younis Khan to thank for that  •  Sena Vidanagama/AFP

Two men sat around the big round table in the dressing room. They were looking out towards their home away from home - a Sharjah pitch that had given them more joy than either of them could properly recollect. They had just finished an argument over selection - the conclusion, as is the case in most dressing rooms, particularly when the older of those two gentlemen is involved, being that the captain is always right. Even when he doesn't have the consensus. For he's the one responsible for the result.
That argument now over, it was time to discuss more important matters. Misbah-ul-Haq turned towards Wasim Akram and unloaded a series of queries about England - about the pitches, the conditions, and everything else. Even in the middle of his title-winning PSL campaign, the upcoming tour of England remained in the front of his mind.
It had been so from the moment Pakistan won another series in the autumn. Misbah's final press conference then had revolved around his future and the tour to England, and not what his team had just done. Within hours accusations of cowardice and timidity had begun to float: obviously Misbah wouldn't go to England because he wasn't man enough, because he knew that he and his team would be "exposed" in alien conditions. That is what spurred him on to drag his 42-year-old body up and down the stairs of the National Cricket Academy as far younger men looked on with a mixture of awe and ridicule - their conclusion being that the old man had gone mad.
And yet as they looked on, as the talking heads pounded their fists and petted their high horses, they had ignored an evolution. Misbah was no longer just Misbah. In fact, Pakistan was no longer #TeamMisbah, they were far more than that, they were #TeamMisbahAndYounis.
Only four times in Pakistan's history have they gone as long as six series unbeaten: six in the mid-'70s, when Mushtaq Mohammad was in charge; ten in the late '80s, when Imran Khan and Javed Miandad created the greatest Pakistani team till date; and then twice under Misbah, a seven-series streak following the spot-fixing scandal, then six and counting over the last two years. And yet the two Misbah teams, even with many of the same personnel, are as different as Mushtaq's and Imran's teams are from those of this era.
Pakistan are a different, better team now. They don't play for validation or survival anymore. They play with the knowledge that, come what may, they are no worse than whoever they are up against
The first was very much in Misbah's image - one born to endure. To survive was to win, to win was to survive, for that little while longer. The team was created out of the greatest crisis in Pakistan's crisis-laden history. They won as underdogs. Think back to their greatest achievement - the second Test against England in 2012. Pakistan failed to score 260 in either innings, no one scored a century, and 19 of the 20 wickets they took fell to their spinners. It was a victory engineered on the dustbowls that Faisalabad mistakes for cricket pitches. Pakistan won because they outlasted England. They won by following Misbah.
Three years later they won the second Test against England too. In a rather different manner, though. Misbah was again the highest scorer but this was anything but a replica. Both Misbah and Younis Khan scored centuries, and Pakistan made over 350 in both innings. And yet the Man of the Match was a fast bowler - Wahab Riaz had one of those spells to turn the game. In 2015, Pakistan didn't outlast England, they dominated them. They won by following both Misbah and Younis.
There were centuries instead of fifties, a varied bowling attack instead of spin supremacy, a dominance that wasn't there before. Misbah and Pakistan had been Younified (no pun intended).
During that 2012 Test, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq both scored fifties. At the end of that Test their combined numbers read: two centuries, 17 fifties. Since then those numbers are 17 and 17. The two, unlike their captain, have learnt the art of conversion - and for that they have Younis to thank.
There was one other difference. In 2012, Pakistan won the first Test and were on a roll. In 2015 they escaped with a draw in the first and were on the back foot.
What is it that Younis does above all else? He bounces back. He bounces back from the support staff saying his career is finished, he bounces back from the PCB chairman banning him for life, he bounces back from the guffawing in the commentary box as he does a Yosemite Sam impression. When you've seen the amount of tragedy he has endured at a personal level, or his country has overall, you can put into perspective your loss of form or your team's failures. Thus, he bounces back. And so does Pakistan.
It is a trait forged in the worst times of this era. When they lost to Zimbabwe, they came back to beat the all-conquering South African team. When they were dominated by Sri Lanka, they came back to chase down 300 in two sessions to preserve their home record. And when all looked lost, they came back to beat Australia for the first time in 20 years.
And it's a trait that shone through in this England series. Pakistan laid down a marker at Lord's but then came Old Trafford - a shellacking now common throughout the world, the return of the dominance of the home side that leads to no one winning away. But unlike far more talented teams that have toured these shores, Pakistan would not roll over. They had done too much, endured too much, had too many people to silence, to simply be content with a single win. They came back at Edgbaston and dominated for two and a bit days, before their fourth-innings failings and small bowling line-up came back to haunt them. A heartbreak later, they still didn't roll over. At The Oval they repeated their Edgbaston tricks, only turning it up. And when it looked like they were going to repeat their mistakes, the old man stepped up and gave them all a tutorial on how matches are won.
Of course it's not just as simple as the increased influence of Younis in the dressing room, or Misbah's evolution as a man and a captain. There have been other factors. This unbeaten run coincides with the return of Waqar Younis as coach, a man who has never seen a pace bowler he didn't think could improve, and never allowed anyone to repeat their mistakes - often to his own cost.
But Pakistan are a different, better team now. They don't play for validation or survival anymore - they play with the knowledge that, come what may, they are no worse than whoever they are up against. Even if they aren't as talented as the opposition, they are going to make up for it in application and hard work. And those are words I never expected to write in this lifetime.
And while Wahab may represent this change, it's really Yasir Shah who embodies the finished product. Here is the amalgamation of old-school Pakistan and Misbah - and of the Younification of Team Misbah. Here you have a legspinner - supposedly the most erratic and dangerous type of bowler - who believes in control above all else; talent be damned. Pakistan, for phases in the series, used a legspinner and a 90mph bowler to bowl dry, and over and over again they succeeded (at least enough to create a chance to drop). But more than anything else, Yasir bounces back - even when he concedes a double-century and all his aura is supposed to have evaporated, there's a smile on his face, confidence in his gait, and a belief deep down that he will emerge victorious. And by the end of it, he mostly does.
But the final word goes to the elder statesmen - for they are more than mere role models to follow, they are active contributors, perhaps still the best this team has to offer. On the first day of the series, with Pakistan in trouble, Misbah scored a century to lay the platform for a famous win. A month later, the series was bookended by Younis going one better. It ended with Younis and Misbah - all 80 years of them - walking up to receive the Man-of-the- Match and Man-of-the-Series award respectively. Younis was unable to articulate his ability to score big, Misbah still credited his team for his successes and talked about them "proving people wrong". If this is to be the end, it's a fitting end.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag