Rob Smyth

Imran's team or Misbah's: which was greater?

Each had to overcome very different hurdles from the other to become a top Test side

Rob Smyth
Rob Smyth
Imran Khan leads the Pakistan team out of the the field, England v Pakistan, 5th Test, The Oval, 4th day, August 10, 1987

The sides led by Imran Khan in the 1980s stretched the best Test team in the world at the time, West Indies  •  PA Photos

It's difficult to compare eras at the best of times. To do so with Pakistan, the most un-analysable team in the history of sport, would seem to be an impossibly big ask. Yet comparing the two Pakistan teams that have topped the Test rankings is helped by the obvious similarities between the two sides - especially the fact that, in some ways, they are not Pakistan sides at all.
Imran Khan's team, which was No. 1 for two months in 1988 according to the backdated rankings, and Misbah-ul-Haq's current side - which will receive the mace on Wednesday - are not so much cornered tigers as streetwise foxes. They could destroy teams with irresistible, rabid cricket, but the majority of their games were won through patience and stealth. That is especially noteworthy with Misbah's team; in the current climate of Test cricket, their tactics are almost monastic.
Both teams lend themselves to being judged over a six-year period: from Imran resuming the captaincy in 1986 to his final Test in January 1992, and from Misbah taking over in 2010. Imran missed three home series between 1987 and 1990, through temporary retirement (England 1987-88), a protest against the timing of the tour (Australia 1988-89), and snobbery (New Zealand 1990-91). His replacement as captain, Javed Miandad, was more locum than successor at the time, and it still feels like the story of Imran's team.
Misbah's team won nearly twice as many Tests - 22 out of 47 as Imran's 12 out of 43. But Imran's side lost less than half as many, five to Misbah's 14. Those numbers reflect the times, with a much lower percentage of draws in the 2010s. A comparison of win-loss ratio, though not perfect, is more instructive: in Test matches, Imran's team leads slightly, 2.20 to 2.00, and in overall series they had a much higher win-ratio: 6.00 to Misbah's 2.67.
Imran and Misbah are so different as to make chalk and cheese seem like twins, yet they had a similar impact on their teams with their backstage charisma - both showed you don't need to channel Churchill to inspire people
Both sides were extremely difficult to beat in comparison to their peers. Imran's team lost only one series in ten, in Australia in 1989-90, and Misbah's have lost three in 19. At home, or in the UAE in the current team's case, they were almost unbeatable. Neither lost a series; Imran's team lost only two matches, both to West Indies, and Misbah's just three.
Imran and Misbah are so different as to make chalk and cheese seem like twins, yet they had a similar impact on their teams with their backstage charisma - both showed you don't need to channel Churchill to inspire people - and their example on the pitch, not least in the series that took them to No. 1. Both set the agenda with match-winning performances in the first Test: Misbah's century at Lord's, and Imran's 11 wickets against West Indies in Guyana in 1987-88. Overall, in that six-year period, Imran averaged 50.44 with the bat and 23.63 with the ball. Misbah has averaged 54.93 since taking over.
Each team was more than the sum of its parts, with a number of good but not great cricketers. They also had players who - superb though they were in a broader sense - will not be remembered by many in a pub challenge to name an XI for a specific Test. The Pakistan team that drew in the Caribbean in 1987-88 included Aamer Malik, Ijaz Faqih and Saleem Jaffar. The names of Shan Masood, Iftikhar Ahmed and perhaps Rahat Ali might be Pointless answers in the future.
Abdul Qadir and Yasir Shah will not be. The teams of 1988 and 2016 both had match-winning leggies, in the best Pakistan traditions, even if Qadir and Yasir went about their work very differently from each other: Qadir classical and mischievous, with a googly to die for; Yasir interrogating the front pad like an homage to Anil Kumble. Misbah's team has been more dependent on the spin of Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and then Yasir, partially because their best fast bowlers were banned. The 1980s team had all-time-great fast bowlers in Imran, Wasim Akram, and at the end, Waqar Younis. The fantasy attack of Imran, Wasim, Waqar and Qadir played a few Tests together, though Imran and Qadir were past their best by then.
They were all superstars at their peak, alongside Javed Miandad, the rascally lieutenant whose batting had a level of anarchic genius almost beyond comprehension. Misbah's team are a humbler, less starry collective, though Younis Khan and, before his ban, Ajmal could claim superstardom, and Mohammad Amir has infinite potential. Younis has averaged 59.09 since Misbah took over: Imran could depend equally on Miandad and the massively underrated accumulator Shoaib Mohammad, who both averaged over 50 in that six-year period.
Those superstars were the main reason Pakistan were able to compete with West Indies. Their defining achievement was a draw - or rather three of them. Although West Indies had a far better record against the other teams in world cricket than Pakistan, the two sides drew three consecutive series, in 1986-87, 1987-88 and 1990-91. All three were low-scoring classics, and the trilogy deserves a book, documentary or even a mini-series. It was only after Imran had retired that Pakistan were thrashed in the Caribbean, in 1992-93. Pakistan were the only team to win a Test in the Caribbean in the 1980s, and the only team not to lose a series. In head-to-head battles, they were at least the equal of perhaps the greatest side of all time.
The ignorant may sniff about Pakistan topping the rankings during West Indies' 15-year hegemony, but it stands up to scrutiny. In the two years beforehand, West Indies drew in New Zealand and India, as well as at home to Pakistan. They even failed to win a Test against England. In the same period, Pakistan won in India and England and drew in the Caribbean.
The quality of the West Indies team is Imran-era Pakistan's trump card in any comparison with the current side. Misbah's team are the best of a good but not great bunch. There is no outstanding team in world cricket- but then there are more strong sides than in the 1980s, when traditional powers like England and Australia had the worst teams in their history.
Whether it is fair or not, Misbah's team is far more popular than Imran's was. Neutral umpires are the main reason for that. England and Australia were convinced they were cheated during tours in 1987-88 and 1988-89. Then again, Pakistan have a strong argument that, with neutral umpires, they would have beaten West Indies 2-0 in the Caribbean in 1987-88.
Ultimately, whether you regard Imran or Misbah's team as greater than the other may depend on where you stand on the CLR James spectrum. If you only cricket know, Imran's team probably have the edge, but if you take into account everything that Misbah's team has overcome - the match-fixing scandal, not playing at home, losing Ajmal - it becomes so much harder to split the two. Comparing them is easy; judging them less so.

Rob Smyth is the author of Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations