Misbah-ul-Haq is a perfect case of the Marmite quandary—after watching him, you’re either praising life or pulling your hair out.
It’s a simple love-him-or-hate-him situation seldom witnessed in Pakistan cricket before. Previously, when Shahid Afridi was still young and performing regularly, his critics were nowhere to be seen. Imran Farhat, on the other hand, is probably the least loved cricketer in Pakistan. The choice, comparison and opinion is quite clear and fans do not sit on the fence when it comes to showing their appreciation, or wrath, for those who take the field.
This makes Misbah’s predicament even more surprising.
He’s often the last man standing—be it for his defensive, risk-free approach while others attack in pursuit of the target or just his superiority with the bat and the mind as others fall short time and again.
There was also a time—right after the spot-fixing saga—an unbelievable span of 15 months where Pakistan lost just one Test match. The unbeaten run went into double figures—10 matches without losing one—as they shrugged off the taunts, the heckling and the scheduled obsession with white-ball cricket.
Misbah was at the helm of the revival, shrugging off critics who said the team will not be able to recover or find replacements for the trio.
But despite that, they managed to hold off South Africa in the UAE, win in New Zealand, draw in the Caribbean, put aside Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh before humiliating table-toppers England. The credit went to Misbah.
But Pakistan had also lost to India in the 2007 World Twenty20 final, to the same opposition in the 2011 World Cup semi-final in Mohali and to the West Indies in the 2013 Champions Trophy. The last was when Pakistan’s run of six consecutive semi-final appearances in ICC events was broken. On all three occasions, Misbah was in the middle as the others around him failed with the bat.
Misbah made his Test debut in 2001 but was confined to the wilderness after just five matches, his highest score being 28. He was recalled for the 2007 WT20 at the expense of Mohammad Yousuf, the gasps louder than glass shattering as the chief selector announced the squad. Sitting right next to him, I could feel the tremble in Sallu Bhai’s voice as he replaced Pakistan’s best batsman with someone "unknown and unreliable" for the mega event.
Prior to that, Misbah was one of the three touted to replace Inzamam-ul-Haq in the Test lineup—the others being Hasan Raza and Faisal Iqbal. But, assigned the task to get his feelings on that, it was evident that Misbah had lost interest and hope. He even contemplated retirement just before getting the shock of his life—named Test captain for the 2010 South Africa series following the England tour.
Pakistan managed to draw that series despite coming close to winning it. But the precedent of playing safe and with utmost caution was set, gradually permeating Pakistan cricket’s veins. When questioned about the approach, Misbah told reporters: “I’d rather be defensive and draw than be attacking and lose.”
It was from that point onwards that the divide in the nation appeared.
Pakistan’s attacking nature, what made Imran Khan’s team, the Tigers, was being diluted. The team needed stability and results but some wanted the sanctity of Pakistan cricket to remain despite the despicable show by three men in England. Some attacked Misbah, others guarded him with their lives. The divide grew.
Misbah currently sits top of the ODI run-scorers chart for the year. To further silence his doubters, he has also hit the most sixes in ODIs this year. As a batsman, Misbah has become untouchable. But what of his captaincy? That’s the distinction the followers/critics fail to make. Misbah as a captain versus Misbah as a batsman. He’s probably Pakistan’s best fielder too, but that’s a different story altogether.
Misbah and the PCB, in order to achieve stability and help Pakistan stand on its feet again, adopted mediocrity as a trend, caution was given enough feed to grow in the dressing room and the fighting spirit slowly evaporated into thin air. Against Zimbabwe, Pakistan aptly played the role of minnows, scared of stamping their authority on proceedings as batsmen continued to flop.
There seemed no Plan B—approach with the bat remained timid, over-reliance on Saeed Ajmal remained the norm and thoughts fizzled out as the hosts reigned supreme.
A score of 250-275 remains Pakistan’s target in ODIs batting first.
A steady opening Powerplay is what the team is after as opposed to attacking. That is perhaps the need of the day given Pakistan’s frailty with the bat. When you refuse to rotate strike, consume too many deliveries and do not score that many, hoping to be there in the last 10, that’s where the issues start. You are dismissed off the next ball and what next? Misbah’s 11 half-centuries in 21 ODIs this year is a testament not only to his mettle and resolve but also Pakistan’s atrocious show with the bat at the top. The man just can’t stop scoring, but the team isn’t able to produce the results.
Frustration led to anger time and time again, but nothing worked. His bat works wonders and he’s able to change gears at will, jumping out of the crease and depositing the ball into the stands. Currently Pakistan’s best batsman, his tactics as the national captain now need to change gears and convert the meek displays to ones of belligerence and fearless display to bring the confidence, and results, back.