Envisage a day decades from now when children will log on to some super-YouTube and look for cricket videos. Their parents will insist they looked up on Misbah-ul-Haq. They will type out the name obediently and come across suggestions on the lines of “Misbah ul Haq fastest hundred” or “Misbah ul Haq World T20 final 2007”. They will be confused, since by then cricket will feature bats that will look more like bardiches and maces than the wooden planks they are now. You cannot blame them for asking what the fuss about the man was, for video highlights will merely show them what a clean hitter he used to be. Just another strokeplayer, they will think.
The keen researchers among them will even dig up old data to find out they called Misbah tuk-tuk on social media because of his ability to grind for hours, to curb his instincts, to dig in and inner and innest and innermost. So another strokeplayer who could switch gears when he wanted to, they will think.
No, the average video or book or document will not tell you what Misbah was like. To understand Misbah you will have to probe deep into Pakistan cricket in the dark decade of the 2010s, to read the right kind of data, to understand the Pakistan fan of the era.
Take a look at Misbah’s records, and you will find he was a very good batsman but not one of the greatest. An average just below 46 is impressive, but certainly not excellent. Of the major Test-playing nations, Misbah averages below 40 everywhere barring India and England; and even in England it reads 40.28. Put a cut-off of a decade, and Misbah’s average of 36.94 in these countries is significantly less than Kamran Akmal’s 41.16.
But what about the fact that he played a mere 5 Tests at home? What about the fact that UAE has been the only home Pakistan cricket has had this decade? What about the fact that they play their ‘home’ matches in front of crowds that barely exceed the number of men out there in the middle? How much weight does one give the matches played in UAE that are neither home nor away for Pakistan? Will it be fair to dismiss Misbah’s career average of 46, just like that?
But let us not discuss that now. That is the scope of another piece, to evaluate Pakistan cricketers with proper weights assigned to their performances in UAE (or Sri Lanka, or England) when they could not play Test cricket in Pakistan anymore.
Let us also not discuss Misbah’s leadership at this point. Let us overlook the fact that no one has led Pakistan as often. Let us ignore the fact that he has won 24 Tests, 10 more than any other Pakistan captain. Of course, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, and even Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis had better win-loss ratios, but hey, this is where neutral venues enter the argument yet again.
Misbah of Pakistan
Misbah was past forty-two when he had scored a Test hundred on his maiden appearance at Lord’s. He had emerged from the series with Pakistan happily perched at the top spot of ICC Test rankings.
India, Australia, England, and South Africa have all had their share of that top spot this decade — playing in home conditions in front of packed or semi-packed crowds. The last Test played in Pakistan had to be called off following an attack on the Sri Lankan team bus.
When Pakistan had toured England the previous time, in 2010, they played ‘home’ Tests there as well. That tour was marred by further controversies. Shahid Afridi, then Test captain of Pakistan and forever touted by social media as the antitheses to Misbah (tuk-tuk versus Boom Boom, get it?), had quit midway. Three of their men (one of them a boy) were banned.
They gave the job to Misbah, the man who had once failed to scoop Joginder Sharma for six. He packed Pakistan cricket inside a rucksack, gauged the steepness of the challenge ahead of him, smiled, and began climbing up the ladder, pausing only to score a Test fifty here and miss an ODI hundred there. He did not stop till he reached the top rung; and they gave him that mace.
They taunted him. They criticised, even laughed as his defensive brand of cricket. They had a go even after Australia were swept aside in 2014 and Sri Lanka were beaten at their den in 2015 and England were held 2-2 in England.
And Misbah smiled. He had a job to do. It would take him more than disloyal fans to distract him.
You cannot visualise him rule Pakistan cricket with an iron fist like a Kardar.
You cannot visualise the Lahore crowd singing kabhi alvida na kehna in a chorus in an encore of Imran’s swansong in Pakistan.
You cannot imagine the Miandad-like ruthless, street-smart brand of competitive brutality either.
He is nowhere as exotic as a Wasim or a Waqar. He is not synonymous to record books the way Younis Khan is.
But all these men are distant. You are intimidated by these men. You are in awe of these men.
But you cannot put an arm around any of them, which is something you can with Misbah, for he is you and you are Misbah.
Misbah has been there all along, in Karachi and Lahore and Islamabad, bailing Pakistan, batting for them.
Imran’s troops were outstanding men, loyal to the core, who would not hesitate to shed their last drop of blood for their General.
Misbah could not do that, for he rarely knew who the men would be in the upcoming war.
Miandad himself led his men to wars, bayonet in hand, the most primitive of war-cries reverberating loud enough to send a chill down the spine of the enemy camp.
Misbah could not do that, for he knew that if he fell the tanks would simply trample his army to the ground.
So Misbah got a fortress made, putting his own sweat and blood into it. He designed his own plans and backup plans. He had to wield the sword and the shield together, for they never told him which one would come handy. He had to train himself in both. He had to protect his men, but at the same time could not afford the valour of sacrificing himself for their sake.
And Misbah fought, war after war, repelling one attack after another. He did not have a horde that swept across the world: he had to gain ground inch by inch, pushing forward, invisible to the world.
They may not accept him as a leader, but they have no choice but to accept those medals on that uniform, each of which tell a tale more remarkable than the other.
And even if they ignore those medals, they cannot overlook that mace. No one can.
Misbah of the world
Journalism — cricket or otherwise — demands you to be unbiased, to be devoid of emotions, to look at every event, every cricketer objectively. While it comes with undeniable perks like getting paid for watching and writing on cricket, it is also expected that you have to go through the cruel process of stripping yourself of all sentiment. You have to look at things in the bigger perspective, for you know, you should preach that no cricketer is bigger than the sport itself.
And then there come men like Misbah, who arrive out of nowhere and shatter all of that. You knew that the announcement was around the corner since he turned forty. But then, had it not been around the corner for some years now? Had he not been dismissing all that? Had he not announced at one point that it was not about age, but length of career? Had he not once — albeit casually — let the world know that he wanted to hang around till fifty?
But we knew, did we not? Hope takes years to build up, but it takes a sentence, perhaps even a word for it to come crashing down.
Misbah is not going to play till fifty. He is forty-two. He will not even play till forty-three. They — I do not even know who ‘they’ are — have made sure he would not be getting a farewell in front of a packed, partisan crowd. Instead, he will fade into oblivion in unfamiliar territory, in the isles where fandom for cricket in whites has been on the wane in the new millennium.
About a thousand will witness Misbah fade into retirement. Back home in Pakistan, thousands will perhaps stay awake till half past two in the morning. There will perhaps be some viewership from the United States, but that will have more to do with the time zone than anything else.
That is the kind of farewell Misbah does not deserve. He deserves to bow out of an amphitheatre in style, after being honoured, amidst thundering applause, with little children lining up to sign their books and get clicked with him.
But then, Misbah will not mind, for this is Misbah we are talking about, and Misbah never minds. When his men fail him, all Misbah can do is — to quote Jarrod Kimber — “laugh, like a father who actually couldn’t believe what his kid had just done.”
That single quote puts into perspective what Misbah has been like for his compatriots. They still know they can go to Misbah even after they score a duck or send down two beamers or spill sitters, for they know Misbah understands failures.
They know he forgives and accepts them the way they are, covering up for their errors.
They know that if they never earn a penny, he will put in those extra hours, perhaps do two shifts a day to make sure there is food on the table.
They know that Misbah is the roof that will provide them shelter when it pelts down at night.
They know they are safe, for they are with Misbah and Misbah is with them.
It is time they pay him back. Perhaps winning a series is a nice way to start. If the board is unwilling to give Misbah the farewell he deserves, let them rise to the occasion.
No, Misbah does not deserve to disappear in the obscurity IPL casts upon the rest of the world of cricket during its six-week annual rule.