Until Pakistan won the Asia Cup recently, Misbahul Haq had faced overwhelming criticism, with calls for his removal from captaincy gaining momentum by the day. The highly negative public reaction to a few limited-overs defeats against England, coupled with a scathing media campaign had turned a hero into the biggest public villain in recent memory. One had hoped that the Asia Cup victory would have silenced some critics, but the jury is unfortunately still out on one of Pakistan’s most successful captains. As one is tempted to explore the reasons for this onslaught on Misbah, it also becomes imperative to distinguish facts from the ever-so-emotional myth.
Firstly, the persistent hatred of Misbah is rooted in the Pakistani public’s inability to stomach a loss against India. We demand instant reasons, rather instant justice for such heart rendering losses. Unfortunately, all games that Pakistan has lost against the arch-rival in recent memory have featured Misbah prominently in some way or the other. Whether or not he alone was solely responsible for those losses has never been objectively analysed. His only undoing has been the fact that he was the most visible victim when we turned to hunt for culprits.
Misbah could not hit a four in the last over — the story goes — and we lost to India in the final of the first World Twenty20. Misbah stood his ground without scoring as wickets fell around him in the 2011 World Cup semi-final. Most recently, Misbah could only watch as Virat Kohli ran roughshod over our bowling unit in a mammoth run-chase.
In all the anger and emotion, glaring facts are conveniently forgotten. Misbah was the only man who made a Pakistani victory in that World Twenty20 final even probable, by bringing us that close to the victory target in the first place. Misbah was the last man standing in that semi-final loss, scoring the only half-century of the Pakistani innings, while all the big hitters like Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq, failed to cross even 20. Even in the Asia Cup tie, we were in such denial over the appalling display of our bowling, and so pleasantly surprised with our batting, that no one else could be blamed but the captain.
Another factor that has led to our hatred for Misbah, is our love for charismatic and eccentric individuals over those that are more mature and measured. We judge Misbah by comparing him to his predecessor, who by the way, was also wrongly removed from captaincy by our whimsical board. Afridi’s flamboyance and charisma have effectively blinded us to his follies and made Misbah’s sedate and stoic persona appear as one that is laid-back and ineffective. Even when Afridi doesn’t perform, it is somehow Misbah’s fault. Judging them like this, only gives an evaluation of their personalities, with little insight into their leadership abilities, which can be measured through their records and on-ground exploits.
Finally, and most importantly, a collective national amnesia about Misbah’s success has also led to an increase in those individuals who hate him. His record while at the helm of affairs, has been one to make the most successful captains envious of. Misbah has led Pakistan in 22 One-day Internationals (ODIs) to date, of which Pakistan have won 16. This also includes a little-remembered victory over India in the 2008 Asia Cup when Pakistan chased down 309 runs in Karachi with Misbah scoring an unbeaten 70. In Twenty20s, he has led Pakistan to six wins in eight matches. And in Test matches, other triumphs aside, just whitewashing the world’s top-ranked team is an unparalleled feat for a Pakistani captain.
If anything, Misbah’s captaincy has been a beacon of hope for the team. Pakistan has moved beyond the spot-fixing saga and we are once again being reckoned as a force in international cricket. Leading from the front, his own batting has shown exceptional improvement. He sits on top of the list of Pakistani skippers in terms of batting average across all formats. In the eight Twenty20s he has captained, he averages 43.5 at a strike rate of almost 95. In the 22 ODIs he has captained, he averages close to 50 with a strike rate of 70. On a list of ODI captains who have led in at least 15 matches, Misbah stands at number five in terms of batting average.
Misbah may be no Chris Gayle when it comes to big-hitting prowess, or an Afridi when it comes to public appeal; yet he commands respect, has helped gel the team well, knows his role in the side and performs it well on most occasions — qualities ideally suited for a captain. Recently, former coach Geoff Lawson wrote a congratulatory letter to Dav Whatmore on his appointment as the new head coach (published on www.espncricinfo.com). Among other things, Lawson told Whatmore:
“A huge bonus for you will be that Misbahul Haq has taken over the captaincy. He is a bright, well-educated man, who understands the game exceptionally well. When in doubt, ask Misbah who should be in the team and he will give you players who aren’t someone’s second cousin’s brother’s uncle but rather are the most skilled for that position. He is a winner and plays no favourites… He sets a perfect example in work ethic and discipline…”
It seems Lawson, in his brief stint with the team, came to understand Misbah much better than most cricket enthusiasts in the country who run only on subjective analyses that are amnesia-induced and filled with emotion.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has only just begun to show some consistency and maturity in policies, a welcome step which has already paid dividends. Directly blaming Misbah for the (very few) recent losses is wrong. Instead of allowing him to work with the new coach to groom young talent, removing him from the captaincy would be disastrous and will start another round of musical chairs for the top job in the national team, as was typical of the years under Ijaz Butt’s PCB. It would be a saner move to announce Mohammad Hafeez as the team’s vice-captain, train him for the job and, in doing so, quell any speculations about the future of the captaincy. That is how successful teams plan for the long haul. A few bitter losses, however hard to swallow, should not elicit such emotional reactions so as to obscure larger victories and aims of making a stronger team.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2012.