I was amused by a recent statement by the PCB chairman that Misbah made a better captain than Imran Khan. He, however, did not qualify his conclusion with reasoning. The remark unleashed a fierce debate across the media, forcing the chairman to retract his statement saying Imran was indeed Pakistan’s most inspirational captain and greatest cricketing icon but Misbah was statistically a better captain. The earlier statement may have been casual but it was ill-timed given the charged political environment.
Social media went into a frenzy and the whole episode acquired a political spin. I will in this piece, keep politics at a safe distance while I frame my argument. Let me state at the very outset, Imran and Misbah can’t be compared as captains on the basis of cricket numbers alone. Many would also be tempted to analyse Imran by conflating his accomplishments on and off the field. Such an approach would be patently unfair as the judgment would be severely clouded by Imran’s Samaritan role or as his rise as a defiant national politician with an impressive following.
To ensure a decent comparison, we must take into account multiple cricketing dimensions including statistics, charisma, leadership and impact on the people. A captain has to be a lot more than just a good cricketer to command respect not by virtue of his position of authority but by the esteem he is held in by his teammates. Before we move on with the debate, let’s agree on something. Both Imran and Misbah are among the greatest ambassadors of Pakistan and the game of cricket who enthralled Pakistanis and the world at large with their superlative talent.
Imran played 88 Tests scoring 3,807 runs at an average of 37.69 and picked up 362 wickets at an average of 22.81 with a remarkable economy rate of 2.54. Imran was a dependable batsman and his most memorable innings came during the 1992 World Cup final against England when he scored a brilliant 72. Imran scored 3,709 runs in 175 ODIs at an average of 33.41 with a strike rate of 72.65.
With the ball, Imran picked up 182 wickets at an average of 26.61 and an economy rate of 3.89. Misbah, despite being in his late 30s, played several invaluable knocks for Pakistan. Known for his on-field composure and calm, he scored 4,951 runs in 72 Tests at an average of 45.84. In ODIs, he scored 5,122 runs in 162 matches at an average of 43.40 and a strike rate of almost 74. Whenever a player is appointed the captain of the national team, a very important question is how the burden of leadership impacts his individual performance. Imran, as a Test captain, improved his batting average from 25.43 to 52.34 and bowling economy rate from 2.60 to 2.46. Similarly in ODIs, he bettered his batting average from 25.66 to 34.9. Misbah had an average of 33.60 in Tests and 41.54 in ODIs before becoming the captain. He improved his Test batting average to 50.55 and 44.82 in ODIs.
Under Imran, Pakistan scored some memorable wins in both Tests and ODIs. He led Pakistan to their first-ever victory since 1954 against England on English soil before notching a first-ever Test series win over India in India. Imran as skipper won 14 Tests out of 48 (29%). In ODIs, Imran gave Pakistan cricket its finest moment when he led the team to victory at the 1992 World Cup. The cricketer also led the team to reach the semi-finals of the 1979, 1983 and 1987 World Cups. In total, Imran led Pakistan in 139 ODIs winning 75 matches and losing 59(54%). Under Misbah, Pakistan became the No 1 ranked Test team in the world for a short period of time. He is statistically Pakistan’s most successful Test skipper with 24 victories out of 49 Tests (49%). Misbah led Pakistan in 87 ODIs winning 45 and losing 39(52%).
OK, now the tough bit, the greatest captain. Sharpen the knives, guys. Both led well at home and abroad but Imran trumps Misbah with a better ODI winning percentage of 64 as opposed to 52. Misbah, on the other hand, beats Imran in Tests hands down. Misbah had the advantage of exploiting the T-20 format of the game and the limelight it drew across the world.
Imran could showcase his talents in only 2 formats of the game. He led from the front both as a world class swing bowler and an extremely dependable batsman. He made his mark in an era when giants like like Lilly, Kapil, Holding, Marshal, Garner, Hadlee, Viv Richards, Gavaskar dominated cricket. He successfully moulded a fractured team of talented individuals into a winning whole leading them to their greatest achievement when Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992. And he gave us Wasim Akram, Waqar Younus and Abdul Qadir plucking them out of oblivion and mentoring them to greatness. Wasim became the greatest left arm bowler in the history of cricket, Waqar morphed into the finest exponent of old ball swing and Qadir blossomed into the magician known for his googlies.
Who can forget that piercing gaze and the stooping prowl towards the pitch, the mane trailing, that magnificent leap and the final heave culminating into an unplayable swinging in-dipper. No bowler in the world was as flamboyant. Blessed with a phenomenal cricketing brain and a charismatic personality, Imran stands up there in the league of the greatest captains cricket has ever seen, something endorsed by both local and international cricketers.
Imran had a remarkable flair for risk taking with aggression and sublime confidence. He was arguably the best all-rounder the game ever saw, infecting generations with the cricket bug and continues to do so. His impact on the youth was profound as he set jaw-dropping examples of hard work and perseverance. A larger-than-life cricketer and Pakistan’s greatest captain who transcended the scoreboard and the walls of the stadium!
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2017.