[This was meant to be a travel blog but I had to make an exception and write about Misbah now that he is on the verge of retirement.
This piece was first published in The Nation here: Thank you, Misbah ]
To understand the importance of Misbah, you have to travel back in time to the 90s. The 90s were a magical time for Pakistan cricket in some ways. The team in the post-Imran era was and remains the most talented in the history of Pakistan cricket. We had two of the greatest fast bowlers of all-time who are now hall of famers. We had two great spinners who would have played a lot more games had they played for any other team. The batting featured the likes of Saeed Anwar and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Apart from the legendary Ws, young pacers with fearsome speed came and went on a regular basis. There was so much talent that it seemed like the party would never end.
That team was capable of great highs… and terrible lows. The highs were understandable given the unbelievable talent in the team. The lows were often accompanied by murmurs of infighting, corruption, deliberate underperformance and match fixing.
Even if you forget about the 1996 WC quarter final against India and the 1999 WC super sixes match against Bangladesh, there were plenty of other astonishing performances. The 90s team would lose miserably to an awful team only to come back and hammer the daylights out of the same opponent two days later.
So, when the terribly conducted Qayyum inquiry came back with dirt on many players, most Pakistani fans were not surprised. Of course, you can make the argument that Malik Qayyum (the judge conducting the match fixing inquiry) was a far bigger crook than the players he was judging. Qayyum later resigned as a judge to avoid facing charges for conspiring with the government to fix the verdict of a trial that he was hearing. His role as attorney general during the Musharraf government further eroded his already awful reputation.
Despite Mr Qayyum’s lack of credibility, any Pak fan who followed the team during the 90s knew that there was something very rotten in Pak cricket. So, when the Pakistani team crashed out in the first round of the 2003 WC, I had mixed feelings. A part of me was desperately sad to see my childhood heroes end their careers on such a low note. I had worshiped Wasim, Waqar and Saeed for most of my life. They were a huge part of my childhood. For as long as I’d followed cricket, the first over had always been bowled by the magical left arm of Wasim. And Waqar was always on the other end.
Cricket would never be the same again and has not been. Yet a part of me was almost relieved that maybe we can finally put the endless match fixing allegations to bed. Later events of course proved that to be wishful thinking.
After the golden age in terms of raw talent that was the 90s came the largely mediocre 2000s. The team seemed to do okay with mostly journeyman cricketers who tried hard. And then arrived Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamir.
Asif could do things with the ball that left commentators gasping for air. Aamir was declared a more precocious talent than Wasim by an authority no less than Imran Khan. Pakistani fans rightfully thought that we were on the verge of something special – a fast bowling pair very different from the great Wasim and Waqar but one that could be just as good. And then of course, it all came crashing down.
Aamir, Asif and then captain Salman Butt were caught in a spot fixing scandal on the England tour of 2010. It was like a punch to the gut. The worst part of the 90s was back except this time there was watertight proof. There would be no Malik Qayyum in England who would let Aamir or Asif off lightly because he was a fan of their cricketing talent. The trio was sent to jail.
This was the lowest low in the history of Pakistan cricket. There had been other scars but none that could be proven with video clips, audio recordings, text messages, pictures and marked currency notes.
It took me a while to fall in love with Misbah. It was more like an arranged marriage than love at first sight. Misbah slowly grew on me. Despite being a cricket tragic, I didn’t notice Misbah until he took over the test captaincy in a shock decision by PCB chairman and nut job Ijaz Butt. Before taking over captaincy from the jailed and disgraced Salman Butt, Misbah wasn’t even part of the test squad!
His first test series in charge was against South Africa. I like most fans expected us to get hammered even though the series was on the docile pitches of UAE. The odds were stacked against Misbah and his team. But something surprising happened – a Pakistan team that was in tatters after the spot fixing scandal showed guts against an opposition that even the mighty team of the 90s struggled against. The way was led by the experienced hands of Younis Khan and Misbah.
Slowly, these gutsy performances became a pattern under Misbah and not a one-off fluke. Even then, not even the most optimistic or prescient of Pak fans would have guessed that this was the start of something special that would culminate in some exceptional wins in the test arena. The best was whitewashing England 3-0 in UAE. This win was especially sweet after the spot fixing scandal and all the moral pontification that the English specialize in when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. There have been many good performances and some credible displays along the way. Even when the team has disappointed, at least no one has doubted the credibility of the Pakistani captain or players.
Yet Misbah is despised by a good section of Pakistani fans. You have to wonder why. He averages just a shade shy of 50 in tests and 43 in ODIs. That ODI average is higher than that of Saeed Anwar, Inzamam, Javed Miandad and Mohammed Yousuf. Our ODI batting lineup is made of glass. You can’t trust this team to put together a 100 runs consistently without Misbah.
Yet everything is always Misbah’s fault. Did the openers bat like morons? Misbah’s fault! Did the middle order batsmen get out for nothing? Misbah’s fault! Did that girl you have the hots for reject you? Misbah’s fault of course!
To understand the venom against Misbah, you have to understand the anti-Misbah aka Afridi. Afridi is the darling of Pakistani crowds. Many Pak fans consider him to be an all-time great. Ten page essays are frequently written as homage to a player who averages a pitiful 23 with the bat and an atrocious 38 with the ball when you exclude minnows. Yet he’s celebrated as if his batting and bowling averages are the reverse of what they actually are. That might be hard to comprehend especially for cricket fans outside Pakistan. But to understand the 19 year long career of Afridi and the Pakistani obsession with him, you have to understand Pakistan.
This is a country that runs more on hot air than substance. This is a country whose former army chief started a disastrous war in Kargil, convincingly lost it and refused to own the dead bodies of his soldiers. After presiding over this humiliation, the same general went on to launch a successful coup that was largely welcomed. He ruled the country for nine years as dictator and was fairly popular until a late fall from grace when he picked a fight with another megalomaniac. The senile old fool can now be seen on TV telling everyone what a great success Kargil would have been it wasn’t for the civilian PM who squandered the supposedly brilliant work of the army. Never mind that the army refused to accept the bodies of its soldiers who died on enemy territory. Never mind that the abandoned soldiers apparently had to eat the grass growing on the ground to sustain them.
This is a country where lawyers gave OBL a public funeral just to troll the rest of the world as it expressed relief at the death of the terrorist. This is a country where lawyers garlanded the self-confessed killer of the sitting governor of Punjab. This is a country where two retired high court judges are defending the same killer on a pro bono basis. This is a country where a lot of people who employ fellow Pakistanis as virtual slaves will cry tears of blood for their Muslim “brothers” suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc.
This is a country which celebrates its nuclear weapons but cannot generate enough electricity to address severe and chronic load shedding. This is a country which demands aid from western countries while the establishment fans hatred against the “evil west”. “We don’t just want you to give us financial aid. We want you to be grateful that we are taking your money.” That’s right bitch!
In short, this is a country that runs on bluster and puffed out chests. No one typifies this better than Afridi. Appearances are more important than substance.
It’s not what you do in real life or on the field. It’s what you say and the swagger you say it with.
Misbah is the definition of anti-swag. He doesn’t talk out of his ass. He doesn’t cheat. He doesn’t backstab teammates. He doesn’t leak dressing room secrets to Geo TV. He doesn’t put his young daughter on TV so she can blame his teammates on his behalf.
He just puts his head down and works hard. He does what is right for the team regardless of how much flak he has to take personally from fans whose attention span does not go past 2 overs. When asked tricky questions in interviews, he plays with as straight a bat as the one he offers on the cricket pitch.
No wonder Pakistanis can’t relate to him. We’re just not used to see a good, honest man succeed with nothing but hard work. There has to be some dirt. But we just haven’t found any on Misbah. And it really bugs us. He’s not one of us until we do. We just can’t trust him.
It is ironic but also somewhat appropriate that a tribute to Misbah would have to be framed by understanding the anti-Misbah.
If/when I have kids, I will tell them that I was lucky enough to have seen the wizard that was Wasim, the fire breathing dragon that was Waqar and the wristy magician that was Saeed. But I will also tell them that I also saw a great leader who resurrected Pakistan cricket and restored its dignity – and his name was Misbah.
Misbah, I want to thank you for everything that you’ve done for Pakistan cricket. Chances are that everything you worked so hard to bring to Pak cricket – dignity, honor, work ethic – will be lost as soon as you leave. Looks like the ODI captaincy will pass to the likes of Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal – both muppets with all the intelligence of a single-celled organism. It will be unfortunate but that is Pakistan cricket for you.
Regardless, Misbah – thank you for all your services to Pakistan cricket. Thank you for reviving what seemed like a very sick if not terminally ill patient. Thank you for your quiet dignity. Thank you for bringing respect back to Pak cricket. Thank you for keeping Pak cricket out of the headlines for the wrong reasons. Thank you for serving Pakistan even as Pakistanis hound you and call you, the national captain, derogatory names. Thank you for your endless grace as the hyenas in Pakistan’s cannibalistic media take shots at you to fulfill their petty agendas.
Thank you for making us proud. But most importantly, thank you for your leadership.
You will be missed, Skipper.