Hemant Buch celebrates with Misbah-ul-Haq
Photo © Hemant Buch

When David “Bumble” Lloyd, the former Lancashire and England cricketer who became one of the game’s best-loved television commentators, tailored the much-used phrase “start the car” to “start the tuk tuk,” he had no idea what seeds he had sown. The auto rickshaw, or “tuk tuk” that Bumble referred to, might be a worthy object of gentle ridicule, but the man whose batting has become synonymous with tuk tuk, is deserving of the highest praise.

Misbah-ul-Haq, who may become the latest Asian captain to be driven to retirement by a tour of Australia, is a hero. His batting style, and scoring rate may have been the origin of this less than flattering moniker, but, as Osman Samiuddin, the peerless Pakistani cricket writer explains: “Popular culture has anointed it ‘tuk-tuk’ – intended to reflect his slow scoring through the aural effect of his forward defensive: ball dying on hitting bat, tuk, and then tuk again. Helpfully, the generally slow speeds of an actual tuk-tuk probably only add to that analogy.”

Having made his Test debut in 2001, Misbah endured more ups and downs than Pakistan cricket itself, a serious achievement in its own right. Between 2003 and 2007, he did not play a single Test and yet, when Pakistan cricket was faced with its most damaging and public crisis of the modern era – the scandal that sent Salman Butt, the captain, and Mohammads Amir and Asif to prison in England over fixing charges – it was Misbah who was called upon to be the saviour.

Cricket fans may confuse his ul-Haq surname to be closer to Inzamam, but they will be mistaken, for he is a Khan Niazi. Misbah may be the practical sort, with an MBA from the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, as opposed to the better known Khan Niazi, Imran, who took a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford, but he has more in common with the most inspirational captain of all time than his modesty will allow him to admit.

When Misbah took on the Pakistan captaincy, it was not so much a poisoned chalice as a cup of woes brimming over. Not only had Pakistan lost their young leader, they had been deprived of the services of the most skilful experienced seam bowler of the generation and the brightest young fast-bowling talent in the game. Teams do not recover easily from such blows. Yet Pakistan, in their own way, have found a path that has led them to success despite all the odds.

No Test cricket has been played in Pakistan since March, 2009 – the attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus making it impossible for any international opposition (barring Zimbabwe in 2015) to take the risk of travelling to the country. In an era that has deepened the home and away factor more than any in history, Misbah has had to lead the most disadvantaged team of them all. Apart from South Africa, no team travels especially well, with England, Australia and India being masters at home and yet struggling overseas.

With that being the case, Misbah’s record as captain should be abysmal. Instead, he averages 51.14 with the bat when leading his team, nearly five points more than otherwise, and this is over a span of 52 Tests. Pakistan have won 24 of those 52 Tests, drawn drawn 11 and lost 17. Imran, widely considered one of the most inspirational leaders of all time, led his team to 14 wins in 48 attempts. Comparisons across eras are at best pointers, but it’s worth remembering that Misbah’s win percentage is 46, a very healthy number, while Imran could manage only 29. Mere numbers do not make a man, but when someone stacks up so favourably against one of the legends of the game, the least anyone can do is accord him some respect.

At 42 years and 217 days, Misbah is already an anachronism in cricket where players, especially captains of volatile teams, do not last the distance. And, for him to be thinking about retirement is only natural. Yet, it was a gentle half-volley of a question at the post-match press conference in Melbourne that set the ball rolling: Are you planning on playing on, or are you starting to think the end is coming for you?

Initially not reacting, Misbah, as is his style at media interactions, rubbed his beard, stared into space and then delivered a blunt answer. “I think I need to think about it. I always believed that if I couldn’t contribute to the team then there’s no point staying there. This is a point where I need to think about that, even before the next game [in Sydney] and after the series. Next couple of days I will think about it and decide what to do. There is no point in hanging around and doing nothing. I haven’t decided [about Sydney] but let’s see.”

Doing nothing? Misbah has only 20 runs from his last four innings, but better players than him have endured longer droughts than this, only to come back stronger. But, while the fire to bounce back when you are 22 is a raging inferno, and a simmering, dependable flame at 32, there may only be embers left at 42.

It was in Melbourne not long ago that India’s version of Misbah, an unfashionable, unorthodox yet brutally effective player and captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, decided that enough was enough. Exactly two years before Misbah, Dhoni, who was captain in 60 of the 90 Tests he played, walked away from the longest form of the game without explanation. In what would be his final press conference as a Test player, Dhoni gave a typically engaged but convoluted answer to a question comparing Australia’s tail-end batting to Hanuman’s while pegging India’s as the stump on the rump of a Doberman.

“Now, even PETA has said that you can’t cosmetically remove the tail,” began Dhoni, sticking to the simile. “It has been a big problem for us that we don’t have a genuine allrounder. We have tried to play six batsmen and five bowlers before, but then the tail becomes as long as a cow’s… Hopefully, if we can find an allrounder, the tail problem will be resolved. But the tail problem is really a big problem.”

That he was stepping down as captain, and quitting Tests just 10 matches before the milestone century, was obviously not a problem. Without giving the slightest hint, Dhoni left the gathered touring media to their devices, informed his dressing-room of his decision to quit and let the Board of Control for Cricket in India issue a press release after the team had left the ground.

If the Dhoni way was unique, the Misbah method is also inimitable. At a time when players deflect even the most innocuous questions, here was a man taking the inevitable head on and volunteering his innermost thoughts. In Pakistan cricket, retirements can be taken with a pinch of salt, but with Misbah there is the sense that this is not the case. He is a thoughtful individual and this isn’t the first time he has considered giving it all away.

“I was thinking about my retirement long ago, even when I was playing against England in Dubai,” said Misbah. “I was thinking then that we had possibly Tests against India, so I would play that and that’s it. But then we had difficult tours like England, New Zealand and Australia, I thought that is not right time. I’ve been there for last six-seven years, developing this team. I have to face these difficult series. That is why I hung around. Even at that stage my plan was not to play for another two-three years. I have to think about that, haven’t finalised it.”

Brought up in an environment where people played all kinds of games behind the scenes to get the captaincy and then fought even harder to keep it when times were tough, this is an attitude that is almost alien. When Misbah says he stayed on as captain only because he thought there was work left to be done, that he had a responsibility to his team, there isn’t the slightest trace of insincerity. Misbah has not been shy about discussing his prospects, and more than once has been asked to keep his steady hand on Pakistan cricket’s rudder for just a bit longer.

Misbah hasn’t gone yet, so there is little need to talk of him in the past tense. But, the fact that he has laid his cards on the table is enough reason to celebrate a most idiosyncratic career. Erect at the crease and offering the straightest of bats well in front of pad, Misbah has a technique distilled to play the long game. And, in Test cricket, he has time and again bored the opposition into submission. He has 4895 runs, with a best of 161, not the numbers of an all-time great, and has struggled in Australia, where he averages only 13, and in South Africa, where he makes 22 runs per innings. In the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan’s adopted home, however, he racks up nearly 60 runs each innings over 26 Tests.

The fact is, Misbah has played more Test cricket in the UAE than anywhere else. While he has 26 Tests in the UAE, the only other country where he has double digits is Sri Lanka. Against arch-rivals India, Misbah averages 116, his two highest scores, 161 and 133, both unbeaten, coming in drawn games in the 2007-08 series.

So, if Misbah the batsman is not uncommonly good, especially statistically, why is he so important to Pakistan cricket? To start with, he is not mercurial or unpredictable, two tags that have stuck with Pakistan cricket forever and a day despite them not always being true. To move on, he is not greedy or deceptive, two tags that have been tacked on to cricketers from the subcontinent even when there is clear evidence to the contrary. To finish, he is not saint nor sinner, one of two titles conferred on most public figures, especially in sport, when the truth is somewhere in-between.

Misbah does not know it, but he had a greater influence on which direction cricket would take than, perhaps, anyone else. Having clobbered four sixes in a 38-ball 43, Misbah was on the cusp of taking Pakistan to their first major win over India in a global tournament, the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in Johannesburg. For reasons best known to him, Misbah attempted a scoop down leg off Joginder Sharma, with three balls still left to score five runs. As S Sreesanth waited for the offering to come down to him, and gratefully clasped it, a revolution was born. India, who had treated Twenty20 cricket with contempt till that moment, were world champions, and went on to power the format through the Indian Premier League.

But Misbah is not one to think about his place in the history of the game. All he wants to do is watch cricket. “He is a cricket tragic. He’s always watching cricket, talking cricket, when he isn’t playing,” says Hemant Buch, the TEN Sports head of production who has covered Pakistan’s journey over 15 years. “Because Misbah watches so much, he knows everything about every cricketer, strengths, weaknesses, you name it. It’s unique. Most cricketers tend to switch off when they aren’t playing. But cricket is Misbah’s getaway from cricket.”

Misbah once met Buch for coffee in Lahore, on the 28th of May. “It was his birthday and though he may not spend too many special occasions at home, with his family, he came out to see me,” says Buch. “That’s the kind of guy he is. Look, he can hit sixes at will, but when you look at his Test statistics, you won’t realise that. He will launch when he has to, but he doesn’t allow himself to a lot of the time, because he is captain, and the safety of his team is most important to him.”

While I cannot claim any knowledge of Misbah the person, there is one intimate interaction that will stay with me forever. At Eden Park in Auckland, Misbah was addressing a press conference and the Pakistan media manager signalled that it was time for the questions in English to come to an end so those who wanted to ask in Urdu had their chance. At my instigation, the paler than Kiwi Jamie Alter, asked Misbah about Younus Khan’s role in the team, in chaste Urdu. Without batting an eyelid, Misbah answered the question. When the three of us took the elevator down, Misbah allowed himself a smile and Alter could not resist asking how Misbah maintained his poker face through the little prank. “You know me, I always play with a straight bat,” he said.

If he does quit now, Misbah’s straight bat and deadpan delivery will be missed. When Dhoni quit, Ravi Shastri, then with the Indian team, said of his captain: “he came like a tiger and left like a lion.” In Misbah’s case, to borrow from the famous analogy of playing like cornered tigers from 1992, he came like an ul-Haq and is leaving like a Niazi.

(This article first appeared in the Spotlight section on Cricbuzz on December 31, 2016)