Misbah’s New Pakistan: From Probable Impossibilities to Mere Impossibilities

Posted on April 19, 2012

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By SB Tang

September 24th, 2007. Pakistan face India in the final of the inaugural World Twenty20 tournament at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. India set Pakistan a target of 158 for victory. In the eighth over of Pakistan’s innings, Younis Khan, one of Pakistan’s most dependable batsmen with a Test average in excess of 48, mistimes a drive to mid-on and Pakistan slump to 4/65.

His dismissal brings Misbah-ul-Haq to the crease. Already 33 years of age, Misbah has played just five Tests (for a highest score of 28 and a batting average of 13.33) and 12 one-day internationals (for a highest score of 50 not out and a batting average of 33.88). This is, in and of itself, unusual — Pakistan is renowned for producing and picking young players. Younis Khan, for example, is more than three years younger than Misbah, but has already racked up 53 Tests and 151 one-day internationals.

Misbah is what sportswriters politely describe as a journeyman.

In the space of three overs, Pakistan collapse to 6/77, having lost their remaining two recognised batsmen in Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi.

Pakistan now require 81 runs off 50 balls with only the tail to come. The required run rate is 9.88 per over.

Their fate rests squarely on Misbah’s shoulders.

In the eight overs which follow, Misbah produces an innings of unerring calm and assurance. He coolly bludgeons three mammoth sixes. He never looks like getting out.

At the start of the final over, Pakistan are down to their last wicket but only require 13 runs to complete what would be a famous and potentially format-defining victory. Misbah is on strike. Joginder Sharma’s first ball is a wide, reducing the target to 12 off six balls. Misbah plays and misses at the second ball. Sharma’s third ball is a full-toss — Misbah drives it straight back down the ground for a monstrous six. It is a hit which Hank Aaron would be proud of.

The target is now six off four balls. Misbah and Pakistan are one firm blow away from achieving what seemed impossible just over eight overs ago.

Sharma runs up to bowl the fourth ball of the final over. As soon as the ball leaves his hand, it is clear to all watching that it will pitch full and outside off. Eminently driveable. Game over surely — all Misbah has to do to seal victory is repeat the shot he executed to perfection the previous delivery. Instead, Misbah attempts an all-too-cute premeditated scoop shot and succeeds only in gifting Sreesanth a dolly at short fine-leg. India wins the inaugural World Twenty20 tournament.

It is as if Misbah, having ascended to within touching distance of the summit of Everest, slipped and fell on his own discarded Snickers wrapper.

Misbah’s heretofore nerveless and chanceless innings of 43 off 38 balls deserved to be remembered as the first truly significant international Twenty20 innings. As it turns out, Misbah’s innings was significant but not for the reasons it ought to have been — rather than standing as an example of the finest batsmanship under pressure, it heralded the birth of the Indian Premier League (“IPL”), an organisation which serves to further strengthen, economically and politically, Pakistan’s greatest rival.

February 6th, 2012. Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. It is late on the fourth day of the Third Test between Pakistan and England. Abdur Rehman dismisses Monty Panesar LBW. Pakistan complete a 3-0 series whitewash of the world’s number one ranked Test side. Pakistan’s captain and middle-order linchpin? Misbah-ul-Haq.

It is the most improbable of comebacks for both the man and his proud cricketing nation.

*****

In the years following his scoop shot at the Wanderers, Misbah was axed from the Pakistani side in all three formats of the game. Although he continued to churn out the runs at domestic level in Pakistan, he seemed cursed at international level.

Take, for example, the events which occurred in the first innings of the First Test against India in Delhi in November 2007. Misbah had again rescued Pakistan from a perilous situation: coming in at 3/59, Misbah single-handedly kept Pakistan’s innings together, patiently batting for over five hours to compile 82 from 243 balls (the next highest score was Kamran Akmal’s 30) and lead Pakistan to 8/229. Having done the hard work, a maiden Test century was within sight.

What happened next has to be viewed on YouTube to be believed — Misbah pushed one of Sourav Ganguly’s innocuous medium pacers to Dinesh Karthik at a deepish point and set off for the easy single; Karthik fielded the ball and had a shy at the stumps at the non-striker’s end; Misbah, by now already well within his crease, jumped up in the air to avoid getting struck by the ball thrown by Karthik. Unfortunately, Misbah was still suspended in mid-air when the ball crashed into the stumps at the non-striker’s end.

By August 2010, Misbah was 36 years old and out of the Pakistani side in all three formats of the game. His international career looked finished.

Meanwhile, Pakistan toured England without him. Included in that touring party was an 18 year old left-arm fast bowler by the name of Mohammad Amir. It was Amir’s first tour of England. With Pakistan 2-0 down in a four Test series, Amir took 5/52 in England’s second innings of the Third Test at the Oval to help dismiss the hosts for 222 and set up the target of 148 for victory which his batting colleagues duly chased down. With the series poised at 1-2 after the Oval Test and more bowler-friendly conditions expected at Lord’s, Pakistan remained an outside chance to level the four match series.

On August 26th 2010, bad light and rain restricted play to just 12.3 overs on the opening day of the Fourth Test at Lord’s. Pakistani captain Salman Butt had won the toss and sent England into bat. Mohammad Asif, one of Pakistan’s opening bowlers, picked up the key wicket of England captain Andrew Strauss to leave England 1/39 at the close of day’s play.

The following day, August 27th 2010, Amir made headlines around the cricketing world. He took six wickets to reduce England to 7/102. The deliveries which removed Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood were unplayable. Bowling over the wicket to the left-handed ex-choirboy and latter day Liza Minnelli (circa 1972) lookalike Cook, Amir went wide of the crease and produced a good length ball which angled into Cook’s middle-and-off stump and swung away late. A textbook forward defensive prod was Cook’s only sensible option and a regulation edge to the keeper was the only possible outcome.

The ball which dismissed the right-handed Collingwood was even better. Coming over the wicket, Amir angled a fullish ball across Collingwood which pitched on middle stump. Again, a textbook forward defensive was the batsman’s only sensible option. And again, the ball swung late, doing just enough to evade Collingwood’s straight bat and cannon into his front pad. A plum LBW was the only possible outcome.

It was an astonishing display of pace, swing and precision from a boy not old enough to buy himself a drink in the United States of America. At an age when his cricketing contemporaries in Australia and England merely aim to make a national academy squad and still dream of making their first-class debut, Amir had effortlessly etched his name on the honour board at Lord’s. It is no exaggeration to say that Amir was the best bowler of his age anywhere in the world. He had the cricketing world at his feet. His sheer talent seemed almost other worldly. His personal journey from the tiny, dusty village of Changa Bangial to the hallowed turf of the home of cricket seemed almost too good to be true.

In a Shakespearean tragedy, this is the precise moment at which the eponymous hero’s fatal character vice would manifest itself to trigger his downfall. In the real world of 21st century Britain, this manifested vice could only be revealed to the horrified audience in one way — the frontpage tabloid expose.

A day later, August 28th 2010, Amir again made headlines around the world but, this time, for all the wrong reasons. The now-defunct News of the World ran a story which rocked the very foundations of Pakistani, and indeed world, cricket. As the BBC subsequently explained: “An undercover News of the World … reporter paid [Mazhar] Majeed [the agent of Pakistani cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir] £150,000 for details of the precise timing of three no-balls, which the players were persuaded to bowl, which were extremely valuable on the spot-fixing betting market.”

Butt, Asif and Amir were each subsequently handed long bans by the International Cricket Council and were convicted of the English criminal offences of conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. Butt and Asif were found guilty at trial, whereas Amir pleaded guilty. In November 2011, Mr Justice Cooke sentenced Butt to 30 months’ imprisonment, Asif to 12 months’ imprisonment and Amir to six months’ imprisonment.

Butt was Pakistan’s captain and an opening batsman. Asif and Amir were Pakistan’s first-choice opening bowlers.

This was Pakistani cricket’s darkest hour. A saviour was needed — the Pakistan Cricket Board turned to Misbah-ul-Haq. In October 2010, Misbah was appointed Test captain. His reign did not begin auspiciously — when asked about the reasons behind the 36 year old Misbah’s appointment, Mohsin Khan, Pakistan’s then chief selector, told ESPNcricinfo: “the selection committee has nothing to do with the appointment of the captain.”

Khan need not have feared — Pakistani cricket has not taken a backward step since Misbah’s appointment.

*****

Since Misbah took over the Test captaincy, Pakistan have not lost a Test series, drawing 0-0 with South Africa in the UAE, beating New Zealand 1-0 in New Zealand, defeating Sri Lanka 1-0 in the UAE, steamrolling Bangladesh 2-0 in Bangladesh and besting England 3-0 in the UAE.

Misbah has achieved all this with a team and a style of play which defy all of our ingrained stereotypes about the Pakistani cricket team. The Pakistani cricket team is supposed to be mercurial — an intermittently brilliant but consistently inconsistent team stacked with teenage prodigies plucked from the streets of Lahore, chronically mismanaged by a politically chaotic board and opaque selection panel.

By contrast, Misbah’s side is metronomic — a team in the truest sense of the word, spearheaded by over-30 ex-journeymen turned international stars, which practises a patient game plan, featuring low scoring rates and defensive fields, successfully grinding their opposition into dust and is offended by the notion of a Test series defeat.

In this winter’s three Test series against England in the UAE, Pakistan’s innings run rate (excluding their successful 15-run final innings run chase in the First Test) never exceeded three an over and Pakistan never allowed England to score at more than three an over in any of their innings. Patience was the watchword. England’s then-in-form and star-studded batting line-up was successfully contained with a mixture of good bowling and defensive fields as Misbah waited patiently for the English batsmen to make an error whilst his bowlers subjected them to sustained pressure. With the bat, it was a case of slow but steady wins the race for Misbah’s new Pakistan.

It was old school attritional Test cricket of the highest order, well-suited to both the Arabian conditions and the peculiar resources Misbah had at his disposal.

Indeed, the main criticism of Misbah’s new Pakistan has been that their style of play lacks flair and entertainment value. The statement that their style of cricket lacks flair is true, but does it constitute a valid criticism? I submit that the answer is no.

Over the years, Pakistan has frequently had some of the best individual players in the world — Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq to name but a few — but have never remotely approximated the best team in the world over a prolonged period of time. Their teams lacked consistency and solidity which meant that they often added up to less than the sum of their parts.

Misbah has not only restored Pakistani cricket’s credibility but imbued the team with a steel and consistency which it has long lacked. So what if some of this steel and consistency (and resulting success) has come at the expense of flair? Why should Pakistan have to play the role of the perennially entertaining but typically vanquished foe? Besides, there is entertainment value aplenty in witnessing the application of the virtues of patience and discipline over the course of a five-day Test match.

*****

Misbah’s team, from its composition to its playing style, is built in his image.

Historically, Pakistan has regularly possessed outstanding bowlers. They have typically been prodigious talents identified and picked (and in some instances, inexplicably discarded) at a young age. Pakistan’s last great off-spinner, Saqlain Mushtaq, made his Test debut at the age of 18 and had played the last of his 49 Tests by the time he was 27. Leg-spinners Mushtaq Ahmed and Abdul Qadir made their Test debuts at the ages of 19 and 22 respectively. Legendary pacemen Imran Khan and Wasim Akram played their first Test match at the age of 18 and Waqar Younis turned 18 on the second day of his first Test.

By contrast, Misbah’s strike bowler is a 34 year old off-spinner by the name of Saeed Ajmal who played his first Test match at the ripe old age of 31.

In the Test series against England in the UAE, Misbah’s two-man pace attack was led by the perennially and inexplicably underrated 27 year old Umar Gul. At the time the spot-fixing scandal broke in August 2010, Gul was, at best, Pakistan’s third choice quick behind Asif and Amir. In the UAE, Gul took 11 English wickets (at 22.27), the second-most of any seam bowler in the series. All but two of Gul’s series wickets belonged to specialist batsmen as he consistently snared key top-order wickets to expose England’s spin-vulnerable middle order to Pakistan’s three-man spin battery. Gul’s 4/63 in England’s second innings of the First Test, which consisted of England’s top four batsmen, not only helped win the Test match, but set the tone for the entire series — just as the well-credentialed English top order thought that they were beginning to adapt to playing spin in Arabian conditions, they were undone by pace on a slow pitch.

Misbah’s Test XI against England only featured two specialist batsmen aged in their 20s — Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq — and even they are aged in their mid-, rather than, early-20s, and are level-headed, technically-proficient accumulators rather than rampaging ball-strikers of yore such as Shahid Afridi and Ijaz Ahmed.

Saeed Ajmal is, in many respects, emblematic of Misbah’s new Pakistan. Like his captain, Ajmal toiled away for over a decade in the obscurity (and penury) of Pakistani domestic cricket and, when he finally got the call to play for his country in his 30s, suffered abject humiliation in a World Twenty20 tournament. In the 2010 semi-final against Australia in St Lucia, Ajmal was tasked with the responsibility of bowling the final over with Australia needing a still improbable 18 to win, having looked dead, embalmed and soon to be buried at 7/144 after 17.1 overs chasing 192.

At the start of that final over, Ajmal’s bowling figures read: 1/23 off three overs. He had been bowling well, being unafraid to vary his line, length, flight and speed. Crucially, he had been willing to flight the ball when appropriate. The ball which removed Steve Smith, Australia’s last recognised batsman, in the 17th over was the perfect example: a 57.1 mph delivery tossed up above Smith’s eye-line which lured the dangerous hitter down the crease for a big air swing and a stumping not even Kamran Akmal could miss.

The first ball of Ajmal’s final over was a portent of things to come: a flat, 71 mph yorker length dart which Mitchell Johnson managed to inside-edge for a single to get Mike Hussey on strike. The second ball was flat and fast (62 mph), but also inexplicably short of a good length on a slow pitch. Hussey has an eternity to lean back and get under the ball in order to pull it for six and he did just that — the ball disappeared over the mid-wicket boundary. With just 11 required off four balls, for the first time during Australia’s run chase, the odds were in Australia’s favour.

The third ball of Ajmal’s over would be crucial. A boundary would all but seal victory for Australia. A dot or a single would tip the odds back in Pakistan’s favour as Australia would then probably have to hit at least two boundaries off the last three balls to win. Ajmal’s third ball was faster (70.7 mph) but just as flat and almost as short as his previous delivery — Hussey has time to get down on one knee and hammer it over long-on for six. Australia now required just five off the last three balls and a famous victory was all but assured. Ajmal’s fourth ball was arguably the worst of an already nightmarish over — short and wide and slashed just over gully’s outstretched hand for four by Hussey. Australia now required one off the last two balls and Hussey had scored 54 runs off just 23 balls at a strike rate of 234.78. He could be forgiven for sealing the win with an easy single. Instead, Hussey brutally slammed Ajmal’s fifth ball of the over, yet another too flat and too short delivery, over the mid-wicket boundary for a towering six.

*****

In 350 BC, Aristotle wrote in Poetics: “With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” Two thousand three hundred and sixty years later, on a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea, the events which unfolded in a cricket match between Pakistan and Australia reminded the world of the eternal truth of Aristotle’s literary theory.

Aristotle’s argument was that if the artist can successfully weave a narrative which the audience willingly invests themselves in, then the audience “must accept” any “irrational incident[]” subsequently introduced by the artist within the framework of that established narrative because “the absurdity is veiled by the poetic charm with which the poet invests it.” This is the “probable impossibility” which Aristotle advocates and Aristotle cites Odysseus being left upon the shore of Ithaca as one example of an “irrational incident” which falls within the ambit of his definition of a “probable impossibility”.

The flip-side of Aristotle’s literary theory is that “[t]he element of the irrational … [is] justly censured when there is no inner necessity for introducing [it]”. In other words, in the absence of a well-constructed narrative, the artist should not introduce irrational incidents into their work. Such incidents are the “improbable possibilities” which Aristotle disapproves of. The Australian super-soaps, Neighbours and Home and Away, which, despite years of moderate ratings at home, continue to enjoy cultural icon status in the UK, provide countless examples of such “improbable possibilities”, but one from Neighbours shall suffice: in 1991, Harold Bishop disappeared off the edge of a seaside cliff; five years later he returned with the explanation that he was swept out to sea, picked up by a fishing trawler and suffering from amnesia.

By contrast, the events of the 2010 World Twenty20 semi-final between Pakistan and Australia neatly fit the “probable impossibility” aspect of Aristotle’s theory — no matter how “irrational” the last over might have seemed, we, the audience, accepted it because the incident took place within the well-established narrative framework of Pakistan’s recent history which features, amongst other things, allegations of match-fixing, ball-tampering, spot-fixing, terrorist-harbouring, terrorist-sponsoring and nuclear weapons proliferation.

And what of Saeed Ajmal, the noble vanquished foe of this Aristotelian cricketing tale? Less than two years after that traumatic five-ball spell in St Lucia, in the vast desert wastelands of Arabia, Ajmal topped the bowling charts in Pakistan’s 3-0 series victory over England, with 24 wickets at 14.70 apiece. He now stands on top of the world as the number one ranked spin bowler in Test cricket. Ironically enough, the flat, high-speed bowling which led to his downfall in St Lucia is what brought him super-success against England on the pitches of the UAE.

Sadly, for the people of Pakistan, the events of the last 20 years constitute not a cathartic work of literature, but a depressing work of non-fiction.

Their nation is a pariah, both in the cricketing, and the real geopolitical, world.

In addition to allegations of match-fixing, ball-tampering, and most recently, spot-fixing, their national cricket team has had to endure being stripped of the right to play international matches at home. Instead of the intimidating sights and hostile sounds of the National Stadium in Karachi, touring sides merely have to tolerate the sterile atmosphere of empty, state-of-the-art concrete bowls in the Arabian sands. Pakistani cricketers, already some of the worst-paid of the established Test-playing nations, have been banned from participating in the IPL, despite Pakistan having the best record of any nation in World Twenty20 tournaments.

On the geopolitical stage, on top of routine allegations of terrorist-harbouring, terrorist-sponsoring and nuclear weapons proliferation, in May 2011, the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was found in Abbottabad, less than a mile from Pakistan’s pre-eminent military academy. A few months later, the late Christopher Hitchens described Pakistan as “an abject begging-bowl country that is nonetheless run by a super-rich and hyper-corrupt Punjabi elite”.

In a world where nothing seems to be going right for their country, Misbah’s team’s 3-0 series win over England in the Arabian desert and the manner of that victory — disciplined, clinical and professional — is something all cricket fans can respect, admire and yes, even celebrate.

*****

Less than two years ago, Misbah and Ajmal could have allowed themselves to be consigned to the dust bin of history as limited-overs specialists and mediocre ones at that: big-time choke dogs who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in World Twenty20 tournaments. They did not. They weathered the slings and arrows of fortune and kept trying. Their determination has been richly rewarded.

Misbah will be remembered as the man whose calm intelligence rescued the Pakistani cricket team as it stared into the abyss and not only restored it to rude health, but led it to a comprehensive series whitewash against an England team justifiably ranked number one in the world. Ajmal is busy challenging Graeme Swann for the title of the best spinner in the world and could well finish his career as this decade’s first great spinner.

Some two thousand three hundred and fifty two years after Aristotle’s Poetics, Joss Whedon, one of the leading philosophical dramatists of my generation, wrote a memorable line for a vastly outnumbered freedom fighter in a war of independence: “We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty”.

Once upon a time, impossible victorious deeds were the exclusive domain of Pakistan’s opponents — the Hobart Test of 1999, featuring Justin Langer’s incredible creaking bat handle, springs to mind — but Misbah’s Pakistan have, through their professionalism, determination and skill, claimed a slice of that territory for themselves and the only question which remains is, in a transitional era following the fall of the Warne-McGrath Australian Empire where no Test-playing nation has been able to claim the world number one ranking for any substantial length of time, just how mighty could Misbah’s Pakistan become?

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