Pakistan lost to India. The default reaction for many of their fans was to blame the captain, Misbah-ul-Haq. Former pace bowler Shoaib Akhtar led the charge, calling on the skipper to “shed some of his humbleness and calmness” and declaring that the batsman would not dared to have played with such carelessness in the halcyon days of Imran Khan. Such is the life of the Pakistan cricket captain. He could win every match, cure cancer, and bring everlasting peace to the world and his ears would still sting with criticism.
Of course several of Misbah’s predecessors have not covered themselves in glory, most notably the man from whom he inherited the mantle (or poisoned chalice). Salman Butt is still serving a ban for a spot-fixing scheme he cooked up with Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, but in their absence Misbah has led the team out of those dark days of corruption, administrative bungling and poor results.
Looking back it seems clear that Misbah was the outstanding candidate but his ascension was far from obvious at the time. He was not even in the team back in 2010, and he was offered the role mainly due to the lack of other alternatives. Until then he appeared destined to remain a first class player who was unable to crack international cricket during his handful of earlier appearances for Pakistan.
This failure to achieve immediate success, and his circuitous route to the top, was the base for Misbah’s success as captain. He did not play seriously until his mid 20s, instead focusing on studying for an MBA from the Lahore University of Management and Technology. This brought a perspective of life outside professional sport that is one of the key elements his leadership and allowed him to guide Pakistan out of the years of instability.
It was the runs that started flowing from his bat, though, that won him the respect of his peers; his average as captain is almost 60 and stands 25 runs higher than before he took over the armband. On the field, he identified Saeed Ajmal as a matchwinner, found pace bowling replacements for the Mohammeds Asif and Amir, and allowed Younis Khan to bat liberated from the burdens of leadership.
Yet still it is not enough. Mr. Tuk Tuk they called him, an Urdu joke on his stodgy batting. He answered those criticisms by scoring the fastest ever Test hundred last year. It seems that for many Pakistanis his very strengths are weaknesses; instead they want a charismatic leader, a people’s champion, in the mold of the current T20 captain, Shahid Afridi.
Dependability is not very sexy. But that’s what Misbah brings, at least until the end of this World Cup, when he will retire from the one-day game. Shoaib invoked the aura of Imran as the prototypical Pakistani captain, and Misbah can look to the great man—who is a distant relation—for inspiration. Imran’s 1992 cohort also lost to their fiercest enemy, as part of winning only one match from their first five fixtures, but came roaring back to win the World Cup.
Statistically, Misbah is Pakistan’s most successful captain—better even than Imran—with 15 Test wins and 10 draws from 34 matches, including series wins over New Zealand, Sri Lanka, England, and Australia. Imran supposedly inspired his charges by telling them to play like cornered tigers. Misbah’s challenge is finding his own version of the cornered tiger to cap an extraordinary career and mark himself as the greatest of all Pakistan leaders.