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Misbah and Pakistan’s search for a hero

Misbah ul Haq

At the end of Christopher Nolan’s seminal film The Dark Knight (2008), Commissioner Gordon describes Harvey Dent as a hero, not the hero we deserved, but the hero we needed. These lines from Commissioner Gordon, as the chief of Police is at a public platform, directed at the people of Gotham. He is directly addressing the people he has taken an oath to serve and protect. He has just seen the city’s beloved District Attorney and ray of new hope go on a murdering rampage, and almost murder his own child. Even when he has to lie to continue the facade, he doesn’t fail to express a sense of humility by suggesting that Harvey Dent was so good a hero, Gotham did not deserve him, thus giving that scene an extra layer of cynicism and smokescreen.

Pakistan is a nation of hero worshipers. Among their heroes are politicians, pop stars and sportsmen. And then there are the cricketers. They are not just heroes, but the means by which an average Pakistani goes about his life. And because they live vicariously through their heroes, they like their heroes cool, stylish, arrogant and brilliant. In a repressed society, where the means of repression is based on morality and values and culture, you can’t help but side with the rebels, the outsiders, the ones who constantly have run-ins with authority, the ones who appear to upend the rules and hierarchy created for control.

Nothing reflects an average Pakistani’s fascination with heroes better than the position of the Pakistan cricket captain, the man who in the eyes of an average Pakistani stands up to the dysfunctional and archaic institution that is the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and produces scintillating performances on the ground despite the system while thumping their nose at the tools of control — the manager, selection committee, chairman etc. This is why this is the most coveted job in Pakistan cricket. This is why at one point Pakistan had a team full of former captains. This is why in the eleven year period between the 1992 and the 2003 World Cup, Pakistan had 9 captains. This is why, Pakistan’s greatest cricketing heroes are almost always former captains — Imran, Miandad, Wasim, Waqar, Anwar, Inzamam.

It is also then of little surprise when the biggest cricketing hero in Pakistan in recent times is Shahid Afridi, another former captain. The hero whose very claim to fame is by smashing the ball as hard as he can, and in the process, not just pulverising the opposition, the MCC rule book, cricketing wisdom but sometimes his own team. Afridi has all the traits of an average Pakistani — impatient, talented, temperamental with a total disregard for rules and discipline.

It was in 2010, at the end of one of the various chaotic moments that Pakistan cricket is beset with, when Afridi was asked to take over the captaincy of the national team across all formats. Pakistan were to play 6 Test matches in England, 2 against Australia and 4 against England and such is the uniqueness of Afridi’s charm, that it was not he who coveted the captaincy but the chairman of the cricket board who coaxed and pleaded to get him to accept it. In typical Afridi fashion, not dissimilar to when he gets himself out playing a shot that has everyone flummoxed; he quit the captaincy after the first test against Australia under bizarre circumstances.

What followed next in Pakistan cricket is a black hole so deep that it would consume and overwhelm this piece by its sheer impact. By end of that summer of 6 Test matches, 3 of Pakistan’s heroes, including the captain who replaced Afridi were facing jail time and ban.

It was under these circumstances that another man, another outsider who was far away from the tumultuous events of 2009–10, was brought back in to the fold to take over the captaincy, the position that Afridi had rejected, Salman Butt had squandered and every cricketer in Pakistan coveted. Only this man, was not a hero.

Misbah ul Haq was never going to be Pakistan’s hero. The Universe, the Stars, the Oceans and the Mountains had all conspired against him. Pakistan lives vicariously through its heroes, so they need to see them do heroic things physically, like change the course of the wind or make the mountain come to him. They need to see Shoaib Akhtar blow away Tendulkar’s middle stump to accept him as a hero overnight. Misbah attempts to play a short ball from Morkel by awkwardly taking a blow to the body. They need to see Wasim Akram bowl two magical deliveries in a World Cup final. Misbah plays a forward defence without really going forward, by allowing the ball to come to him while he shuffles across and lets it hit the face of his bat instead of pushing it towards the gap for a single. He was discarded and forgotten after a few games in 2001–02, a few opportunities he was given while Pakistan team itself was down in the doldrums.

Misbah protests to the Mountains, the Oceans, the Stars and the Universe, all of whom had conspired against him.

“Imran Khan bowls fast off a sexy run up and can bat, Saeed Anwar caresses the ball to the boundary as if time had stopped for him, Waqar Younis can crush stumps, toes and everything else that stands between him and his yorkers. What can you do that makes you think you can be their hero?” is the condescending reply from the powers that be.

“I am more hard working, dedicated and fitter than anyone else. I am mentally and physically strong, I never give up, I am a fighter, I have fought and struggled my whole life. I live and breathe cricket” responds Misbah innocuously.

“What makes you think those are qualities they want in their heroes”?

“But no one can become a great cricketer without those qualities, all those Pakistani heroes had these qualities too, so how come they accepted them?” reasons Misbah, ever the voice of reason and logic.

“But they had an X factor. Some could make the air deviate the ball at the last minute to deceive the batsman, some could stop time and place the ball wherever they wanted, some were born Imran Khan. What’s your X factor?” came the reply.

Misbah is quiet, as he takes time to reflect on this latest query. He thinks for a bit and replies in jubilation “I can hit massive sixes. I hit Shane Warne for 2 massive sixes in my first match against Australia. I was the highest scorer in that game as the entire batting line up collapsed around me. I fought a lone battle like a hero”

The Mountains and the Stars look at each other in confusion. The Ocean looks clueless. The Universe looks around and finally responds, ‘Well, no one really remembers this, but you sound like an honest man, so we’ll believe you if you say so. So we’ll give you an opportunity. We’ll give you a shock comeback in 2007 after Pakistan crash out of the World Cup against Ireland, and we’ll give you an opportunity of a lifetime — First World T20 final against arch rivals India and the only man between India lifting the Cup and crushing the dreams of 180 million Pakistanis is you. All their popular heroes will fail, but not you. You claim to be a fighter who can hit sixes and never gives up? Well this is it. This is your chance to become the hero they think they deserve.”

On 24th September 2007, Misbah would do all the things he had claimed he could do — he would fight, he would not give up, and as everyone else would crumble around him under the massive pressure of playing India in a World Cup final, he would hit his massive sixes to bring Pakistan close to that first World T20 against India of all teams from an impossible situation in a way only a Pakistani hero would. Except for one ball. The one ball that would change history, destiny and while a billion people would cherish that moment, a one eighty million would mourn and it was this one eighty million he was trying to become a hero for. On that day, India got their Harvey Dent in Dhoni, Pakistan got their Dark Knight- the one they would pin all the blame and sins on. The one man who was responsible for all the carnage, the pain, the humiliation of having to lose to India.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Misbah along with his team, left without a home to play cricket, made their exodus to UAE. They built a fortress, and achieved the incredible feat of not losing a Test series in 6 years and Misbah in the process becomes Pakistan’s most successful Test captain, going past their greatest cricketing hero. Yet Misbah and his team were never going to get the welcome Muhammad got when he came back to Mecca. This was a man they had rejected and while God helped Muhammad, Misbah, like always found all the forces and powers against him. Team Misbah was just like him — hard working, dedicated, sincere and disciplined. They were never going to win over a nation looking for stumps shattering, Afridi’s silky hair and a time machine to go back to 1992. Everything from their technique, skillset, manhood was up for discussion on TV shows hosting ex cricketers who had successfully managed to erase every memory of their defeats not just on foreign soil but also at home. Indeed, Pakistan lost 6 out of 9 series at home between 1995 and 2001. The 90s teams were hailed as heroes. Team Misbah won 5 out of 9 series at ‘home’ between 2010 and 2016. Misbah was described as ‘tuk tuk’ preventing the team from being ‘aggressive’.

Such was the contempt and distrust, that while every team today wins at home and loses overseas, the ‘home’ wins for Pakistan were dismissed disparagingly with “they will be exposed overseas”. Misbah’s team knew this, so they responded with the only way he knew how to — more hard work, more dedication and more training. The team went on a month long boot camp with the military to prepare for their toughest year in Test cricket — 2016,  the year they would have to step outside of the deserts of UAE and play on the ‘real pitches’ of England and Australia.

It worked. They drew 2–2 in England, where India and Australia have been ‘exposed’ in the past. Misbah, Younis, Azhar, Shafiq, the quartet that had formed Pakistan’s strongest batting line up in years were supposed to get ‘exposed’. They responded with a century each. They even became the number 1 team for the first time in their history. The ridicule, criticism and condescension had died.Temporarily. They just waited, sharpening their claws in the process, waiting for the next away series for Misbah, Younis, Azhar, Shafiq to get ‘exposed’ for they were going to give this team the recognition and appreciation it deserved. They would just go quiet and wait for the team to fail.

Test cricket is brutal. Heroes get defeated. They get crushed. They get blown to smithereens. Imran Khan’s team were bundled out for 107 at Melbourne in their first test in 1990.. Wasim Akram led Pakistan’s greatest generation of cricketers to Australia and came back with a 0–3 scoreline. Inzamam’s team were bundled out for 72 at Perth. Heroes get forgiven. Heroes help you forget.

Team Misbah lost their first series in over 3 years in New Zealand recently. Then came Australia. The one team Pakistan could never match up to. The one team that had always stomped their foot on their pride and reminded them that their brilliant, mercurial, talented heroes were inadequate to overcome the country’s dysfunction, disarray and disorder.

They were blanked 0-3 once again. While the core of the team – the middle order stood up and were able to overcome Australia’s bowling firepower for most part, it was the bowling, considered Pakistan’s strongest suit that would come undone. In failure, Misbah and his team were finally able to make a lot of people in their country happy, the ones who were waiting with bated breath for him and his team to fail. Sport’s double edged sword had sliced through their hearts and crushed it.

In the final scene of The Dark Knight, when Commissioner Gordon is alone with his son, without the public, when he is not Commissioner Gordon but a father, and his son asks him why Batsman is leaving, he tells his son the truth — ‘because he is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.’ This time there is no cynicism or facade. This time he expresses hope,  a belief in the goodness of Gotham, a Gotham that deserves Batman, the silent guardian, the watchful protector.

Team Misbah’s golden run might be nearing its end but the team is also changing guard. The crux of the team today are Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali, two men Misbah had trusted and backed wholeheartedly for the last 6 years. In Australia, both of them demonstrated to the world, but more importantly to their nation, the mettle they are made of. Neither of them excite Pakistanis. They are not the batsmen the crowds throng to watch or ask for an autograph and selfie. Yet in the past year, their toughest in test cricket, they demonstrated that they are more than capable of carrying the team forward. Azhar has a double, a triple to go with a couple of centuries in the last 12 months. Shafiq now is the most successful number 6 batsman in Test cricket, and boasts of hundreds in South Africa, England and Australia – the ultimate crown for an Asian batsman.

Team Misbah also has the next generation of Pakistan cricket. He is a father figure to the likes of Sami Aslam, Babar Azam or even a Mohammad Amir seeking redemption. He has guided and helped the likes of Yasir Shah, Sarfraz Ahmed, Wahab Riaz find their footing in Test cricket. All of them have along with Shafiq and Azhar have the potential to be Pakistan’s heroes tomorrow. Whether they will be accepted or not is irrelevant because they have learned something by being part of this team. They have become a different set of rebels just like their captain. They are the heroes who don’t need validation from the world. That was always Misbah’s X-factor.

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