Comparison is a natural tendency in sport and this current Pakistan team has been weighed down with parallels drawn with the 1992 side. Imran Khan made them champions when the tournament first came to Australia-New Zealand.
Let it be said here that this current side is not even a patch on the first-time champions more than two decades ago. They are mercurial enough, but not in the best of ways. There is no bravado, none more than what cannot be classified as hot air. The arrogance of a typical Pakistan side is missing, there is even less belief in getting things right on the field. If consistency as a word was absent from past teams’ books, that word is not even part of this team’s vocabulary.
Over the years, unique cricketers have led Pakistan. Imran Khan was perhaps the doyen of them all, his ‘cornered-tigers’ remarks hitting home well enough. There were Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas before him, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis afterwards – each of them exceptional. They all had one point in common. Never mind their positives, despite their negatives (for all Pakistan cricketers have some), they were widely accepted and indeed universally loved in their country’s umpteen fan circles.
Then, there is Misbah-ul-Haq. There is a no-nonsense aura about him, almost in sharp contrast to any and every Pakistan cricketer before him. Given their current lot, that sentence will probably hold true regarding the next generation as well. He doesn’t play rash strokes and doesn’t give in to adrenaline. He knows how to sum up the match situation, and not get carried away on sentiment.
It is almost as if he doesn’t belong to Pakistan cricket, and judging from the fans’ reaction to his game on most occasions, you would think it’s true. Little do they know how blessed they are indeed to have him steer this team’s mad boat, especially in a tournament such as this. Cut to the first Sunday of March as the 2015 ODI World Cup entered its second month.
A must-win game, and a top-order collapse, followed by an immense squeeze for runs from Zimbabwe in Brisbane – Pakistan were at the brink. In came Misbah, and scored runs, precious 73 of them. He helped his side avoid a major embarrassment, getting the run-rate chugging along, eventually past the 200-mark. He gave his bowlers something to bowl at, and they did well enough defending the 236-run target, shutting up the Zimbabwean challenge at 215.
Pakistan survived to fight another day, and yet there were fingers raised at how many dot-balls Misbah played when he first came to the crease. You would want to tell them that it isn’t the best idea to come out swinging when the score-card reads 4/2 and 58/3 in the 21st over. However, it matters more if the team listens, rather than fans, for they can be turned with a rise in performance.
If you lose confidence once, it can be really difficult for you as a batsman to just come out of that, and unfortunately our top order is just in that kind of mental state, and they're not getting out of that. So it's really difficult for me, and the lower and the middle order batsmen to just keep on going like that,
Misbah said after that Zimbabwe game.
Two days later, against the UAE in Napier, there was a concentrated cautious effort from the top-order to get things back in order. Nasir Jamshed failed again though, prompting a query if more aggression in tactics was the need of the hour. After a second consecutive win, the language of questioning had changed from English to a more prolific Urdu, and Misbah replied thus, for once not mincing his words: “Can’t have Mohammad Irfan opening in the garb of aggression!”
Even so, Misbah gave it enough thought, assumingly not because of criticism in press conference but because of Jamshed’s poor form. Sarfraz Ahmed then came in to play a fantastic cameo at the top of the order against South Africa.
But the innings started flailing in the middle overs again, requiring the calming touch of Misbah once more. He didn’t disappoint, scoring his fourth fifty in five innings this World Cup, finding himself in the tournament’s top-ten run-getters’ list. Never mind that there was a late collapse as the last five wickets fell for ten-odd runs.
His greatest influence though was during the South African run-chase. Buoyed by early wickets, with only AB de Villiers holding fort, Pakistan looked a changed side. Their bowlers were running in with rhythm, their fielders looking sharp, or at least trying to. There was one moment when one of them overthrew, with no one backing up at the other end, the ball only stopped because of a fielder running across in the deep to cut it off.
Misbah looked around, arms outstretched, asking, “What are you guys doing?” As the over ended, he gathered everyone around and talked, perhaps about the value of runs on this one day, against the world’s best batsman at a ridiculously small ground.
For once, they listened to his calm voice. And now Pakistan find themselves on the cusp of another World Cup quarter-final.