The second coming of Team Misbah
There was a lot that Pakistan lost in the summer of 2010. They lost a series against England; they lost two captains, their two best pacers and some of their integrity. It could have been easy to lose hope as well, particularly when barely a month later Zulqarnain Haider abandoned the team mid-tour. They had failed to win any of their previous eight Test series since beating West Indies in 2006, and their fortunes looked bleak. To add to that, they had won only one of their previous ten away series, and considering they could no longer play at home it would have been easy to fold there and then. But instead, with Waqar Younis and Misbah-ul Haq in charge of the Test team (and Shahid Afridi with the ODI squad) Pakistan went on a run that would have been hugely impressive with the full-strength Test squad, or even the team of the 1990s, and quite simply remarkable with the talent available.
Over the course of about a year and a half following that summer, Pakistan played seven Test series, winning five and drawing two. It was the longest unbeaten streak of series they had had since the late ’80s, and the first time they had won four in a row since 1994. And the men who made it possible made you doubt everything you had learnt about Pakistani cricket.
The Pakistani player in the post-Imran era was brash, aggressive and disturbingly young. Nearly every one of the greats of the mighty ’90s side made his debut as a teenager. It was a trend that continued even when it seemed it had stopped paying dividends. The lost generation of the 2000s could blame their careers on how early they were thrown into the bear pit. Several of them had been outlined as potential Pakistan players when they were still boys – in the 1996 Lombard Under-15 Challenge Cup, Taufeeq Umar, Hasan Raza, Bazid Khan, Faisal Iqbal, Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Malik and Yasir Arafat all played for the Pakistan team that finished runners-up. Every one of them, with the exception of Bazid, would eventually make their international debuts at 20 or younger. Each of them could be accused of failing to fulfill his potential. Add the likes of Danish Kaneria (who debuted at the age of 19) and Pakistan’s lost generation seemed to be posing a question to the very core of the beliefs of Pakistani cricket. Perhaps the decades-old strategy of throwing children into the pool and judging them by whether they swam or sank wasn’t ideal in the modern, increasingly professional game.
With that generation failing and the assembly lines drying up Pakistan were forced to look where they had rarely looked before. The rise of Team Misbah was based around the very players that Pakistan seemed to regard as obsolete: journeymen who had learnt their craft after years in the domestic game. Pakistan’s two highest scorers during those seven series dating from late 2010 were Azhar Ali and Misbah. The former had debuted at 25, normal by international standards but practically ancient for Pakistan. Misbah had debuted at 26 but did not play his sixth Test till he was 33. Both were, and bizarrely still are, underrated within Pakistan. Neither can be considered an expressive shot-maker – the only reason they got to where they did was the weight of their runs rather than the keen eye of a particularly prophetic selector. Misbah is the embodiment of this team – unspectacular, conservative, ugly but successful. A man who elicits admiration and respect but rarely the blind love that would force a 12-year-old to go out into the street and play cricket.
Much the same was true of the bowling. The two leading wicket-takers during those 18 months were Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, who made their debuts at 30 and 27 respectively.
What that team had was a collective unity, a desire to show the world that their late debuts, and the questions about their age, was unjust. Even now Misbah bristles at talk of his age, arguing that a player’s fitness should override his date of birth – a view that seems to be shared by the older players in the team.
After the historic win against England, though, Pakistan began to unravel, unable to win any of their following six series. The fact that they played only one series in the 12 months following that England series – and continued to be patchy in the ODI game – meant that the confidence, unity and momentum that the 18 months of constant long-form cricket from late 2010 on had established were lost.
Azhar’s position in the side was questioned after a poor series in South Africa. He had been Pakistan’s highest scorer in the series win against England, and the only player to score multiple centuries against Sri Lanka in mid-2012. One bad series was enough to make the doubters question his presence. Furthermore the complacency that has defined Pakistan cricket for decades seemed to have returned. The fire in the belly from years of being treated poorly (in their eyes) had dimmed.
Now Pakistan have a chance to revive that team. Before the second Test match here in Abu Dhabi, Zulfiqar Babar bristled at questions over his age in a manner that was reminiscent of Misbah. He too seems to be making up for lost time, and having missed five years of domestic cricket (due to politicking in the Multan division) there is a passion in him that is evocative of the early series of Team Misbah, and of the way Rehman and Ajmal bowled in them.
Each member of the bowling quartet is inexperienced at this level, but none is younger than 26. With Sarfraz Ahmed trying to make up for lost time and a stunted career, and Younis Khan feeling unfairly treated again (the most dangerous Younis is the angry Younis), Pakistan seem to have lucked out with a team eerily similar in composition and mindset to the one that brought them success early in the decade. And with Misbah and the returning Waqar united in the dressing room again, satisfied with making conservatism Pakistan’s go-to approach, they seem to be turning the clock back to 2010.
But of course this is a poorer version of that team. It would be extremely surprising for anyone in this team to achieve what Ajmal did in the last four years, for instance. That team also had Umar Gul responding to the responsibility of leading the pace attack following the loss of Amir and Asif – and producing the best year of his career in 2011 (the only year of his career when he has taken over 20 wickets at under 30). Thus while the keeper, and possibly one of the opening batsmen, might be an improvement, it is questionable if this team really can achieve the heights of the first iteration of Team Misbah.
After the Test win against Australia in Dubai, Misbah said it was second only to the series win against England in 2012. A 2-0 result in this series could leapfrog that one. What’s open to question is whether it is a flash in the pan or truly a reincarnation. Either way, the team will be respected but never loved.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag