What do Pakistan expect from coach Misbah?
There was a time when Misbah-ul-Haq, now hailed as the epitome of a cool, collected man in the most bubbling cauldron, looked like he would only be remembered for one ostensible moment of madness. Almost exactly 12 years ago to the day, he had gone down on one knee against Joginder Sharma and looked to use his pace to scoop him over fine leg, with Pakistan six runs away from winning the inaugural World T20.
We all know what happened next. Joginder Sharma doesn't have much pace to work with, and Sreesanth stood perched underneath the high ball, taking a comfortable catch, giving India that immortal five-run win. Misbah had been almost solely responsible for getting Pakistan to within one hit of victory, but fans directed much of their frustration towards his fateful choice of shot, and his failure to see the game through nervelessly.
It was expected to be the tail-end of a meandering career that had seen most of its time on Pakistan's nearly invisible domestic circuit, and indeed Misbah was on the verge of retiring when handed the captaincy three years later at the age of 36. Suddenly tasked with picking Pakistan back up after the spot-fixing scandal, which ensnared the then captain, the best bowler and his would-be successor, Misbah would become the country's security blanket, a sanguine, imperturbable presence which shielded Pakistan from the next crisis that, invariably, seemed round the corner. No such crisis would come for seven years, the longest-ever unbroken stint by a Pakistani as captain.
Is that what Pakistan want from him today, too? The present state of the team is worlds removed from that dispirited wretch he inherited almost a decade ago. There is no crisis in Pakistan cricket presently, no fires to be put out. No captains have been sacked or banned; in fact, there hasn't been a single change of captain since Misbah retired and left the role for Sarfaraz Ahmed to take up. The recently concluded World Cup saw Pakistan finish outside the top four on net run rate alone. The T20I side is number one in the world. What is the need for a security blanket when everyone is nice and toasty already?"The picture is clear to me, and it is only a matter of being confident about taking the right decisions. And that I'm ready to do."
Pakistan coach Misbah-ul-Haq
It isn't, of course, quite as straightforward. After Misbah's departure there was a slump in Pakistan's Test form, though it may be argued that it had begun since before he retired, with the side losing six Tests on the bounce at one point before the career-capping victory in the West Indies that allowed him to go out on a high. Pakistan have now won seven and lost 15 of their last 23 Tests. Since Misbah's retirement, they have won five of 14 Tests played, with eight losses. Nine months before Misbah retired, Pakistan were the top-ranked Test team in the world. Currently, they're seventh.
And then, of course, there are the domestic reforms, so inextricably linked to the Pakistan Cricket Board's vision of a fresh approach to bringing talent through to the national side in an orderly fashion, groomed by what aspires to be a professional system. It is a facet of Pakistan cricket few know more about than Misbah. Until as recently as December 2018, Misbah played the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, consistently calling for higher standards of pitches and facilities on the domestic circuit, and a narrowing of the yawning quality gap between international and domestic cricket. He spent most of his early career relying on domestic cricket for his bread and butter, only getting a shot at regular international cricket after he was well into his 30s. This isn't a man to pay lip service to the plight of domestic cricketers in this country; he experienced first-hand its benighted state for nearly half his career.
It is a point he drew upon in Karachi today addressing a press conference ahead of the series against Sri Lanka, and termed it a major reason for accepting the job. "Obviously, it is a challenge for me, this role. Whenever you take on a new project, it is challenging. But the reason I accepted it was being Pakistan captain until very recently, and having played plenty of domestic cricket like I have, too, you know the facts on the ground very well. That equips you to take decisions with as much information as possible. It is far harder when you don't know any of these things, and don't know many of the players. The picture is clear to me, and it is only a matter of being confident about taking the right decisions. And that I'm ready to do."
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The series against Sri Lanka, set to begin in Karachi on Friday, may not provide much of an indicator of anything. International cricket's return to Pakistan remains in those embryonic stages where the venue always upstages the scorecard, and with such a weakened Sri Lanka team travelling, this will by no means be Misbah's biggest test as coach. But the brand of cricket Pakistan bring to the field in Karachi, as well as the players selected - Misbah, remember, is also the chief selector - makes it strategically intriguing enough to be worth paying attention to. Will Mohammad Rizwan, seen as Sarfaraz's successor behind the stumps, play as a specialist batsman? Misbah said today, "You can't survive without fitness in international cricket now." But will that continue to bear out on the field?
There may be no crisis, but Pakistan are looking for a rebuild. There are many questions and several uncertainties about the direction this team will take, and long-term planning is called for in each format. The World Test Championship is a two-year project, and with the World Cup just over, there are four years to work with before the next big event in the 50-over format. In T20 cricket, Pakistan need to sustain their momentum until the T20 World Cup next year. There will be times for considered contemplation, forensic detail and intelligence over impulse. You might not have believed it a dozen years ago, but today, that sounds like a mission for Misbah.