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Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan: Two equals No.1

Misbah-ul-Haq has calmed down young men, and moulded this team while Younis Khan has been its emotional loadstar.

Written by Sriram Veera |
August 28, 2016 2:07:12 am

pakistan, misbah ul haq, misbah, younis khan, younis, misbah pakistan, younis pakistan, pakistan cricket, pakistan cricket team, icc rankings, cricket rankings, pakistan rankings, cricket news, cricket

Behind Pakistan’s astonishing rise to the top of the Test rankings are two men at the end of their careers. Both were unappreciated early in their careers by fans who were used to seeking adrenalin rushes from fast bowlers and big hitters, but it’s this sober pair who have revived Pakistan cricket now. Misbah-ul-Haq has calmed down young men, and moulded this team while Younis Khan has been its emotional loadstar. Sriram Veera profiles Pakistan’s odd couple.

Misbah: Calming influence

Sometime in May, Dawn, a national newspaper in Pakistan, carried a dozen pictures from a fitness training camp from a military academy. The photo feature received more than 100 comments – anger, ridicule, applause popped out of the page as the images were of Pakistan cricketers sweating it out in a camp conducted by army ahead of the cricket season.

It had some players hanging by ropes, their lower bodies propped up by a physical instructor. In one frame, the players are seen running up a grass bank – a mini hill. In another, Misbah-ul-Haq is almost parallel to the ground, his palms pressed against the ground, head down almost staring at his own shadow – around him, the other players too are doing the famous push-up that would later provide the Instagram moment from this Pakistani summer. They were beaming – push-ups, broad smiles, and the sajda. Who told Pakistan that they could end up no 1? Where did the self belief kick in from?

It’s to that man lifting himself from the shadows that we perhaps have to go to for this incredible swing in fortunes. This is Misbah’s Pakistan.

The calmest and the shrewdest Test captain going around has somehow managed to do what no other Pakistan captain has done before him: he has almost deliberately anaesthetised a bunch of excitable young things, known to lose their heads. Before Misbah, both the soul-stirring triumphs and mind-numbing losses could be sourced to that overt passion.

Pakistan cricket has lived in extremes: oscillating between losing their heads to finding some unknown reserve of charged-up passion.

Imran Khan knew how to trigger that hidden passion but his methods were imperialistic. Javed Miandad occasionally did it too and his methods were earthy – read mad. Wasim Akram too managed in phases when he had his head and heart occasionally beat in tandem. Inzamam-ul-Haq had his good days as a captain but as an almost comatose leader he had to search outside himself – often stir up religious passions- to get his team cracking together. Abdul Kardar was autocratic. Younis Khan raised hopes but his temperament didn’t support stability that was required at the top. Some others were even more unsuitable – Afridi even tried biting a ball, his presence was amusing, not inspirational.

It came down to Misbah to go where others didn’t even think of treading: a Pakistan captain with a quiet aura, so quiet that initially it seemed felt weightless. Such was the stereotype that some of us, on the outside, too had bought the whole shebang of what a Pakistani captain ought to be – chest-thumping, regal, proud, passionate – anything but order and method. It’s as if Pakistan needed a captain with outsized ego and aura that screamed out.

We were wrong. Misbah has gone the road less traveled. A quite integrity, dignified low-profile, impassive in the times of trouble, incredibly patient, an eerie calmness that has almost exorcised the trembling passion of his team-mates and helped them focus on the job on hand.

It’s not always apparent but the micro managing that Misbah does on the field is astonishing. At times, he would apparently draft ball-by-ball plans for an entire spell. Sometimes even with experienced bowlers like Saeed Ajmal. No other Pakistan captain, as the cricket writer Osman Samiuddin has pointed out, has depended on spin as much as Misbah. Nearly 60% of his overs are from spinners, so is the number of wickets he gets from them.

Misbah is a captain who frets about runs. He doesn’t like to buy wickets. He prefers strangulation. Dry up, discipline, control, escalate the pressure, and wait for the opposition to crack. Occasionally, it would mean defensive fields. Occasionally, it would mean seemingly boring cricket.

Pakistan, historically, were anything but boring. Explode or implode, was the mantra. Control, patience is Misbah’s. And somehow, incredibily, he has sold that vision to his team. A bunch of combustibles have settled down. And the results are here.

***

Back in May, not many Pakistan fans were upbeat. Who could blame them. Some of that mood could be seen on that Dawn page in the comments section below the photo feature.

“That is stupid. Who can come with this ridiculous idea? Athletic training had to be different from military. Ever heard Usain Bolt doing the training with Navy Seal commandos?” said a user named Ali. Another one, Satt, was dismissive of the players. “No use. After so much of training,these guys would be feeling hungry and away from the eyes of others they will be full on munching beef burgers,so everything back to square. Pakistani team hasn’t just lost fitness but also confidence and belief that they can win. No exercise can change your mindset.”

It’s this background that makes their achievement of becoming No 1 Test side- for the first time in the history of the rankings- that much more memorable, and heartwarming. What were the odds?

Take a look at how some of the other teams have been progressing in the recent years. England, as every sporting nation should, fusses a lot about five-year plans and feeder system in the county cricket teams. Australia kicks up a lot of PR about their grassroots infrastructure and coaching support. India has the most money, and the national team is indeed doing a lot of little things right even though the board is been treated like a miscreant child by the highest court in the land.

And Pakistan were supposed to be reeling from sucker punch to their Test dreams. Can’t play at home, too many old players, brittle batting, poor fitness, average fielding unit, chaotic PCB, and for once, even the famed bowling unit didn’t seem to have too much firepower nor experience. So much so, that some of the Dawn commentators’ criticism though crude was understandable.

Everything pointed to a meltdown in England. A banned cricketer coming back amidst protests from some team-mates and former cricketers, aging batsmen, and inexperienced bowlers. Someone forgot to tell Misbah-ul-Haq about all this, though.

No one does stereotypes better than Pakistan cricket team. When they are dissed by every Amar, Akbar, and Anthony, they have this way of showing a triumphant middle finger. Misbah doesn’t do fingers though; he does push-ups.

Younis: Emotional loadstar

“Century pey century, record pey record lekin pazirai koi nahi, boora nahi lagta?” (No acceptance, don’t you feel bad?) It’s an interview from last August, and Jugnu Mohsin, the editor of the Pakistani newspaper Friday Times who hosts a chat show on Geo TV, doesn’t waste any time in getting to the crux of the perception battle about Younis Khan.

Younis smiles – that beaming, wrinkling, disarming smile of his that lights up his entire face, and Mohsin tries again a few moments later. Khuloos hai, Izzat hai (respect), lekin diwaangi nahi hai! (There is respect for you but there is no deep passion). It’s a great question, and the one that has puzzled some of us outsiders — Younis Khan, it seems, is forever in some battle with the world. The man with the most number of runs for Pakistan, more than Javed Miandad, hasn’t quite got the acceptance back home.

Eventually, Younis addresses the question. “Dukh bilkul hota hai, (there is sadness), sometimes when you fail, they treat you as if you are not a Pakistani! Then, after another trademark smile, he says, “badnaam na hoga to naam nahi hoga! I will try to get defamed now!

Jokes apart, in this regard, Younis and Misbah are a pair made for each other. Their batting has been dissed (too slow, c’mon hit out) their captaincy too (why so defensive?), and it’s in this final lap of their career do they finally have seemed to have received appreciation if not love from the fans. Luckily, mutual respect exists. Younis is held in great respect by Misbah. Just recently, he had said, “As a sportsman, Younis Khan is my ideal. He is the first one into training and the last one out.”

Over the years, Pakistan have had the double-act. Imran and Miandad, the two Ws, and in the last decade, when they slipped down to consistent mediocrity, they missed a dynamic duo. They have it now in these two. In the England series, Younis struggled at the start with the bat before he brought up a monster double hundred in the last Test, streching the lead from 12 to 214, to help Pakistan win at the Oval. It was his 35th Test hundred, quite a stunning achievement really.

***

It has been written about how when Waqar Younis was the coach, he would just tell the young batsmen to go and soak the art from Younis who has pondered and worked out a solution to most batting problems. “I know I am not a great talent,” he once said. He wasn’t being modest, it’s a pretty factual statement. There is oft-used cliché that floats around the cricket writing world — batting as an extension of the personality. With Younis, though, the line seems apt.

His style isn’t ugly nor attractive but you can’t reduce it to say that it’s functional — it’s fascinating in many ways. It’s not known how the Pakistani fans who have watched him for long hours feel but he doesn’t seem to exude a sense of calm during lengthy vigils. And it’s what makes him eminently watchable in many ways. Something or other always seem to be happening. He makes you watch him – jerky arms, shuffling feet, and above all, the mind that’s ticking to come up with a solution to the next delivery.

He isn’t a gifted talent and it seems a case of spirit over adversity. He can end up in most awkward finishes but just after conjuring a way to stop the ball. Sometimes, the bat ends up between his knees when he finishes up defensive blocks as if he were Courtney Walsh and not a top-order batsman. At times, his feet seem to be dragged right across the stumps as if he is in a trance, unable to resist the urge to feel for the ball. Occasionally, both his feet are in air, and he is not swaying away from a short ball but trying to play a forceful shot.

Then suddenly, that upper body will stretch out inexorably —elastic, stretchy, allowing him to reach out to balls after his feet have seemingly given up on the task. In modern-day cricket, we have had two top-order batsmen with such elasticity top-up: Kevin Pietersen and Younis Khan, and it’s interesting to see how Younis has used it to his advantage. His captivating square-drives to length deliveries stems from this flexibility – fluid upper body, sinewy wrists and the ball whisks away through cover point region. He flicks pretty stylishly, nurdles the ball well and has a great sweep shot when he gets down on his back knee in amazingly quick time, fetches the ball from way ahead of his body and sweep.

It’s just not what he does with the bat that holds our attention. He jabbers to the partner, smiles at the opposition, talks a lot with the umpires, and whisks the ball here and there. He has 35 Test tons – quite a stunning feat really, yet no heartfelt love back home. In 2006, in Faisalabad, against India, Younis was booed. He had crossed 150, his partner Mohammad Yousuf was on 190, and they wanted one of them to get out. They had enough of them, and sought some adrenalin rush in Shahid Afridi. “Mohammad Yousuf ko out karo, Younis ko out karo,” he would recall the cries. “Even the Indian players were amazed. Us time, dukh hota hai”.

***

That sunny exterior and infectious smile has occasionally cracked to reveal angst and anger. Over the years, there have been a few press interactions where he has spoken out against the cricket board or selectors. Occasionally, he has even shown ire against the fans.

There is this video from 2010 where he is seen dragging a fan to dressing room. It was a domestic game, and fans had invaded and mobbed him. Even as he tried to wriggle out, an over-eager fan ran in from his right but slips, falls on Younis, dragging him down. A mini-stamped left Younis shaken, and as he emerged from the body scrum, he could be seen in the video dragging that man all the way into the dressing room. We can’t see what happened inside but the reports later said the fan was manhandled. There might or might not have been any violence but the incident does capture Younis. To frame it in his own words, “I try to be quiet and not react to most stuff but it keeps piling up and one day, it just bursts out.”

There was another incident from 2009 when an attendant at the PCB chairman’s office had failed to recognise him and prevented his entry from a pre-fixed appointment. It was a reaction from a person standing by that got Younis’s goat. “I saw a trace of smile and I just lost it.” He went to the waiting press and announced that he is ready to quit captaincy.

Perhaps it’s this temperament that didn’t allow him to last long as a captain. Luckily, it has worked out well for Pakistan. They found a leader in Misbah, and an emotional loadstar in Younis. He had once laughed when asked about his age (38 officially), and revealed that he was born in 1975 and just a year younger than Misbah. That makes him 41. He is fit but the thought about his retirement must be bobbing behind that most heart-warming smile in international cricket. This is certainly his final lap in international cricket.

How about showing some love, diwaangi, and pazirai, please?

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