Misbah Ul Haq, and the Cellist of Sarajevo

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Vedran Smailovic used to play the cello when a war was raging around him. In war torn Sarajevo, where snipers didn’t hesitate to target even those that attended funerals, he would play to honour the departed. He played even in the midst of gunfire and shelling. He played because that’s what he did best.

In cricketing terms, Misbah ul Haq is somewhat of a Vedran Smailovic. He kept his cool and played to a tune that only he seemed to hear. In Pakistani cricket, which is in a constant state of chaos and turmoil, Misbah was like breath of calm, a cool breeze that wafts across an unforgiving desertscape.

He’s 43. MS Dhoni played his last test when he was 34 years and he didn’t have to deal with 3 team mates being busted for match fixing and a country that hasn’t hosted a major cricket playing nation since 2009 when terrorists attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan team.

The 2011 World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan got more eyeballs than the finals. Heads of State from both countries, celebrities and the fortunate few who didn’t have to be someone to get a ticket, all swarmed like bees to the beehive – the Mohali stadium in Punjab. If the excitement wasn’t palpable enough, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag added to the melee; Sehwag by swinging his bat wildly and Tendulkar by almost getting out at least a half a dozen times in one of his least confident innings. The player of the tournament, Yuvraj Singh, saw his stumps uprooted by Wahab Riaz and it was Suresh Raina who played a calm innings that took India to a respectable 260.

Pakistan’s spirited reply began to totter but as long as Shahid Afridi was in the hunt, the match was still on Buddha’s middle path. That was until Shahid Afridi walked in, swung his bat like some impatient kid who didn’t get the chocolate that he asked for and holed out before Pakistan could even come within sniffing distance of what would have been an extraordinary victory.

But it wasn’t over until Misbah Ul Haq sang.

He played a strangely indifferent innings that he was criticised heavily for when it appeared to take-off, it was too late and Pakistan hurtled to their 5th consecutive World Cup defeat to India. When everything seemed lost, he batted as if none of it mattered and as if he had all the time in the world to cross the finish line.

In the decades since India and Pakistan went their separate ways, it is safe to say that Indian cricket has made great strides while Pakistan cricket somewhere lost its way. While Indian cricketers have gotten richer and the IPL has made most of them financially secure, Pakistani cricketers have been in and out of scandals that reflect on the country’s cricket inability to provide its players a financially secure future. Even the recently concluded Pakistan Super League (PSL), the country’s poor cousin to the cash rich IPL, had players suspended for fixing.

To understand how much chaos plays a role in Pakistani cricket, look at how Misbah ul Haq earned his test cap. He was 34 and at the cusp of quitting the game as he had fallen out of favour with the selectors. The side then traveled to England and a few players proceeded to cross the point of no return. Their captain, Salman Butt, pacer Mohammad Asif and young tyro Mohammad Amir, who was all of 18 when he lost his cricketing innocence and got caught in the nightmare of his life before he could even find his feet in the sport, all fell prey to the cricket mafia. The last statement is a bit cruel as what he did was literally, and figuratively, lost his footing when he landed his foot some few hundred feet over the line and was later found to have been talked into taking money to bowl that ball.  That series added to our cricketing lexicon the words ‘spot fixing’. Misbah Ul Haq was then made captain and went from almost retired to head in one swoop.

But the moment Misbah ul Haq came into our collective consciousness was on September 24, 2007. Six months prior, India and Pakistan had both crashed out the 50 overs World Cup in the league stages and returned home to angry backlashes. Now, they found themselves on a grand stage, a new one nonetheless – the first ever World T20 final. India scored 157 and no one knew whether it was good enough to win a final. As soon as Shahid Afridi, in one of his countless moments of madness was caught for a golden duck, the match was all but over at 107/7.

But Misbah Ul haq wasn’t done.

He smashed two sixes off Harbhajan Singh. He didn’t slog. His shots were clean hits and he maintained a monk like focus when a volcano was about to erupt around him. There was no hint of nerves, no sense of undue urgency in what was possibly one of the biggest matches of his life. In the end, he was the only one who stood between India and a T20 World Cup title.

Final over. 13 required. Dhoni handed the ball to the unheralded Joginder Sharma who bowled a wide to begin with. The next ball was a full toss that would have been a wide had it been left. But Misbah made contact and it sailed over the bowler for a six.

Who was this guy?

Maybe he didn’t trust Mohammad Asif at the non-striker’s end to take a single if he were to come on strike and proceeded to finish it all by himself.

Even after all these years, the next few moments are a blur.

Joginder Sharma bowls on the stumps. Misbah goes down and plays the scoop. Ravi Shastri is hollering in the commentary box. The ball sails high. It’s over. Then, suddenly, it parachutes down and a fielder is running towards it. As much as we try to erase Sreesanth from our collective consciousness, he will always be there with that one moment, one of the few times he did something right in a wasted career. He holds onto the ball and gets up with his arms outstretched.

On the pitch, Misbah Ul Haq is desolate and inconsolable. His side had again managed to snatch defeat from victory. As Indian fans, we are never trained to feel pity for Pakistan, but that day, we all felt something for Misbah ul Haq.

He says that one of his major regrets is not captaining the side against India in a test series. That looks like a distant dream for any Pakistan captain now.

It isn’t easy being a captain. Being a captain of Pakistan means returning from a tour and having your captaincy rescinded for no good reason. The thing with Misbah ul Haq is that he is so un-Pakistani in his approach. In a country that is always on the boil politically and has one of its greatest players in Imran Khan go from playboy to a politician with seemingly hardliner views, its cricket is equally factitious. Players announce their retirements and take it back on a whim. Former players take up coaching only to burn their fingers. Many a foreign coach have tried to make sense of how they play their cricket but have emerged from their stints in a daze. The murder of Bob Woolmer on the ill-fated 2007 World Cup has still not been solved. Barring Zimbabwe, no country has traveled to Pakistan after the tragic 2009 attacks. Sport is usually considered to be outside the ambit of terrorists and their delusional thinking, but the terrorists who attacked the bus carry Sri Lankan players succeeded in killing international cricket in Pakistan too.

In his career, Misbah ul Haq showed us that it was possible to be a Vedran Smailovic.

And continue playing with a sense of calm even when the word it seems is coming apart at the seams.

 

 

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