Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq speaks to members of the media at Lord's cricket ground in London on July 13, 2016. England play Pakistan in the first Test match starting Thursday. AFP / OLLY GREENWOOD
Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq speaks to members of the media at Lord's cricket ground in London on July 13, 2016. England play Pakistan in the first Test match starting Thursday. AFP / OLLY GREENWOOD

Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq can complete perfect circle with win over England



Most men, when they get to that stage where there may be less of a life left ahead than has passed behind, they react.

Some buy a new car. Some have an affair. Some determine to run a marathon, others learn to play the guitar. Some get new hair.

Now 42, with his professional life coming to a close, Misbah-ul-Haq has grown a beard. Singular man that he is, it is not in the hipster style that footballers have latched on to and mainstreamed, so it does not appear to be an anguished cry back for time gone. Not yet anyway.

He can surely not have grown it for the purpose of looking more mature and anyway there is no grey in it. Neither is it the kind grown in religious observance, by Inzamam-ul-Haq or Mohammed Yousuf. Not yet anyway. It is not a growth of laziness either, being fairly well manicured.

From certain angles, it looks a little out of place, as if it has been coloured in on his face like a photo might be vandalised; or maybe a clumsy plot device in a Bollywood movie to make the actor look older, or villainous.

From elsewhere it appears to have been there forever. His face is imponderable enough for this not to add any more mystery.

Actually it is an ordinary beard, unaware of its potential for fashion, but somehow extraordinary in its un-self conscious ordinariness.

And it cannot mean nothing, because Misbah is a creature of routine and stability and discipline. The hairstyle he wears now is one he has worn since probably the day he had enough hair on his head to wear it a certain way. The expression on his face looks like it was set at birth and remains unwavering.

Perhaps it is anticipatory, from the tolls of a challenging summer. You see, Mohammed Amir is on everyone's minds ahead of the first Test at Lord's and redemption tales do carry currency.

But nobody should miss the momentousness of the occasion for Misbah, in his first Test in England, that too at Lord's, 17 years after he made his first-class debut and 15 after he first played his first Test; Misbah, Pakistan's most successful Test captain; Misbah, cricket's longest-serving captain currently, among its unlikeliest successes, now at the Home of Cricket.

He might not show it, or sound like it, but it is a big deal. He admitted as much a couple of weeks ago in Hampshire, where Pakistan were training.

“No I don’t think I will be nervous. Whenever you get to play on such a big stage, I think you consider yourself very lucky and fortunate that you are getting such a big chance.

“First of all, to be able to play there, to represent your country, to be able to lead them is a great honour. And then to be able to perform there, that is just the cherry on top.”

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The moment he walks out for the toss, and eventually to bat, will be all the more poignant given where his career was the last time Pakistan were in England.

The team was in tumult even before that tour – Younis Khan had been banned indefinitely, Misbah axed for poor performance.

Neither made it to the list of 35 probables for the tour, an insult so hurtful it led to one of Misbah’s rare excursions away from unflappability when he was so angered he felt like burning his cricket kit.

He laughs about those words now and says it was a moment that passed quickly. He actually ended up in England that summer for a couple of weeks for a hernia operation.

Perhaps he is being polite when he says he does not think it, but in plain words, he did dodge a bullet by not being on the tour.

If there is any nervousness over Pakistan’s batting, some of it emanates from Misbah’s position. He has been impenetrable in Asia but England represents a challenge thrice over – he has never played a Test there, he averages 31.82 in the non-Asian conditions of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and, at 42, he is playing his first Test in over eight months.

He knows his reflexes will be slowing, but he will only discover how swiftly once he is out there and then it may be too late.

It is an unnerving situation. So more than a test of his leadership, this will first be an examination of his batting, which might amount to the same thing eventually as one flows from the other.

He is confident he still has the drive though, a step up from the ambiguity surrounding his intentions back in November. Then he looked ahead at a yawning gap in the international Test calendar and wondered how he might remain fit and motivated.

It should be no surprise that he has come out the other side – cricket consumes Misbah as fiercely as it has done any man.

He says he could not have left the side ahead of such a difficult tour, which is a noble reason, but there must be accounting of more selfish motives: he probably still cannot foresee a life not playing, thinking, talking cricket.

Or maybe there is a real sense of a project occupying him. He does not often like talking about legacies, or even in any depth about his standing as Pakistan’s most successful Test captain.

But this summer is a chance to complete the most perfect circle. It was after Pakistan’s last tour to England that Misbah took over.

In that time, he and many others – some of whom are here – have built Pakistan into a formidable side at home.

A series win, even a drawn one, would elevate them, further and further away from the lows of 2010 and into a Test side of such strength and – importantly – stability as they have not had in a long time.

Nobody can argue with the numbers that prove Misbah is Pakistan’s most successful Test captain; a series win in England though will make it more difficult to argue against him being Pakistan’s greatest.

For that title, the beard might not be such a bad look after all. ​

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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