Misbah & Everything About Pak We Hate to Love

Social Commentary

Misbah & Everything About Pak We Hate to Love

Illustration: Akshita Monga

There are only two Haqs we’ve ever really cared about: Zia-ul and Inzamam-ul. So when a third Haq, Misbah-Ul-Haq, hung up his boots this May, we didn’t care. Why should we, when we’re living in times when openly thumping your chest and projecting yourself as “Pakistan’s Migraine” is considered proof of one’s nationalistic fervour?

I think we should care.

Put aside your nationalistic fervour for a moment and dial the clock back to September 24, 2007. Joginder “remember that guy” Sharma was to bowl the final over. Twelve required of six with one wicket in hand. A relatively unknown entity named Misbah-ul-Haq in full flow. He hits the first ball for a six. All hopes for a World Cup title in tatters now. Then, in a mishap of mammoth proportions, Misbah goes for an audacious scoop over fine-leg for a six. Time literally came to a standstill. The ball seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before finding its way into Sreesanth’s palms. That was the moment when a billion people and Sreesanth himself felt -that his existence on the third rock from the Sun had finally been justified. Before you rap me on the knuckles and ask me to pray under Dhoni’s “helicopter” to absolve me of my sins, consider what would have happened if the “gentle” Misbah hadn’t chosen flamboyance over common sense?

An exercise my father often made me undertake as a child was to put together an All Time XI India team, considering for a moment that the Partition never took place. Before the days of franchise cricket and promiscuously interwoven teams, I used to dream what it would be like to have the aggression of a Waqar Younis and the tensile craft of Dravid on the same side. That’s a distant dream, for a parallel universe where cricket mitigated the trauma of our lives, bit by bit every day.

But even if this dream of one team never comes true, Pakistan remains one of the reasons that we’ve been treated to great cricket. Think for a moment: What would Tendulkar be without his numerous encounters with Waqar, Wasim, Saqlain and Shoaib, our neighbours on the western frontier? What is Superman without Lex Luthor, Batman without the Joker?

It is with resounding ease that we’ve now dissociated ourselves with everything Pakistan-related, be it Fawad Khan’s grin or Nawaz Sharif’s chagrin.

Misbah, a shy, unpolished, awkward-looking batsman in his mid-20s debuted in 2002 into a team full of superstars like Akram, Waqar and Saqlain and found no space. He slipped under the radar and even though he kept knocking, Inzi and his boys were in no mood to let him in to the party. Where Inzamam was the prodigal son, Misbah was the adopted heir nobody really cared about. Both prolific batsmen, but only one would go on to become one of the best captains Pakistan has ever had.

The folklore of Misbah would be told in two acts. One, his journey as a cricketer. The second, his enduring reign as captain at an age when most Indian players long for the bounties of a retired life, sipping beer in their home-ground with a stand named after them.

Misbah came back into the reckoning for a place in the national team after a gap of almost eight years. Just like the meat rests in masalas overnight over a low flame to cook a nihari, Misbah did the same in 2010. Where Inzamam and Wasim Akram are the superstars – the kormas and biryanis in the walled gullies of Lahore – Misbah is a staple on the poor man’s diet, created out of years of perseverance and the unsettling heat of a closed lid. Misbah lost the inhibitions that tied him in the past and embraced his moments of attacking madness to go with his long bouts of largely unconvincing “boring” batting. He was called “leecharr” during his early days in domestic cricket because he would just grind it out effortlessly to get to a century – and for that, the opposition once had to bowl more than 451 balls.

Misbah was like “the family man who doesn’t cheat on his wife or taxes, gets up early to exercise, tucks his kids into bed every night, has immaculate credit, but also enjoys, just once a month, naked spelunking,” writes Jarrod Kimber in a eulogy. I couldn’t agree more. Watching him walk out for his last Test match innings last week against a tattering opposition, serving poetic justice to his career strike rate of 44.15, was a pleasure I cherished in the times of wham-bam IPL. No wonder Misbah once held the record for the slowest and fastest tons for Pakistan.

It is with resounding ease that we’ve now dissociated ourselves with everything Pakistan-related, be it Fawad Khan’s grin or Nawaz Sharif’s chagrin. We only have the remnants of a past of dissonance. Misbah started out again, aged 35, around the same time as Coke Studio did in Pakistan. He was to lead a team dented by spot-fixing trials and terrorist aftermaths at home; easily the most difficult job in the world, especially when the problems have nothing to do with the job.

Just the way Coke Studio brought together folk maestros like Saeen Zahoor and made them collaborate seamlessly with the likes of Bilal Maqsood, Jimmy Khan, and Atif Aslam, Misbah represents this elusive charm of old-school leadership coupled with a flamboyance young Pakistani batsmen were known for. The charm of an old gun-slinging Rawalpindi cowboy in his forward defence coupled with the exuberance of a young Turk when he decides to slog-sweep in defiance.

Much like all of Pakistan over the last decade, Misbah has been written off, tarnished, and embarrassed. But Misbah, the anti-Inzamam, under-the-radar genius, is the most representative of our relationship and outlook towards the neighbour. We want nothing to do with their actors, musicians, or cricket – but in wanting to distance ourselves we build an antithesis to what they represent. This is the love-hate relationship we share. We want to look at Pakistan fondly but then also pinch ourselves into calling them a terrorist breeding ground and a “failed state”.

It is unlikely that things will get peaceful anytime soon. But until then, let’s not forget that in our hate, there is love. Whether it’s for the Riz Ahmed-swooning hipster millennial or the whisky-drinking uncles crooning to Mehdi Hassan’s melodies. When Saadat Manto feared the aftermath of the Partition and the loss of a shared love and history, perhaps this is what he meant.

The next time you watch the highlight reel from the 2007 World T20, remember to thank Misbah for his flamboyance. He represents a little bit of everything we love about our neighbours.

Cheers, Misbah!

PS: Yes, I’ll gladly go to Pakistan. You needn’t put that in the comments.