They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn. When Misbah-ul-Haq was given the job of the captain of Pakistan cricket team, things were pitch black. The team could not play cricket at home and thanks to security fears there was little hope of international cricket returning to Pakistan at any point in the future. The previous captain had just shamed his country and the sport by engaging in spot-fixing at Lord’s that was exposed by a newspaper sting. They were ranked sixth in the world and were looking like moving in only one downward direction.
And Misbah was far from the outstanding candidate for the captaincy, more like the only candidate. He had played only 19 Tests before he was given the leadership role, he was the fourth man to lead Pakistan in 2010 and at 36 he was reaching the age when players considering retiring. In fact there had been rumours of him doing just that.
Speaking to ESPNCricinfo on the appointment of Misbah the chief selector at the time, Mohsin Khan, was far from enthusiastic about his prospects. "Who else is there right now?" Mohsin said. "We'll have to wait and see how it goes of course but Misbah has plenty of domestic experience as a captain to back him up at least."
Yet here we are, six years later, and Pakistan are ranked number one in the world in Test cricket. While others have played their part in this – shout out to Saeed Ajmal – Misbah deserves a huge amount of the credit. Pakistan cricket has been characterised by hot headed turmoil for so long, in Misbah they had calmness personified. His unflappable approach to both batting and captaincy has rescued his team so often that it became clichéd. He is no tactical genius, but his backing of the players in his team combined with an absence of panic have navigated the trickiest of waters.
There have been those that haven’t rated him. Allegations of slow batting and conservative leadership have dogged Misbah’s time in charge of the team. There was even a Twitter hashtag for it, such was the frequency that he was blamed for anything that went wrong – #MisbahsFault. There were some that wanted to have a more aggressive form of leadership, some even wanted the ever inconsistent Shahid Afridi to take over the captaincy. All the while the team crept up the rankings towards to the top spot.
Home advantage is so vital to success in international cricket. Winning overseas in conditions that are alien to you is so difficult. Away victories have always been difficult and in the days of abbreviated tours that last a matter of weeks, it is only getting harder. Misbah has never captained a Test at home and has played in just five of his 65 Tests in Pakistan.
Pakistan have made the UAE their makeshift home but it still isn’t the same as having the advantage of playing in the conditions where you learnt the game. It isn’t like having a Test at the ground where your domestic team played. It isn’t like walking out to play at the ground where you watched the game as a kid.
That Pakistan have overcome the absence of international cricket in their own country to become the highest ranked team in the world is nothing short of remarkable. It is one of the best stories that cricket has thrown up in the last two decades. A successful Pakistan should be something every cricket fan celebrates, there are too few teams playing cricket at the highest level for us to lose any of them. That we haven’t seen Pakistan decline with all the issues that they have faced is brilliant news for everyone, not just Pakistan and their supporters.
While Misbah has also succeeded with the bat – he has 3626 runs at an average of 54 since he took over as skipper – the superstar with the bat since 2010 has been Younis Khan. He averages a touch under 60 in that period with 4196 runs and 16 hundreds. While he did not have a vintage series against England this summer, he still made a telling contribution with his double century at the Oval that set up the win that drew Pakistan level in the series.
While Misbah may have been the captain of the good ship Pakistan, it has been Younis that is the engine room. His middle order stability has been such a boon to this side, he has cemented his place as a true great of Pakistan cricket. Younis is the leading Test run scorer in their history and is showing few signs of slowing down. As and when he and Misbah do decide to call it a day they will leave a gap in the Pakistan middle order so large that it may take a huge architectural effort to rebuild the team. But that is for the future, not for the here and now.
The bowlers have also played their part. Ajmal took 148 wickets under the leadership of Misbah before he was banned for bending his elbow. Yasir Shah has been a more than adequate replacement and he is the next best wicket taker in the last six years after Ajmal with 95 victims. And while the leading bowlers have been spinners the seamers have played their part, with Wahab Riaz, Rahat Ali and Junaid Khan all being among wickets during the Misbah era.
But this is a team that is created in the image of its captain and he deserves most of the plaudits. They are not the like the flashy and inconsistent Pakistan teams of the past. They are workmanlike and better for it. Misbah was unwanted when he took over and unloved for much of his reign. Yet he has taken his team to the top of the world. It won’t last, India will most likely pass them in their series against New Zealand in October, but it is something that needs to be celebrated.
Well played Pakistan, you have done it the hard way.