Light at the end of the tunnel


Pakistan Cricket’s reply to all the off-field turmoil has been lionhearted and awe-inspiring. While the media vultures around the globe continue to nourish their biases against us, our cricket continues to beget reasons for sanguinity. With the test series in the bag and a resounding win in the first ODI, the column takes a look at the man behind the upsurge. And with both the tennis season and Euro 2012 qualification reaching their climax, the piece tries to visualise the light at the end of the tunnel – which is bona fide for some, and something akin to a false dawn for others.
Misbah’s radiant brand of captaincy: After the first Test in Abu Dhabi proved to be infertile in terms of a positive result, the team and the captain was castigated from all quarters. Abysmal fielding, defensive tactics, lack of a ‘cutting-edge’; were some of the most popular rants. However the team geared up for the second test and triumphed emphatically. That we didn’t wrap up the series ‘in style’ with a win in the third Test proved to be a spiky thorn for some voices– the pseudo connoisseurs, if you will.
Whilst denying the credit that the current cricket captain deserves became our ethos post Mohali 2011, the recent show of miserly acclaim is simply unfathomable! Even after we had completed the Test series win, there were critics apropos Misbah’s conservative play – both in his batting and in his captaincy. Please cut the man some slack! We have not lost a Test series since he took over in August 2010 – after the spot-fixing episode, under the most arduous circumstances that one can think of.
Then the rise in the team’s level is there for all to see. We have beaten a team ranked above us in Test standings, but our neurons seem to be stuck upon the amusement that an ‘86 balls for 9 runs’ innings ostensibly causes.
It was clear from the onset that Pakistan had their eyes on pursuing the 255 in the allotted 60 overs – Hafeez’s thumping strokes through the off side up-top were a clear heads-up. However once the wickets began to tumble, the prudent thing to do was to shut up shop. This is exactly what Misbah, along with Asad Shafiq, seamlessly did. We were four down and another wicket could’ve resulted in Lankan inroads into our tail.
Those who fail to tell apart the T20 and Test stages, and believe that any sort of a total is reachable these days, need a reality check. There is a prodigious difference between the spanking new surface of a T20 or ODI game and the deteriorating fifth day pitch in a Test match. Chasing anything over four runs per over is a Herculean task on a disintegrating surface with neither the batsman nor indeed the bowler being able to fully keep track of the trajectory of the ball. Although many a Hercules have performed that task, being 1-0 up in the series only a dim-witted captain disguised in a cloak of courage would’ve gone for the kill – but then we are fond of that creed of leaders, aren’t we?
Apart from the obvious stability that Misbah has brought to the fore, there is uniqueness about his captaincy that makes him the quintessential leader. Neither does he crave the spotlight nor does he have the lust for power. He ‘carries the team’ – while most of our captains in the recent past only claimed to do so – and ensures that he orchestrates matters from behind the scenes, so to speak.
After Hafeez had a torrid time in the first slip during the first test match, most other captains would’ve either vented their frustration by shouting at him or at best would’ve immediately removed him from the fielding position resulting in a profound dent in their comrade’s confidence. Misbah, au contraire, stuck with Hafeez in the slip cordon for a couple of overs and then moved there himself. Hence, he did not undermine his teammate’s morale and eventually plugged the gaping hole as well. Misbah has the mettle to grab the gauntlet only when it is thrown – he does not synthesize imaginary gauntlets for self-exaggeration – and he does so, with class and composure.
Another example that showcases Misbah’s encouraging leadership could be cited from the staggering ODI triumph on Friday. After we were on the brink of the 132 runs – presented on a platter by a hapless Sri Lankan batting in front of our spinning repertoire – Misbah sent Sarfaraz up the order to amass the last few runs that remained. Being at the crease when the winning runs are scored not only enhances the self-belief of the youngster, it also gives him that winning feeling and the invigorating experience of playing a crucial part in the triumph. The captain could’ve gone there himself, to have a nice little run out and be there to give an over-the-top triumphant gesticulation at the end. But, instead of making self-pointing noises and portraying every win as a result of his personal genius, Misbah prefers to stay in the background in the sunny days and is there to fight it out when the storms arrive.
These are the little things that we ignore that result in our failure to justly gauge the influence of personnel. Misbah took over the reins in the most turbulent moment of our cricketing history and he has majestically driven our favourite sport forward. From being a silver lining, he has evolved into the dazzling sun that overpowers all clouds.
Blazing end to the ATP season: Berdych halted Murray’s 18-match unbeaten run in a three-set humdinger at the Paris Masters on Friday to book a place in the semis. Federer, after notching up his 800th career win – the seventh man to do so – waits in the wings for the Czech number one. We all know R-Fed’s affinity with numbers and history, and after reaching a milestone on Friday, he’d be geared for a first ever Masters crown in Paris – to add to his illustrious collection of accolades – and would be buoyant about his chances of defending his title in London.
Speaking of London, the lineup for this year’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals is complete, with Tsonga, Berdych and Fish joining the already qualified Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Federer and Ferrer – courtesy their exploits in Paris. Murray has put together a phenomenal run recently and would be hoping for a positive showing in front of the home faithful – something he has failed to do in the past. One gets the impression that 2012 is going to be the defining year of Murray’s career and if he remains steadfast in his quest for underachievement – especially at the biggest stages – I believe that’s going to be that, as far as hope and expectation is concerned.
Nadal, meanwhile, might’ve pulled off a masterstroke by opting to sit out the Paris Masters. An ATP Word Tours Finals title has eluded the Spaniard thus far, and he’d be mustering up all his energy to have a serious shot this year. And maybe, just maybe, a win over his bogey man this season, Djokovic, in London might give Rafa a massive boost before next season gets underway. Also, the small matter of the Davis Cup final against Argentina is also something Rafa would have his sights upon as he primes himself up for a late assault on individual and team silverware.
Djokovic has had a record shattering year, but it has clearly taken its toll on his body. We have witnessed yet another injury withdrawal from the Serbian in Paris; and after conjuring up the greatest season in the history of tennis the repercussions are ominous. The world number one has not managed his season properly – especially after his U.S Open triumph – and the apprehensions about the aftereffects are already vindicating themselves. Let’s hope No-Djo can return to his superlative fitness levels and continue his purple patch in 2012, if not in London this year.
On the domestic front, the Indo-Pak express’ rejuvenated exploits off-late have been striking. After the duo petered out for a considerable time span, following the last major of year in Flushing Meadows, their recent upsurge, that has seen them qualify for London, has been hard-wearing. Aisam and Bopanna have reached the business end in Paris, and they would’ve set their sights on a possible title in London which would be a crowning achievement for the awesome twosome.
Euro playoffs under the spotlight: Three of the four ties in the Euro 2012 playoffs have been all but settled. A Robbie Keane inspired Ireland thumped nine-man Estonia in Tallinn 4-0 as the hosts’ defense, togetherness and the big game mettle was at shambles. The Croatian side did something similar to Turkey in the Ataturk Stadium, taking a 3-0 score-line back home and should go through comfortably. Sivok gave his side the breathing space ahead of the return leg in Montenegro with an injury time finish to give the Czechs a 2-0 lead. Czech Republic clearly have a foot in the finals now.
The only matchup hanging on a knife-edge – at least in terms of the score – is Portugal’s tie with Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the first leg in Bosnia ended in a stalemate. The visitors dominated possession but were guilty of profligacy in front of goal, with Postiga being the guiltiest party. The Bosnian side would feel that they missed out on making the most of home advantage as they gear up for the Portuguese expedition. Cristiano Ronaldo was lackluster again in the national colours, even though he is setting La Liga ablaze with his showings. He failed to combine well with his teammates and took it all upon himself to deliver the knockout punch – and when that didn’t materialise, his frustration escalated. He needs to be on his A-game in the return leg or else the Bosnian side, filled with attacking talents like Dzeko and Pjanic, could upset the applecart.