Thursday, November 22, 2007

India v Pakistan, 1st Test, Delhi, 1st day

Tenacious Misbah overcomes the odds

Osman Samiuddin

Misbah applied himself remarkably well and instilled a little hope into what could've been a day of total despair for Pakistan © AFP

In almost each of the 23 international innings Misbah-ul-Haq has played since his surprise return to Pakistan's scheme of things, a situation has presented itself, a problem to be resolved. In Twenty20, Fifty50 or Five5, it is both the curse and gift of his position, spiritual and actual, in the middle order. See out the situation and you're a hero; fluff it and you're a chump.

Orchestrating a run-chase, composing a defendable total, organising a rearguard, building on a platform; he has faced some tremendously uncluttered objectives. Almost every time he has taken measure of the situation, sussed out precisely what is needed and comfortably reached that last hurdle.

But as he has approached it, each time, he has misread its height, stuttered, stumbled and failed to clear it. It's been doubly frustrating because of how good, how composed and how much in control he has looked until the very last instant before he makes himself look really silly. It's a bit like Ivan Lendl, the great Czech tennis droid of the 80s, and his runs to the Wimbledon final in the 80s. He always looked rock-solid until he got to the final, whereupon he looked as if he was smoking grass, not playing on it. The value of Misbah has thus hung between curse and gift, between hero and chump.

To immense relief no doubt, he cleared two small hurdles today. His first priority was a personal one, to begin the unenviable - and likely unachievable - task of filling the shoes of the other ul-Haq of Pakistan: not Zia or Ejaz but Inzamam. A first fifty, preferably more, would've helped, and duly he got it.

Even in his orthodox strokes, there seems something unorthodox about Misbah. The cover drive on bended knee is not beyond most international batsmen but how many play a straight drive off one knee, most often for six? There were plenty of little nudges, guides and tickles, and one reverse-sweep to reach his fifty, all regular limited-overs staple, but in one on-drive late in the day, there was a stroke that cut across all formats.

He did it with some comfort as well, on what appeared an unfaithful pitch. Even when defending against the lion of this particular den, Anil Kumble, he was resolute. In his own way, of course: moving his left foot away from leg-stump, using his bat and thus making sure he took the leg-before out of the equation. There were all kinds of tests to pass, for there was all kinds of fine bowling to negate. Zaheer Khan found swing, Munaf Patel did too and added some seam and reverse to it, Harbhajan Singh pestered away and even the lollipops from Sourav Ganguly seemed loaded with gunpowder.

The second, more selfless ask was what Pakistan needed, and that was to drag this innings out as far and for as long as possible and to remain unbeaten till its end. This work is not about the wheels of batting as much as it is about the human condition. It requires a temperament you can mould and adapt as situations demand, a certain composure.

Here again he didn't fail. If Misbah's Twenty20 and a few ODI innings thereafter proved anything, it was that he is not readily flustered. He may be prone to untimely lapses of judgment, but in crisis he is as icy and calculating as, well, Lendl was throughout his career. Not scoring for vast stretches of the afternoon, even as wickets fell, didn't much bother him and hogging much of the strike wasn't a problem either. And when Mohammad Sami showed that he could be trusted, he was more than willing to show him that trust, thus switching smoothly between the Waugh school of tailend batting ('Show them faith, let them bat') and the Border school ('Protect them, farm the strike').

But by remaining unbeaten, by ensuring that he will be second-last or last out when Pakistan are dismissed, he finally finished something, achieved a goal: to instill, into what could've been a day of total despair for Pakistan, a little hope. The bonus was his highest score by some distance in international cricket and a slip of a chance for a maiden hundred tomorrow.

The true worth of Pakistan's late fight, in the context of this Test, will only become apparent when India bat and they will do so knowing the pitch is not for trusting. But for Misbah, who led that fight, it is already priceless.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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