When Nawab-zada Shahryar Mohammad Khan, pushing 83, calls upon Misbah-ul-Haq Khan Niazi, pushing 43, to stay on as Pakistan captain until 2018-end, you know the state of the union is not quite in the pink of health.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman is a gentleman with a respectable diplomatic background. However, these days, following a medical procedure in England, he appears to find it increasingly difficult to keep up pace with which way the wind is blowing in Pakistan cricket, much less set course for its sail.
Anyone who has ever been at the helm of Pakistan cricket, of course, craves stability, and so it must make some sort of sense for Khan to set store by that much vaunted need, especially in view of an apparently barren cupboard.
But by asking Misbah to hang on for another couple of years after a similarly inclined SOS last year, too, the PCB chairman may be pushing the outer limits too far. Not even Misbah has bought this elasticity of imagination and appropriately, suggested he isn’t thinking into the future at length and that since he is not looking for a farewell match or series — refreshingly removed from the ‘you-know-who’ quintessential hanger — on — he may quit any time.
Having said that, Misbah may soon find that decision time creeping up on him. Not for nothing did they say cricket was like a cruel mistress. On paper, Misbah can do no wrong — he has earned his spurs with yeoman services to the country and becoming the most successful Test captain along the way — but one bad series is all it takes for the inconceivable to rear its ugly head.
One of the hardest things for this admirer of arguably, the greatest servant of Pakistan cricket, is having to admit that Misbah may be doing himself a world of goodif he were scripting the end notes of his legacy — even if Pakistan puts up a decent performance against the run of play Down Under.
Misbah certainly has a lofty goal ahead of him: he can change history by leading the tourists to their maiden Test series triumph in Australia. For more than half a century — 52 years to be precise — they have mostly been sightseeing tourists, with the odd individual chutzpah on the park that didn’t quite make the summer.
It is of course, heartening to see Misbah’s pulse on the possibility of achieving what no Pakistani team before his — with even greater depth, match-winning potential and star value — has, but it takes only a momentary rush of blood to nix all the day’s work.
This very year, Pakistan has dramatically collapsed six times from nowhere to hand it all on a platter to the opposition, with Misbah himself being guilty of reckless shot selection in a dire situation on at least a couple of occasions.
After ascending a spectacular pinnacle that saw Pakistan rise to the No 1 Test ranking, the slide, too, has been swift and equally remarkable. That’s the nature of the beast — you step off the gas unwittingly and it is enough to trigger a backward spiral. In just a few weeks, Pakistan is now looking a frail and forlorn 4th.
The current Australian Test outfit may be inexperienced and untested against the wile and guile of a Yasir Shah on a weary track — if he is match-fit — but that alone does not guarantee a meal ticket. After half a century of Tests in charge, Misbah more than anyone else, should know scripts are rendered asunder without prim application.
For Pakistan to be able to exploit the reputedly helpful tracks in Sydney and Melbourne, for instance, a lot will depend on their batting upfront — provided they also win the toss and take first strike — with Shah waiting to build a yarn laterally.
In the last three Tests — including the one in Sharjah against the West Indies — where the team fell in a heap, Misbah (with the exception of Hamilton Test where he was suspendedfor slow over-rate) and Younis Khan just floundered, leaving a gaping hole in terms of stability that they have been providing for years.
The debacle was unsettling to see because it brought home the gnawing truth about the uncertain future that lies in wait once the old war horses return to the shed, which cannot be too far off. And yet, Pakistan must start strategizing now to build for the future.
The PCB chairman sees potential replacements in Azhar Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed and Imad Wasim. But he may have already left out Ali in the cold by suggesting his batting suffers when he leads and reading too favourably, too soon, into what Imad Wasim might have to offer because in Khan’s view, the Pakistani-Welsh cricketer has handled a few pressure situations well!
Given the past track record, it would probably be unwise to pitchfork the relatively inexperienced Imad, with no Test experience, as captain of the national team just now and that, too, in an environment where historically, seniors are loathe to playing under players vastly junior to them.
It is all very well to dismiss this argument on grounds of principle, but where is the need to rock the boat, especially when you have reasonably established players in the Test team? If Azhar Ali is deemed too conservative in approach — and one tends to agree with that — then, you do have Sarfraz as the most suitable candidate with an assured presence across all formats for a considerable length of time now. He is already the T20 captain with an impressive all-win record and vice-captain in the ODI format other than being a Test stalwart.
But to return to the subject, where Misbah wants to be his own man in taking the final bow as captain, it would be perhaps, worthwhile for the PCB to persuade him, if at all, to carry on as a player if his form holds. It would allow that much needed transitionary space for a new captain to settle into the role.