Misbah-ul-Haq has played 151 ODIs for Pakistan © Getty Images
Misbah-ul-Haq scored a century in each innings of the second Test against Australia at Abu Dhabi © Getty Images

By Amir Husain

The 40 year old captain of the Pakistan Test and One Day International teams, Misbah-ul-Haq has been featuring in recent headlines due to his record breaking performances where he equalled the record for the fastest century in Test cricket and his leadership which saw Pakistan complete a 2-0 whitewash against the world number one Test team, Australia.

In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net during the recently concluded Test series against Australia, Misbah spoke about his decision to take a break as ODI captain for one game, Pakistan’s chances in the ICC World Cup 2015 and reflected on his tenure as captain of the national team.

Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion.net :Did you sit out of the third ODI against Australia under pressure from others or was this your own decision?

Misbah: No, there was no pressure on me. This was my own decision. We had five Test matches coming up so I thought to myself that I should just take a break and come back fresh for the Test matches and free from any kind of mental pressure. The idea was to concentrate on the Test matches and then see how it goes.

Although there is always pressure to perform on players but in this particular case, the situation was that we had lost the ODI series and there was no real edge to the 3rd game. On top of that, we had Sohaib Maqsood who was warming the bench as was Umar Amin. We thought it would be a good idea to give them both a chance to play one of the matches.

You cannot run away from pressure which comes from media and fans alike and that’s something you as a player and captain have to deal with. I would have faced the same pressure whether I played or not. I guess the main reason was that I wanted a little break for myself and prepare for the Test matches ahead in the coming days.

PP: How did you utilize your time during this break? Did you go back to the nets and work on your batting problems?

MH: I got a good chance to bat for long hours – sometimes sessions of up to two hours to mimic what it would be like in a real match situation. This was very useful and it really helped me regain my rhythm. I was helped by all members of the coaching staff including Grant Flower and Mushtaq Ahmed who helped me with my technique against spinners. I have had a few problems against fast-bowlers so that area was also looked at. Waqar Bhai was tremendous in all this as he arranged all kinds of net bowlers to help me out. I was given all the help I needed but what really stands out is the moral and psychological support I was given.

They completely removed any kind of pressure on me by saying that they weren’t too bothered about my performance but they needed me as a captain only. They wanted me to forget about scoring runs as I had done plenty in the past four years and was now going through a lean patch where four or five matches had not gone too well – this was all part of the game and that I should concentrate on captaincy and leadership. Of course, they wanted me to work on my batting but that was not their main area of concern.

I would also like to thank the PCB and the Chairman of PCB, Mr. Shahryar Khan for his support during this time. More than that, I would like to offer a word of thanks to our senior and ex-players who went out of their way to support me. I must also thank the ordinary people and fans who also went out of their way to provide me with moral support which really helped as well.

PP: There has been criticism of the batting position that you bat in. Can you tell us why you are reluctant to bat at any other position?

MH: I don’t have a huge problem with my batting position although, it is true that I don’t prefer to play up the order. Throughout my career, I have played on positions four, five and six. This is true in the current team as well where we have decent batsmen before me and I come to bat at the 4th or 5th position. I believe my position is right given the make-up of our team.

I have heard this from many people that I should be batting at the number three position. However, if the number four and five positions weren’t that important then the likes of Mike Hussey or MS Dhoni would have all played at the number three position. The reason they don’t bat at a higher position is because this is a very important batting position. On many occasions, you have to come in at this point and help in the recovery and consolidation of the innings. Additionally, you have some good new ball players who can do better at the top three positions. Whereas number five position tends to be the one I prefer, it is also true that I have played at the number four position against West Indies and Zimbabwe so it’s not completely correct to say that that I have been very rigid about batting at a specific batting position.

As far as specifically not playing at the number three position is concerned, the fact is that I have never batted at that position, neither in domestic nor at an international level. Obviously, you will bat in positions you are used to playing in and that’s the case here. Also, in our team we usually play with three openers who are new ball specialists playing in those positions. So there really is no need for me to move them to the middle order – that makes no sense at all.

 PP: Given the way Azhar Ali stepped in place of Mohammad Hafeez to open the second innings in the first Test against Australia, do you feel that Mohammad Hafeez’s position in the top order in the Test team is under threat?

MH: It all depends on the situation. In the UAE, we needed a bowling option in the absence of Saeed Ajmal and so we brought Hafeez into the team. Apart from a few innings, Hafeez has in my view, performed well whilst batting in the top order. He averages around the 33 mark and has five hundreds to his name. Let’s see how in the future he fits into the team’s requirements and we will decide accordingly.

 PP: With the ICC 2015 World Cup not too far away and a handful of games left to try out new combinations etc, are you confident that Mohammad Hafeez is a necessity for this team?

MH: If you examine Hafeez’s record in ODIs, you will see that he has performed very well for Pakistan. His batting is crucial and in the past few years whenever he has scored runs, we have won those matches. He plays a vital role for us in batting and when he bats well, he provides the momentum that the rest of the batting order can put to good use. When he plays well, more often than not, he tends to play match winning innings for us. Personally speaking, his position at the top of the order is well suited for Pakistan and himself.

 PP: Not too many experts put Pakistan as favourites for the ICC 2015 World Cup. How do you feel about that? What specific plans do you have in mind to address the preparations for this mega event in Australia and New Zealand?

MH: Our preparations are in progress already. We have played ODI series against Australia to get an idea of playing against good quality fast-bowling. Then we have the New Zealand series and this is a side that also relies on its fast bowlers. There is no doubt that we aren’t playing in the same conditions as we will be when we play the 2015 World Cup but this does give us a good idea and helps the mental side of things.

We are also practicing using marble slabs against short balls and also remember, when we go to New Zealand we will play some practice games there so I am confident that we are moving in the right direction.

 PP: So in a nutshell, what are Pakistan’s chances in the ICC 2015 World Cup?

MH: Looking at the format of this tournament, I as a captain am very confident that we will do well. This format allows teams a lot of opportunities to recover from bad games and then once you get to the quarter-finals, you are suddenly three games away from lifting the Trophy. On top of that, as we all know that on a given day, Pakistan can beat anyone so I am supremely confident of our chances at the 2015 World Cup.

PP: Interesting that you mentioned practice against short bowling – Is this an area of concern for you personally?

MH: Well if you are referring to my batting in the first Test against Australia in Dubai, then all I will say is that this was a pitch where one did not have a clear idea of the bounce as one ball would remain low and the other one would bounce high. So I decided not to risk it, but having said that, I never play such shots in Test matches – I duck or get out of the way of such deliveries.

ODIs are a different proposition, where the match situation may demand such shots to be played. One of the strategies the Australians always try to employ to trap batsmen is bowling short. In Dubai where there is uneven pace and bounce, its best that one sticks to playing other shots and leave the short deliveries alone. Also it’s not my habit to play short balls.

PP: Your strike rate whilst batting attracts a lot of criticism. How do you plan to address this issue in ODIs?

MH: It all depends on what the team needs at that point in time. If the situation demands a stay at the wicket to stabilize things then the number of balls needed for that is immaterial. What matters is the end goal which is to stay for fifty overs and help the team set or chase a target.

As far as strike rate is concerned, if you compare me with the top players, how huge a difference will you find? The fact is that the number four or five batting position is one where you need to come in and provide stability to the team. Your strike rate will always hover around the seventy mark. The strike rate may appear low but the idea is to be able to raise the rate later in the innings but only once you have stabilized the situation.

Coming back to recent events, in the series against Australia, I was out on the first ball in one game and then run-out in the next game. In that game, I was playing according to the demands of the situation which at that time was simply to stay at the wicket and get a 240+ score. You have to remember, my batting is never about myself or to look for any personal achievements – all that was in my mind that day was to try and make sure that the team got to a reasonable total.

PP: How much has Sarfraz Ahmed impressed you in the Australia series and what kind of future do you see for him with the Pakistan team?

MH: I see a great future for him. He has breathed new life and vigour in the Pakistan team. For a while we had been struggling to find anyone who could contribute in this way at this batting position in Tests or ODIs. All in all, this is a great positive for us in the way he is playing and most importantly, the fact that he’s playing so well at the right time as we approach the 2015 World Cup.

As a captain, I feel very pleased and hope to God that he continues contributing in this manner. He is playing extraordinary innings for us at the moment with an excellent strike rate to boot. Sarfraz is like oxygen for this team. Any captain would consider him lucky if he has a player like Sarfraz who can play an aggressive innings coming in at that position and also thereby put pressure on the opposing teams.

PP: Yasir Shah has impressed everyone including the legendary Shane Warne. Early days yet, but do you feel he has the potential to be a potent weapon for Pakistan in the future?

MH: It’s a good thing for the Pakistan team that new players of his calibre are coming through the system into the Pakistan team. Yasir maybe new to the international scene but he has a lot of confidence about him as he has played with Pakistan ‘A’ and he is also very experienced at the First-Class level which is helping him in the senior team.

As for Pakistan, this is a tremendous help as we haven’t had a good leg-spinner for a while. This was one important aspect of our bowling attack which was missing. People would say that it was strange that after the likes of Abdul Qadir, Mushtaq Ahmed and Danish Kaneria, we had no one to carry on the legacy of this type of bowling. Now we do! He is young and definitely has a bright future with Pakistan team.

PP: Going back in time a bit, let’s talk about the period when you took over after the spot fixing saga came to light. What was the atmosphere like in the dressing room and how did you motivate the players?

MH: The Pakistan team with Waqar Bhai as coach had returned after a tough tour of England. The next series was another tough one against South Africa in UAE and the team had to start a re-building process. But we were lucky in a way as some of the players had been toughened up by their stay in England. I refer to the likes of Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali. All these players had the belief in them that we had a mission to put the Pakistan team back on track. There was determination and the right attitude to move forward amongst these players as they were focussed to repair the damage to the very basis of the team. They knew that the best way to do this was to play at your best and to win games. To this day, I recall that series as one that was a tremendous series in which we drew 2 Tests against a very strong South African side. We were then able to build on that success and the 3-0 whitewash of England in 2012 was a good example of this determination.

Personally speaking, I never felt any pressure or difficulty in leading this team as they were all in good shape and all they needed was some guidance from me to move in the right direction.

PP: The Misbah-ul-Haq we have seen for most of his career has been a serious looking fellow but the one we saw in the Test series against Australia was a much more relaxed one. Are we likely to see more of the latter?

MH: (Laughs) Well it all depends on how the team is performing! To be honest when the youngsters and seniors like Younis Khan give all they have for the team or when the likes of Ahmed Shehzad who joined the team recently perform so well and take on the world’s number one team then naturally it does make you feel good about being captain and gives you great joy. Let me also say that facial expressions and how I appear to others does not imply that I am not enjoying myself! Naturally, when things are going our way, we should enjoy with the team and I do that.

PP: What is the solution to the inconsistency in our batting displays?

MH: I am not sure but I feel sometimes, we tend to make big issues out of everything. Other teams also have same problems but it doesn’t become an issue. Look at England – they came to Abu Dhabi and were all out for 70 chasing 144 but if that was a Pakistani team, then people would make a huge issue out of it. I believe this happens to all teams in the world. Collapses do happen and it’s part and parcel of the game. The Pakistan team has done reasonably well in Test matches under my captaincy, although we have struggled in ODIs. I suppose all we can say is that we need to be consistent in our selections with players and let them gain experience and confidence. Good performances, such as those against Australia, will follow naturally if this is done.

PP: What was the more painful loss, the ICC T20 2007 final against India or the ICC World Cup 2011 semi- final against the same opponent?

MH: Both were games in the World Cup and both games were very important. The 2007 T20 Cup title was just a few runs away from us when we lost the game, whilst the ICC World Cup 2011 is a 50 over tournament and it has it’s own importance and we would have liked to win it.

To tell you the truth, I regret being on the losing side on both occasions. The 2007 game was a one that we had almost lost but we were able to give ourselves hope and then lose it, whilst the 2011 game was in hand but we lost that as well.

Obviously one feels very sad about these games but you cannot change these things. The fact is that both these games are in the past and we have to move on. Yes, we learnt a few things from these lost games and applied the lessons to later games but we aren’t perfect and will still lose games like these in the future.

Complete coverage of Pakistan vs Australia in UAE

(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net. The above article is reproduced with permission from pakpassion.net)