As Pakistan play their 400th Test match against West Indies, just the second day-night Test in the history of cricket, one question lingers in the minds of Pakistani fans – What after Misbah-ul-Haq? Their captain is 42 and may well be really close to his twilight years.
Though not in the league of previous Pakistan captains, Misbah boasts of a more than a decent record at the helm of the Test team. Much unlike the talented teen players that Pakistan produce, Misbah bloomed rather late, breaking into the Test side at the age of 27 in 2001 and took many more years to establish himself in the side.
He has painstakingly made the hard yards to become the captain of the national side. But the most successful Test captain of Pakistan has very few years, maybe even months left in him. Do they really have a backup option ready?
The job of Pakistani skipper is far from easy. Dealing with hugely expectant fans, fickle selectors and aggressive youth players require a natural flair and flamboyance, that Pakistan captains of the past were bestowed with, in plenty.
From the very first captain of the national side, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, an aggressive minded, encouraging captain to the natural leader in Imran Khan and later Wasim Akram, Pakistan were never ever short of leaders. That many of them had it in them to be the chief meant Pakistan had multiple options to play around with.
But, unlike all of the ex-skippers, Misbah did not have the natural flair or aggression. What he did have was a cool and composed head. This held together a tattered side after the spot-fixing saga. That he lifted his troops from the very lows to the coveted World Test rank no.1, is the most striking quality in this bearded warrior.
The numbers are also right at the top for Misbah the leader when compared to that of previous captains.
The away Test record is also in Misbah’s safe hands.
Though the numbers are exciting, Pakistan have a promising batting line-up after almost a decade of search for a strong top order. This might be the perfect time to groom a successor for Misbah. The options may be sparse, but that only strengthens the view that the grooming process should be underway by now. The team would do well to extract as much out of their senior like Misbah and Younis while they are still in the setup as players.
An analysis of the current Test squad suggests three players who could be future leaders. Though none of them are in the mould of an Imran Khan or Mushtaq Mohammad, they are tough Pakistani guys and more often than not, they grow into leaders. Let us analyse a few options Pakistan have for their future Test skipper.
Azhar Ali has been a permanent fixture in the test side since his debut in 2010 against England. He is playing his 50th Test now against the West Indies and yesterday became the first batsman to score a hundred in a day-night Test, remaining unbeaten on 146 overnight.
He has 11 hundreds and an average of 44.97. Though severely criticized for his doggedness at the crease, he symbolized everything that was missing in the Pakistan top order. He has the right technique to flourish in foreign conditions and could become the opener that Pakistan Test cricket needs.
Importantly, he is already the skipper of the ODI team and has a fair amount of idea about leading a Pakistan side in terms of managing the fans, players and selectors. He has maintained an average close to 40 even after being the skipper of the ODI side and has scored all of his hundreds since being the captain.
If his ODI record as skipper is anything to go by, Azhar will be a good captain in Tests as well. Besides, he has ample experience as a player and at 31, is pretty ripe to take over the Test team. That he is in fine nick also augers well for him.
The dynamic wicketkeeper, Sarfraz Ahmed is another option to lead the national Test side. He has played in 26 Tests and has an average of 43.79 with three hundreds to his name. Unlike Azhar and Misbah, he is more of an aggressive player and could be a players’ captain.
That he has shed his poor form and been a permanent fixture in the Test side of late also makes him a possible candidate. He was recently named the national T20 captain and ODI vice-captain and could easily grow himself into the role as Test skipper.
Though he has skippered in just 4 T20I as of now, he has won all four of those games, rallying his young troops to prevail over the World T20 champions, West Indies, just a month back.
Sarfraz, 29, has the right temperament and skills required of a national team captain, though his role as wicket-keeper means he will have to be proactive on the field to up his energy levels. There is always the example of MS Dhoni to follow, though a really hard one to be successful at, like the Indian man.
Sarfraz also captained the Quetta Gladiators franchise in the Pakistan Super League and led them magnificently till the latter stages of the tournament, before losing the finals.
Asad Shafiq has been a revelation of late in the Test squad. A highly underrated player, the move to no.3 also means he is in the top order of the Test side. He has the unique ability to absorb pressure and play with a calm head, something few Pakistani batsmen have.
With his recent record, he is assured to be one permanent name in that team sheet in the coming years as well.
Shafiq’s Test record has been superb. In 46 matches, he has an average of 43.34 with 9 centuries. Though he has no prior captaincy experience, his solid batsmanship makes him a possible candidate. Considering the huge chop and changes Pakistan selectors make each year, Shafiq is one who is likely to stand through those testing times, courtesy some fine numbers.
At 30, Shafiq may be at the right age to try his hands at captaincy and you never know until you try. The guy is a bundle of talent and captaincy could just be one of them.
Misbah at 42 is almost at the sunset of his career and there is no doubt that the time to groom the next skipper is ripe. The legacy Misbah leaves behind will be a benchmark for the future captain of the Men in Green.
Sarfraz and Azhar Ali look like ideal men to carry forward the baton. But neither possesses the exuberance or panache that previous skippers of this country had. Although it must be remembered that the same was said when Misbah took over as the skipper, and look where he stands among the list of successful skippers.
Therefore, this might be the right time to blood a change.