Misbah-ul-Haq: Pakistan's invisible hero
As he completes his first walk through the famous long room onto the hallowed turf at Lord's, he feels the noise, the pressure, the burden. He has a dream to fulfil, and this is his opening act in converting it into reality. But he goes unnoticed, for the broadcasters seem too concerned with the previous dismissal to pay any attention to his presence. It's there on the television sets, on the big screens at the ground.
People are still gasping at the almost perfect yorker that got England the previous wicket. There's always, always something fancier, something more noteworthy. This time, it was the yorker, other times it could be one of the MCC members' shirts. Just about anything.
He's used to this, both the invisibility and the pressure. His face, ever so young even at 42 years of age, and now bearded, is finally showing some signs of the pressure it's been under. Match after match, he's been bailing out his country from dire situations only for the world to ignore him. The only time Misbah-ul-Haq Khan Niazi seems visible is when Pakistan lose, when a scapegoat is required.
Yet he does what he does willingly. Without any reward. Just because he loves the game, just because he has a dream, that of wanting to put Pakistan cricket right up there, at the top. A place, not even the most die hard, the most optimistic fan felt was possible six years back, when they were down in the dumps after the 2010 spot-fixing scandal.
For the whole of Pakistan, Misbah is not just their captain. He's also their saviour, their superman, their Godsend. Their angel.
Another saving act
Pakistan is three down for less than eighty. On the opening day of the most high-profile series of the year. A wicket or two here and it'll be England's day, England's game. Pakistan need to grind it out. Just somehow get to a total that'll allow their much-hyped bowling attack a chance to shine. Misbah has been in this situation before, he's got Pakistan through before.
But there are other factors involved today. It's his first test in England, a country not too kind to visiting batsmen. It's tour of redemption for Pakistan, for this is where they reached their lowest ebb in the August of 2010. And he's not played an international match for eight months.
To lift his country to cricketing greatness, Misbah needs to conquer not just the noise but the pressure and the burden as well. He also needs to those conquer 42-year-old bones, the top notch bowling and his own mercurial batting line up. Today, Misbah needs to conquer common sense, he needs to conquer reality.
This is by far the greatest challenge this Pakistani side has faced. And whether they sink or they float depends on their captain.
It always does.
A comeback in every sense
Misbah looks quite different from what he did eight months back. Firstly, there's the beard which all Pakistani captains seem to grow by the end of their careers. There's the shredded physique, with him looking as fit as ever. And there are those eyes. They speak of intent and purpose, of the burning desire to fulfil a dream. He's ready, and thus is Pakistan.
On a Lord's wicket which was doing a bit, Misbah brings out his best game. The medium pacers are dead batted, punched and flicked. The slowing reflexes still agile enough to handle 90 mph darts. The offie is swept, reverse swept and then taken out of the attack. There are more dead bat defences, more back foot punches and more flicks. It's not pretty, but it is effective. Boring yet intriguing, the way he goes about his innings.
But today, it was not about the shots he played. It was not about the technical proficiency he showed. Today was not just about cricket.
It was about the triumph of human spirit.
Today was about celebrating one of the most influential cricketers of all time. Today was about recognising Misbah. Today was all about Misbah. The Pakistani angel.
Through the second half of 14th July 2016, Misbah made the strongest statement he's ever made. He made the strongest statement Pakistan has made in the 21st century. That despite the fact that their administration is in a mess, their country is in ruins, that no team is willing to play in their backyard, that their star players are as inconsistent as they get, that they don't get half as many resources as other teams do, that they are not adequately paid, that despite everything they can make their mark on the world stage.
Misbah has shown us how superficial barriers, those of age, talent and the same can be overcome through strong will, through unflinching self-belief, through the sheer determination to defy all odds.
Even if there are no rewards.
Recognition at last?
Misbah batted through to stumps, remaining unbeaten on 110. Pakistan, a respectable 282 for the loss of six wickets. No matter what happens hereafter in the test or the series, this day, this innings will ensure Misbah's name goes down as one of the most important sportsmen of all time, even if it had not already.
It was not just about cricket. It was about Pakistan. It was about giving their people hope, that if they can overcome so much to climb to the top in world cricket, they can do it in other spheres as well. It just takes some time, a dedicated bunch of people led brilliantly, and a lot of courage.
When Misbah reached his century, he offered a salute and proceeded to do ten push ups. It was a light-hearted moment, a very un-Misbah like moment. But it brought a laugh, along with a warm, very warm set of applause from the sporting crowd. Not something he's used to, but something he deserves a lot more of.
This article doesn't mention any other player. Because today, Misbah deserves all the limelight he's never had, all the appreciation he's never had.
For today was all about Misbah, and the Pakistan he's tried so hard to revive.
It's taken him six years, and he's almost defied reality.