TELFORD VICE, Centurion
WHEN Misbah-ul-Haq walked to the middle for the toss in Dubai on November 12, 2010 he took the first steps of a journey that, Inshallah, would guide him deep into the warm half of a demanding nation’s heart.
Did he know the way there, and what obstacles he would have to overcome en route? No.
What was known, by all, was that he was captaining Pakistan in a test for the first time.
And that his counterpart was a large, lusty left-hander seven years his junior but with 78 tests as captain already in his character bank; a man who led by instinct and example and who wasn’t afraid to play a game as brashly bullish as the one he talked.
Only three players were younger than this man when they were saddled with the cares of test captaincy. Only 32 players were older than Misbah when they were thus burdened.
The coin went up, Graeme Smith called correctly, and the rest was about to become history.
That history reached a poignant point this week when Misbah took his team to the No. 1 test ranking.
He did so in England, the country in which Smith also led his men to the accolade in August 2012.
A few months short of five years from that day in Dubai, South Africa have slumped to No. 7. If they beat New Zealand at Centurion they will rise to No. 6. Whoop-tee-do.
Much more notably, Pakistan last played at home in March 2009. They have been on the road for seven years and 62 tests, 21 of them in their adopted territory of the United Arab Emirates.
In the same period South Africa have played 32 of their 59 tests in front of adoring home crowds.
“Sometimes people think it’s easy, that the UAE suits us and we win,” Misbah told reporters at the Oval, where Pakistan’s ascent was completed.
“But just living every day away from our country, without family and friends, it’s really difficult. It’s mentally tough.
“I see my mother and sister only once a year and some friends not for three or four years.”
Contrast that with what Faf du Plessis said on Friday: “We want to try and play as many tests as possible, especially in South Africa.
“We don’t play a lot of tests here … you want to try and make use of your own conditions …
And so say every test captain, Pakistan’s excepted.
Of the players in the Pakistan and South Africa XIs who lined up in Dubai in 2010, and measured against their most recent tests, four players in each are still in the mix. That’s if we count AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel, who are out of the New Zealand series through injury.
But, while Misbah has gone about collecting 46 caps at the helm on his own, South Africa have been captained by four men.
This is the focal point of the chasm between the two teams, and it has meant that Pakistan have enjoyed the kind of stability South Africa have too often looked lost without.
It helps that Misbah is the calmest man in cricket. Which is not to say Hashim Amla, De Villiers and Du Plessis, the men who have led South Africa after Smith, are hotheads.
But of them only Du Plessis has the bulletproof confidence of a surgeon holding a patient’s life in their hands, and Du Plessis will be in charge only until De Villiers’ elbow heals.
Misbah is 42 and raging, with dignity, against the dying of the light. Smith, who retired prematurely, is 35.
One is making history. The other is history.
Inshallah, history will judge them deservedly.