Identical Captains At Opposite Ends

Sometimes in the cosmic journey, life contrives for kindred souls to cross paths: two people who may be separated geographically, ethnically, economically, even politically, but who are one at the most elemental, human level.

As Angelo Mathews and Misbah-ul-Haq look across their battlements in Sri Lanka, they may meet each other's gaze, and know they are a lot alike.

The last time the two met in Tests, they could not have had more disparate days. Defending a 1-0 series lead, Mathews embraced an extreme form of conservatism and his team drowned in it on the final day in Sharjah. With no choice but to launch an unrelenting attack, Misbah kept his side in the match long enough, until after a whirl of bludgeoned drives and reverse-sweeps from way outside leg stump, he hit the winning run to complete a frenetic victory.

Pakistan have been dormant in Tests since that day, but Mathews has had a busy six months, in which both he and his leadership have grown up, and grown old - grown a little more like Misbah. Now, when Mathews speaks or acts, he is defined by a sense of unshakeable calm. A lot has happened to him in the recent past, with a series win in England and loss at home against South Africa, but a short time after coming off the field, Mathews was no more delighted at Headingley than he was distraught at the SSC. Misbah is past 40 now. Though at times he still bats like he is 25, there is a timeless stoicism to everything in his every move. His words are delivered in grey baritone.

Neither captain is an exemplary tactician, but both are natural leaders in other ways. Misbah's batting average is almost 28 runs better when he is captain. In 11 Tests at the helm, Mathews has statistically been more than twice as good as he was before. They have each inherited a legacy of instability, with captains coming, going and occasionally coming again in the few years before they each took the helm. But since Misbah has had the reins, Pakistan's road has been less rocky. Sri Lanka had been energetic and instinctive under Mahela Jayawardene, but since Mathews has helmed them, his iron resolve has seeped into his team's cricket as well.

There is no doubt who is the more talented cricketer. Misbah is routinely secure and imposing when he wishes to be. But in 2014, Mathews has been a complete batsman, on every kind of surface, in any situation. They both make dour beginnings; that first impulse is always "safety first". But they are also equipped with the skill, and the will to quickly gather pace. For Misbah, the big blows often come suddenly, on the leg side, in the arc between wide long-on and square leg. Mathews, increasingly, just clobbers them where he likes.

Neither are ungainly batsmen, but no one could ever mistake them for artists either. They are too sensible to fuss with aesthetics. Both hail from cricket cultures that celebrate flamboyance - more true for Misbah, perhaps, than for Mathews - but they leave the pretty stuff to their team-mates and take the utilitarian road themselves. Misbah is wise enough to know aggression is critical to the cricket some batsmen play, but Mathews is still learning that others cannot absorb pressure as passively as he can. "We threw away our wickets" is a common complaint. Rarely is Mathews among the "we" in that sentence. So many times he has been like the band that plays a sombre tune while the ship sinks in a panic around him. No one knows that feeling better than Misbah.

There is also no doubt who has the tougher assignment. Eighteen months into his captaincy, Mathews has seen the entire spectrum of administrative bungling, from two contracts standoffs to seniors' tussles with the made-men at Maitland Place. But beyond the spectre of match-fixing that Misbah has worked to leave behind, the board he reports to is in so much disarray, SLC seems like a Sunday afternoon book club in comparison. Every person Misbah meets could be PCB chairman in 20 minutes' time. Or the next Test-match opener.  

Grim-faced and unflappable, it is also sometimes easy to cast Misbah as a sort of tragic hero. He is all the more likeable because of it. If the young players in Sri Lanka's middle order continue to show they are poor replacements for the seniors about to bow out of the game, Mathews may well become a tragic hero himself, in years to come. He is perhaps the luckier of the two because if he carries himself with the grace and dignity Misbah manages, he is not likely to be accused of being too square, as Misbah often is.  

Their teams arrive in Galle, evenly matched and familiar with each other's talents and points of weakness. Steady, courageous and possessed of a slow-burning charisma, the cricket Mathews and Misbah play over the next few weeks will be intriguing, not just for choices they make, but for the moves they elicit from one another.


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