One score and some dozen years ago, I read Thomas Boswell’s provocatively titled ode to the American national pastime, baseball, “How Life Imitates the World Series”. Leaving aside the annoying American tendency of calling their domestic sporting competitions “World Series” or “World Championships”, the title of the book has stayed with me, popping up every so often onto to the crowded canvas of my consciousness to remind me of the deep parallels that exist between a people and the games that they play.

One can argue that no category of public figures is more loved and admired today than sports- men and women of our times. They are truly larger than life, swaying the emotions of a nation with one swing of the bat or some fancy footwork on a football field. But what makes one sportsman a national hero and relegates another player to a side role? One player is loved by the public while another in the same team is given the cold shoulder. Is it merely – sticking to cricket, for now – the number of runs scored or wickets taken, or is there something more to it?

In Pakistan, for example, while one player, Shahid Afridi, is immensely popular amongst the masses, another, Misbah ul Haq, has had to face near constant criticism from the public at large and, on a number of occasions, from even the so-called experts. Even if his stock has fallen somewhat of late, there is little doubt that Shahid Afridi has been the most popular sportsman in Pakistan for nearly two decades.

During this period he has neither scored the most runs, nor taken the most wickets, nor contributed heavily to winning matches through his captaincy. Players such as Inzamam, Yousaf, Younis, Misbah and Saeed Ajmal, to name just a few of his peers, have contributed far more when it comes to actual success on the ground. Yet, among the masses, Shahid Afridi reigns supreme. Nothing unites the Pakistani cricket fan on the street, from Peshawar to Karachi, and Lahore to Dubai, more than the love of Afridi. But why?

The answer to this riddle lies not in what Afridi and Misbah have achieved on the field, but rather in how each of them plays the game.

Shahid Afridi and Misbah ul Haq represent opposite ends of the cricket continuum – in fact, they represent two different sets of values that a sportsman could play and live by. The way Afridi bats mirrors closely the thought process and the approach to life of the typical Pakistani.

By the same token, the measured manners of Misbah – disparagingly labeled as “Mr. Tuk Tuk”, appear totally alien in the land of the pure where chaos is the order of the day, every day.

A typical Afridi innings, like a typical Pakistani’s day to day life, will include all of the following: taking the “short cut” to reach the target, refusal to lay a foundation for the task at hand, an unwillingness to apply oneself to achieve the desired goal, paying little or no heed to the needs of the team, complete disregard for the situation on the ground, gaining an advantage even if it means employing, occasionally, unfair means, etc., etc.

Pakistanis prefer street-smart shrewdness and glamour to wisdom and sobriety. Long ago, in a different era, Hanif Mohammad taught his younger brother Mushtaq during the latter’s formative years that three 4s were better than two 6s. Afridi has demonstrated to us that, in the present times, two 6s will bring you infinitely more fame and fortune than three 4s. Just look at all the endorsements and TV ads featuring Afridi compared to the paltry few thrown Misbah’s way.

Little surprise then that Afridi wants to hit every ball for six. The typical Pakistani wants to do the same in his everyday life – making the most money or climbing the maximum number of rungs on the social and career ladder in the shortest possible time. Few are willing to play the long innings. We all want to get rich quick. The politicians and the bureaucrats, the average businessman – all Pakistanis, in fact – are in a hurry to strike it big. We would beg, borrow, cheat, steal or do whatever it takes, including trying to cut underhand deals with the “umpire”, to make it to the top of the economic and political ladder.

Even most of our well-meaning bureaucrats and politicians would rather take the short-cut to achieve an otherwise desirable goal. Why waste time thinking things through, following the procedures and putting in place the necessary safeguards? We want it done yesterday — always.

Whether it is our crazy traffic on the roads, winning an election, getting your child into some prestigious institution, passing an examination, establishing a business or any other sphere of our larger social life, we do our best to cut corners and even violate the law to achieve what we want. Remember Afridi’s “lets-scuff-the-pitch” dance while everyone was focused on a cylinder blast in the stands in the second Test during England last tour of Pakistan? I am not necessarily pointing the finger at Afridi as an individual, even if he is the one who had to serve a suspension for this particular naughty deed. To the contrary, the very point of this piece is that Afridi is “every” Pakistani: flamboyant, reckless, glamourous, happy to cross the line of law and morality when it suits him. No surprise then that Osman Samiuddin, arguably one of Pakistan’s most stylish cricket writers, calls Afridi “A Pakistani sort of hero” who “brings the country together like nothing can”.

The current 2015 series against England has coincided with the ending of ban imposed upon the three Pakistani cricketers convicted of spot-fixing in England in 2010. They too, like Afridi, are no worse and no better than the typical Pakistani. The only thing worse than the initial denials and the conspiracy theories put forward when the scandal first broke was the indignation shown against the errant players by our fellow countrymen once incontrovertible evidence and their confessions came to the fore.

As I wrote in another piece back then, our national cricketers are just like other young men in our society who are raised in an atmosphere where breaking the law not only fails to attract sanction any longer but where doing so has now become the morally and socially acceptable norm. Could we really expect our cricketers to be nice honest young men: islands of virtue in a sea of corruption?

The 2010 scandal had one silver lining – it catapulted Misbah ul Haq, from literally nowhere, to the forefront of Pakistani cricket. Misbah stepped in at possibly the darkest hour of Pakistan cricket – with memories of the attack on Sri Lanka team still fresh and three of its star players including the erstwhile captain in the dock for spot fixing. Nor had the pain of the “Ovalgate 2006” and the tragic and mysterious death of coach Bob Woolmer in 2007 in the middle of a disastrous World Cup subsided by then. Much like the country itself, the then Pakistan cricket team was lurching from one crisis to another – inattention, impulsivity and an utter lack of professionalism being its trademarks.

How things have changed under Misbah: 9 test series wins including 20 Test match victories in just 5 years, about 50% more than Imran or Javed Miandad’s tally of 14 wins each as Captain during their much longer and more illustrious respective careers. A “3-0” whitewash against the then No. 1 ranked England in 2012, equally impressive “2-0” thumping of Australia in the two-match series in 2014, another drubbing of the Ashes victor England just recently, No.2 World ranking in Tests ahead of Australia, England and India, two successful chases of over 300 runs in 4th innings without any of that “old eerie panic” where there had been only one previous 300-plus successful run-chase in 60 years of Pakistan cricket before Misbah – the list is endless.

But numbers only tell half the story. Misbah has not just been a winning captain but a transformational one. Misbah has achieved this unprecedented success by molding this once manic-depressive bunch of rag tag cricketers into his own image: calm, methodical, hard working and willing to wait for good things to come to them. Misbah’s squad, sans Younis and Saeed Ajmal, cannot hold a candle to the glamourous and hugely talented stars of the 80s and 90s such as Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib Akhtar, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam, Yousaf, Saleem Malik, Abdul Qadir and of course Miandad and Imran. And yet the success of these “bit players” speaks for itself. It is a triumph of substance over style: a victory of hard work over undisciplined talent.

Misbah is no latter day Mike Brearly: a once “non-contributing” scholarly captain of England who could not hold a place in the team if he were not skipper. Like a true leader, Misbah has lead from the front scoring vital and plentiful runs day after day, pulling Pakistan out of crisis after crisis. To be sure, Misbah has had his failures and no doubt has made errors of judgment which, one imagines, he wishes he could take back. But on the whole, his simple sane approach has brought Pakistan unprecedented success. Once, Pakistan players were infamous for their lack of fitness: today, Misbah is acknowledged as one of the fittest players in the world, going strong well past 40, setting some new batting record every day.

At the moment, we are an Afridi nation: loud, in your face, talented but irresponsible, intent on always going for six. Afridi’s talent and audacity has brought joy to cricket fans over many years and this piece is in no way meant to belittle his achievements. However, while we gloat over the occasional success which results from this mercurial madness, we turn a blind eye to all the failures this reliance on hollow bravado spawns.

Misbah and his team have shown us what can be achieved with a different approach. Team Misbah is perhaps the best, if not the only, embodiment of the motto our country’s founding father Jinnah bequeathed to Pakistan: “Faith, Discipline, Unity”. It is time we became a Misbah nation: unassuming, workmanlike, one which can draw up a blueprint for success before setting on the journey and then work hard and patiently according to the plan. Afridi stands for the present day Paksitan which, the odd bright spot notwithstanding, is largely in a mess. Misbah represents our one possible future: a future in which we are an organized, orderly and successful nation. In Pakistan, hitherto, cricket has imitated our social ethos. It is time the society started imitating Team Misbah. It is time to become a “Misbah nation”.