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Miandad and Dhoni: a tale of two ageing lions

To fine leg we go: Miandad in his prime Getty Images

ESPNcricinfo's #RetroLive series is centred on doing ball-by-ball commentary for iconic matches of the past. As a by-product, we are also publishing observations gleaned from watching these games afresh. This article looks at the finale of Javed Miandad's career and its similarity to MS Dhoni's.

Javed Miandad has spent his life doing this. There is nothing wrong with the delivery. It is bowled to the bowler's field. It is neither too short nor too full; not too wide, not too straight. And yet Miandad breaks his wrists late, leg-glancing it or flicking it, always beating the man at square leg or short fine leg. Here, he is facing Sachin Tendulkar and Ajay Jadeja, but he is playing the glance or the deflection straight to square leg. His cover-drive is failing to beat extra cover, and his late cut is giving both backward point and short third man a chance.

As somebody too young to have seen a full Miandad innings to really be able to appreciate his art - highlights will never do justice - I am relying on the likes of Ian Chappell, Richie Benaud, Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar on air. From the way they talk of Miandad's shots going straight to fielders, I can imagine I am watching a shell of the man he once was. In their minds is imprinted an innings Miandad would have played, and they are comparing it to what he is actually doing.

The hallmarks are all there. The use of the wrists to try to persuade balls into gaps. It is different to other contemporary batsmen, even Mohammad Azharuddin, who uses wrists as an art. To Miandad it is a necessity to get a single, and all singles are equal for him. The refusal to take risks early on in the innings. The absence of panic as the asking rate rises. The mind is clearly working perfectly. Except, the ball is not obeying orders. He is getting hit on the pad on the leg glance. He is driving half-volleys straight to extra cover. His late-cut is unable to beat the square field. His attempt to hit it to long-off sends it to the bowler. He is 10 off 35.

Miandad is 39, he is in his sixth World Cup, and this is a quarter-final against India in India. He came out wearing the trademark white helmet - others wear green - but now he has no headgear on. A full head of flowing hair and a bushy moustache, not one grey strand visible: Miandad is not just looking younger than he is, he is trying to do a younger man's job.

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Miandad has batted only twice in this World Cup, the only international cricket he has played in two years. In 1994 he announced his retirement in a huff - not the first time he felt victimised - when dropped after the home internationals against Zimbabwe in 1993; only to, six months later, pretend he had never made the announcement. Back for a pre-tour training camp in August, he tore a ligament in his knee, went to England for surgery and worked hard to make himself fit and available in 1995.

Miandad passed up on a Test return but was keen to play the big one, the World Cup. It was not as if in his absence someone else had made the place his own: Basit Ali averaged 22 since 1993, and Saleem Elahi was an opener, and thus surplus to requirements because Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail were one of the best opening combinations going around. It was not injustice to any batsman that Miandad was back.

Except that Miandad in flesh and blood is not Miandad in spirit. "Little nudges and the way he uses his wrists to guide the ball into the gaps is missing at the moment," Chappell says. "That is the sort of art you need to work very hard at. He was the best in the business at it." Gavaskar is quick to point out Miandad has not played for two years. When the equation gets particularly difficult, Khan, the other half of perhaps the greatest love-hate relationship in cricket, says a Miandad ten years younger would have pulled it off.

However, the Indian team, the crowd, even the commentators, are not so sure. They have been at the receiving end so often they can't breathe easy till they see the back of Miandad. And Miandad is not taking any risks. Instead Rashid Latif hits Javagal Srinath for a six and a four. In the next over, to the 53rd ball he faces, Miandad hits a straight boundary, the first of his innings. Look at his swagger now. He struts back, knocking gloves with Latif on the way. If you have lost unlosable matches to this man, this is a triggering sight, never mind that his strike rate has only now crossed 50, and the asking rate is nine.

"It is the belief that they can still do it that sets them apart. It is this belief that has to one day become their downfall. It happens to the best of them"

Miandad knows his presence at the end is crucial: analyse every situation, fight, take games deep is his cricketing philosophy. Once Latif falls, though, carrying as he was what two men should have been carrying, the spotlight turns on Miandad. He tries the big hits but they don't come off. And he eventually runs himself out. A tame end to a tame last stand.

Why it is so relatable is because we witnessed something similar at the World Cup last year. MS Dhoni is Miandad in many ways. He finds motivation in persecution, although he doesn't make public shows of it. As a 50-over batsman he has struck the same kind of fear in the opposition that Miandad once did. Which is why, despite being aware of his waning powers - much like Pakistan with Miandad - India invested in Dhoni at the 2019 World Cup.

Just like Miandad, Dhoni was happy for others to do the hitting around him, Ravindra Jadeja in this case. They both left alone balls in tall chases, just that Dhoni did so in an era of memes. Dhoni didn't make a comeback after an absence, but it wasn't yet ruled out in a pre-Covid-19 world that Dhoni might come back to the IPL after chilling for a year and then go to the T20 World Cup. As things stand now, both players ended with run-outs, risks taken much sooner than they liked to take, a sign of faltering confidence in their own ability. Not before both had struck momentary fear in the opposition. Admittedly, Dhoni hadn't deteriorated as much as Miandad. According to Hardik Pandya, he was kicking himself for not diving.

To some, watching them meet an unsatisfactory end (though Dhoni hasn't officially ended yet) might be painful, but I haven't found myself wishing either had retired sooner. These matches are just a rite of passage. Miandad and Dhoni didn't become the players they were by recognising defeat when they saw it. Four years before the 1996 World Cup, Miandad was not even selected - by Khan - but not only did he find a way to get into the side but also ended up as the second highest run-getter in the tournament, and his side's highest.

It is this belief that they can still do it that sets them apart. It is this belief that has to one day become their downfall. It happens to the best of them. Unlike champions, this process never gets old.

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