In cricket’s lifelong fight between bat and ball, the highest points are inevitably reached in Test matches, which have the time and space to strip a man to the bone. Great players strike in ways that determine the outcome of a match in short, sudden, dramatic bursts that are missed by those waiting at the turnstiles or queuing at the bar; as with boxers who land knockouts just as a member of the crowd has snuck into the bathroom. Pakistan cricketers land these shots more often than most. There’s something visceral about their acting, which tends to swing from incredibly good to incredibly bad and makes for thrilling and always unpredictable viewing.
My favorite image of a Pakistani cricketer, and of any moment in Pakistan’s rich history, comes from a one-day match played in colorful clothes at the Melbourne cricket ground in 1992. He s is of a man’s back with his arms outstretched. He walks over to another man who is wearing a hat and whose face is ecstatic. To their right is a third man, whose body is trapped in an emotional freeze, the pain written in his eyes clear through the bars of his helmet. This man is dressed in pale blue and on his chest is printed “England”. The other two men are in lime green. On the back of the first man, the name check says “Akram” and on the chest of the second man, that of wicketkeeper Moin Khan, is the title “Pakistan”. It is one of the most graphic and exciting sports photographs ever taken.
Naturally, this image means a lot to the people of Pakistan as it is the split second after Wasim Akram all but decided the World Cup final with two knockouts. The first, dismissing Allan Lamb with an extraordinary outswinger from around the wicket; the second, cleaning up Chris Lewis’ next ball with an outrageous inswinger. Soon, Imran Khan lifted the trophy. Even as an Englishman, it was hard not to rejoice at this triumph because it meant so much to so many, celebrating the free spirit of the game over more prosaic alternatives and giving sympathy to the instability, while sweeping away structure and pragmatism.
The image tells us about confrontation, prey and predator, reason and revenge. The bowler is on the hunt for their kill, confident in the knowledge that their opponent is vulnerable if knocked off balance. He probes for weakness, mental or technical, then seeks to pierce the target’s defenses with speed, power and enviable skill. The target, on the other hand, is simply trying to survive. He puts on a strong face, taking his time at the crease to slow his breathing and collect his mind, but deep down – somewhere in a subconscious stream of reality – he knows the man with Akram on his back will soon be dancing on his grave. .
Only a few cricketers have had the presence and ability to bend a game to their will. Pakistan has had more than its fair share and, among them, Akram is the first. Elsewhere, Garry Sobers, Viv Richards and Virat Kohli; Mike Procter and Ian Botham; Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne instantly appear like others with this almost superhuman power. Imran Khan is up there too; Javed Miandad nearby. I have already written about Imran on these pages. Suffice it to say he was an Imperial leader, a man capable of forging a team in his image. He understood the insecurities of the men around him, having been part of some of the broken institutions that nurtured them, so he convinced his players to put aside their doubts and give their gifts their full attention. He was not a born cricketer in the manner of Miandad and Akram, but he found a formula for success in thought, work and craft. Fierce concentration fired his stick, enviable athleticism his bowling. He studied adversaries and enjoyed exposing their flaws.
To play against Imran was to come face to face with a warrior. The tools of his trade were the bat and the ball. The first of those he used cleverly to hang out at the crease and, on occasion, to swing freely and generally above the middle; the second he swung at a furious pace, mostly in the bat and with a venomous delay. Richie Benaud chose Imran in his best team ever. Additional qualification is not required. His opponents needed heart, mind and stomach for the fight. It was rare for Imran to go to town and leave without the loot. His country has known no better cricketer.
Pakistan came to play Hampshire at Bournemouth in 1982. The excitement of the locals cannot be overstated. The only disappointment was that Imran opted not to appear, but there was some comfort in first drop man Majid Khan, who made 40 odds in the second set like he was picking apples in a tree. Any ball a fraction of a length was thrown this way, and that with delightful timing; any over-thrown ball was tossed into space with a smile. The only modern comparison I can think of is Mark Waugh, or maybe some languorous version of Babar Azam. At the time, he was the second best hitter after Barry Richards and Greg Chappell that I had seen. Among the other players to admire was Wasim Bari, who guarded the wicket in silence. You neither heard the ball arrive in his gloves nor asked how he got there, everything seemed so natural. There was slip in his footwork and nesting in his glove work. Alan Knott considered him the best, which is the biggest green tick. I made a few runs in the second set and spent a lot of the time figuring out Abdul Qadir, who had more laps than Houdini. Warne loved to sit with him and they threw balls at each other on the coffee table like happy children playing. He marveled at the googly Qadir, a delivery he never quite mastered, and learned the energy through bowling action and the various release points that would change the flight of the ball. Qadir was the first high profile legpinner I beat and every second lives with me today. In 1978 I played against Gloucestershire at Basingstoke. Wet behind the ears, I was in awe of everything and everyone, not the least Procter, who cut quite a dash. The hundred of all hundreds, however, came for Zaheer Abbas, who hit the ball remarkably hard for someone who didn’t look like he was hitting it at all. Basingstoke is a small club ground and Zaheer has made the place look like a postage stamp. Every time our captain moved a defensive player, he would hit the next ball where that defensive player came from. Z’s ride and fit were majestic, her wrist shine bewitching. At the end, he took the mickey and it became very funny, in a masochistic way.
Then came Miandad, the hustler. A defiant man with sharp, competitive instincts, he was a fantastic batsman – among the best players in his country. The pace of his innings ticked all the boxes in all types of conditions, an attribute that would strike gold in this era of fast-paced cricket for huge reward.
Always Javed had his eye on the main chance and he once made a clear 142 against us at the old Southampton ground. Honestly, we were candy to him. In the end, I put everyone on the fence to give him a single, which was kind of childish. He ran the full 20 yards each time, gesturing that my field placements were drowning the game in boredom, so I brought a few in and he hit the next two balls over their heads and onto the road before hobbling then declaring the Pakistan innings closed. !Inzamam-ul-Haq is first known for being the victim of Jonty Rhodes during the 1992 World Cup. It’s an endearing image of a game that proved to be for all men. At the start of his career, Inzy was considered harmless – a bit heavy and slow on his feet. Bad. He could fight anyone, anywhere with the most exact contrast in method and style to the mischievous, fast-paced Javed. Inzy defended straight, belted in attack and liked to beat long. At first, he was counted among the most feared one-day hitters, but by the time he ascended to the Pakistani captaincy, he was considered a master of formats.
Recently, England arrived in Pakistan for the first time in 17 years and the first of three Test matches begin on Thursday. Ben Stokes’ team will need their intelligence. Primarily, the modern player knows what to expect but it is in surprises that the magic of Pakistani cricket lives.
The first time Imran saw Waqar Younis live was in the net before a test match. Soon after, he was on the team. In the English summer of 1990 while playing for Surrey he knocked me out in the middle stump with a piercing yorker that swerved so far and so fast that I defy any man to be there resisted. A year later at The Oval he broke my hand in two places with a killer short ball. I should add that Robin Smith, who was on the other end and could really fight the rapids, immediately, and for the only time in his career, requested that a visor be attached to his helmet instead of just the side pieces. Back at the pavilion before going to the hospital, I remember thinking, “Who are these guys?
I have written here about the Pakistani cricketers who, through experiences on the pitch, have impressed the most. Their range of talents was incomprehensible to us companions. Since then, and watched only from the comment box, an array of gifted hitters and bowlers have continued the line.
Think of the grace and timing of Saeed Anwar; the precision of Mohammad Yousuf; the perseverance of Younis Khan; The effervescence of Shahid Afridi – a cricketer so far removed from English realism that I even wondered at the time if he was defining modernist idealism on the pitch and increasingly carefree. Spend a moment considering Mohammad Asif’s cunning and Mohammad Amir’s flair, as well as the various skills given to Saeed Ajmal and Yasir Shah. Get up to date with the explosive Shaheen Shah Afridi, the current Wasim Akram; marvel at the strong upper body with which Haris Rauf hits the pitch, and the brilliant originality in the stick and wicket of Mohammad Rizwan.
Think of all and take a little more time to think of Babar Azam. Keep thinking and understand that Babar is up there with the gods. There’s a flow to Babar’s playing that can’t be imitated. It comes from the perfect blend of technique, movement and timing. There is no weakness, only strength. In each of its innings there is opportunity, probability and dignity. He is now the face of Pakistani cricket and he is the light.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Pakistan fielded a team that could defend against any opponent anywhere in the world. Now they do it with regularity and have managed to maintain their standards while being consigned to the Middle Eastern wilderness for their home games in the decade since the 2009 Lahore terrorist attacks. But they are back home and surrounded by the promise of youth. It’s a compelling tale and one that England would do well to overturn.
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