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Spotlight: Zaheer Abbas

Those fortunate enough to watch him bat will not forget the experience. He had an easy mastery and it left you enthralled, no matter what side you were on.

Javed Miandad has called him the most naturally talented batsman ever produced by Pakistan. In a country that boasts the likes of Salim Malik, Inzamamul Haq, Saeed Anwar, Mohammad Yousuf, and Miandad himself, that is saying an awful lot.

Like the game’s best natural batsmen, he was strong on the off-side, especially in the area between gully and wide mid-off. In full flow, with high backlift and languid stance, rolling his wrists for a square-drive and the bat following through in a sweet aftertaste, Zaheer was simply a recipe for ecstasy.

Sialkot is his birthplace, yet Zaheer is for all purposes a Karachi product, where he received his formal schooling and attended Karachi University. He cut his playing teeth in Karachi’s severely competitive cricket world in the early 1960s and prepared himself as a batting heir to Hanif Mohammad. He pursued cricket against the wishes of his family, who were mindful of the economic risks involved in a sports career, but as interest blossomed into talent and the talent exploded into genius, the family relented. Zaheer’s father once said in an interview to Pakistan Television that after his son’s batting gifts became obvious, he backed Zaheer fully and encouraged him to aim for the stratosphere of Test cricket.

The opportunity came in the 1969-70 season when Zaheer was included for the first Test against New Zealand at Karachi. It would prove to be a symbolic moment because Zaheer’s first Test was also Hanif Mohammad’s last. But if there was a passing of the torch, it was not manifest. Zaheer managed only 12 and 27, and was promptly dropped for the remainder of the season.

It was his exploits on the domestic circuit that initially formed his reputation. In 1970-71, he made five hundreds in six games, including the first of his 10 career double-centuries (202 for PIA against Karachi Blues at Karachi) and secured a spot on the 1971 Pakistan tour to England. He found his form in the side matches and never looked back.

Deified by the passage of time, Zaheer’s knock of 274 at Edgbaston has taken on an almost mythical life. He would go on to play many other remarkable innings but this one remains possibly the most special of his glittering career.

After the success of the inaugural Test years, Pakistan cricket endured a serious talent drought in the 1960s. Two previous tours to England had resulted in embarrassing losses – by 4-0 in 1962 and 2-0 in 1967. Promising youngsters like Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad and Wasim Bari came into the national side as the decade wore on, and the nucleus of a fresh team began taking shape. In this climate, Zaheer’s innings at Edgbaston delivered clear notice that a renaissance was underway.

June 3, 1971, was a clear day over the English midlands, and Edgbaston was bathed in sunshine. Pakistan won the toss and batted. Zaheer, playing only his second Test match, was due to come in at the fall of the first wicket, yet he found himself effectively in the role of an opener as Aftab Gul had to retire hurt on the third ball of the match. It was a good pitch that encouraged stroke-making. Zaheer started cautiously. He cut an assuming figure – thin, bespectacled, with a shock of wavy hair, and wearing a shirt at least one size too big that flapped behind him as he ran between the wickets.

One by one, the bowlers tried their skills: Ward and Lever, then Underwood and Illingworth, and then Shuttleworth and D’Oliveira. And one by one they were sent to the boundary as Zaheer, settling into fluent strokeplay, went about amassing runs. Radio Pakistan had not sent a commentary team on this tour, so instead BBC’s Test Match Special was relayed to Pakistani listeners. The British inflection made “Zaheer” sound like “Zahiya” and for two days the airwaves were filled with “Zahiya … Zahiya …”

He became an overnight celebrity, a superstar. The myth grew when he returned to England in 1974 and scored 240 at the Oval. The press nicknamed him the “Asian Bradman.” He also found great form in the English season with Gloucestershire and achieved the unmatched feat of scoring a double-century and a century in the same match four times – twice in 1976, once in 1977 and once more in 1981.

Yet Zaheer’s record in Test matches at home remained sketchy. By the time he left to join Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977, he had played 14 Test innings within Pakistan, managing only a tail-ender’s average of 15.71 with a highest score of 33. In the autumn of 1978, that was to change forever. When the Indian Test side visited Pakistan to resume cricketing relations that had been suspended for nearly 18 years, the Packer dispute was quickly resolved and the team was full strength. Much was expected of Zaheer, and he did not disappoint. With scores of 176, 96, 235 not out, 34 not out, and 42 in the three Tests, he was virtually unstoppable. With a near-perfect eye, he played audacious and punishing shots against the turn to India’s world-class slow bowlers, finishing off the famed quartet of Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrashekhar and Venkatraghavan almost single-handedly.

Accolades started piling up but the superlatives were soon exhausted. Omar Kureshi said it all when he wrote in Dawn that Zaheer Abbas was playing like Zaheer Abbas, implying that Zaheer was so good he could only be compared to himself.

Zaheer eventually made 5,062 Test runs for Pakistan at the very respectable average of 44.79. His 12 Test hundreds include four double-hundreds. For a while, he was Pakistan’s leading run-scorer in Tests, before being overtaken by Javed Miandad. In first-class cricket, Zaheer remains Pakistan’s number one batsman. In a career spanning 1965 through 1986, he made 34,843 runs averaging 51.54; only Mushtaq Mohammad and Javed Miandad come close. The crowning achievement is his century of first-class centuries, 108 in all – an accomplishment that places Zaheer in highly select company. The feat has not been equaled by another Asian and, indeed, by only three other non-Englishmen – Donald Bradman, Glenn Turner and Vivian Richards.

Zaheer’s natural flair was also well suited to the pace of One-Day Cricket and he emerged as one of its leading exponents. It is a testimony to his brilliance that Zaheer’s limited-overs batting average of 47.62 still remains the fourth highest ever (exceeded only by Australia’s Michael Hussey and Michael Bevan, and England’s Kevin Pietersen). In the annals of One-Day Cricket, this places Zaheer not just ahead of any Pakistani, but also ahead of such legends as Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Sachin Tendulkar, and Brian Lara.

Like the game’s best natural batsmen, he was strong on the off-side, especially in the area between gully and wide mid-off. In full flow, with high backlift and languid stance, rolling his wrists for a square-drive and the bat following through in sweet aftertaste, Zaheer was simply a recipe for ecstasy.

His most memorable One-Day innings came in the 1979 World Cup semifinal at the Oval, a classic David-Goliath match-up against a West Indian side considered by many to be the greatest ever. Zaheer walked in at 10 for 1, with Pakistan chasing 294. The fast-bowling artillery of Holding, Roberts, Croft and Garner was firing all guns, backed up by Collis King as an accomplished fifth bowler. On a hard, bouncy surface Zaheer was greeted by a menacing second-ball bouncer from Michael Holding that flattened him. Yet he fought back with skill and verve, making 93 and putting on 166 for the second wicket with Majid Khan. Pakistan lost the game after the rest of the batting collapsed, but despite the tragedy – or perhaps because of it – the memory of Zaheer’s innings is undiminished.

Zaheer Abbas had many special gifts, but perhaps the most special was his almost supernatural sense of timing. He had an astonishing innate spatial sense of bat and body position. In his best moments, he combined this with a laser-accurate eye and a graceful economy of effort to write poetry with masterstrokes. It places him at the vanguard of an artistic genre in Asian batting that is set stylistically apart, and which includes such gifted practitioners as Salim Malik and Mohammad Azharuddin and, more recently, VVS Laxman, Marvan Attapatu, and Mohammad Yousuf.

Although charges of inconsistency hounded him throughout his career, this was not so much a lack of application as a refusal to compromise his art. He never modified his flowing strokeplay to suit circumstances, because parochial concerns such as victory and defeat could seldom engage him. It infuriated the fans, yet by insisting on playing his natural game Zaheer was merely doing justice to his gifts and to him that was a greater priority. For he was, foremost, an artist, and he pursued batting for such pleasures as artists may get from pursuing their craft. This unflinching commitment to grace and form is Zaheer’s ultimate legacy to the game.

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