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The Zaheer Abbas Dossier – 5

Kamran Wasti

When selecting Zaheer Abbas as the Number 3 batsman for the Cricinfo All-time Pakistan XI, the website quoted Qamar Ahmad:

“Zaheer Abbas’ consistency both at first-class level and in Tests was phenomenal. Where his contemporaries struggled he remained calm and calculating, displaying his technique against great spinners of time; and not a bad player of fast bowling.”

Even then, Younis Khan clearly outstripped Zaheer as a better batsman as the comparative records of the two would show:

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave 100 50 Catches
Younis Khan 63 112 7 5260 313 50.09 16 21 67
Zaheer Abbas 78 124 11 5062 274 44.79 12 20 34

Younis had scored more runs, more hundreds, more fifties and held more catches than Zaheer despite playing 15 less test matches. Of course now, he (Younis) is now a contender for the title of the all-time greatest Pakistani batsman but this miss by Qamar Ahmad highlights the typical approach of a senior Pakistani journalist. That he was oblivious to how Younis had performed, without all that fanfare that accompanied Zaheer, underscores the shallowness of the way things are looked at.

 

The First Seven Years:

Zaheer Abbas got noticed very early in his career. His numbers were outstanding but what caught the eye was the way he scored those runs. Tall and languid and with a gift for timing the ball, Zaheer found batting on the slow featherbeds against weak bowling attacks as easy as robbing a child’s bank.

Following a mediocre debut against New Zealand at home, Zaheer was dropped.

He was denied a chance to make up for what would ultimately be one of his most startling failures: A successful series against the West Indies. Pakistan were slated to tour the West Indies in t970-71 for a five-test rubber. Conspiracy theorists maintain that Abdul Hafeez Kardar, sensing a threat to his legacy, had the tour cancelled. India toured instead and Sunil Gavaskar cashed in against a poor attack to score 771 in his debut series. What if Pakistan had toured instead? With a proper pace attack (Saleem Altaf, Sarfraz Nawaz and Asif Masood) and a handy spin back-up (Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Muhammad) and the crafty medium-pace of Asif Iqbal, they might have done what no Pakistani team so far has managed to achieve: A series win in the West Indies. More importantly, Zaheer would have got exactly what he wanted: A poor attack to feast upon on featherbeds.

However, in the long run, this axe lasted just two tests as Zaheer had a successful maiden tour of England in 1971 (Pakistan’s next test series) before which his first-class average had soared to 66.  386 runs in 4 innings, including that famous 274 and a further fifty, is a good return by any standards.  That innings in fact was outrageous one and won him the kind of fan-following that few have attained.

 

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave 100 50 0
NZ Home 1969/70 1 2 0 39 27 19.50 0 0 0
Eng Away 1971 3 4 0 386 274 96.50 1 1 1

 

The impact of that innings was such that he was the only Pakistani batsman to make it to the World XI squad in Australia where his performance, for someone with just 4 tests, was commendable if not spectacular.

However, his performance in the series that followed was anything but consistent:

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave 100 50 0
Aus Away 1972-73 3 6 0 144 51 24.00 0 1 1
NZ Away 1972-73 3 5 0 35 15 7.00 0 0 1
Eng Home 1972-73 2 3 1 50 24 25.00 0 0 0
Eng Away 1974 3 6 0 324 240 54.00 1 0 0
WI Home 1974-75 2 4 0 71 33 17.75 0 0 0
NZ Home 1976-77 3 5 0 60 16 12.00 0 0 0

 

The away series against England in 1974 is an aberration. However, even that was only because Zaheer managed to score 240 on a dead Oval which saw just 21 wickets fall at 59 runs per wicket. In the other five innings of that series, Zaheer had managed just 84 runs. In fact, his selection owed a lot to his success in 1971 as well as prolific run in the 1973-74 season when he scored almost 1600 runs in all (a Pakistan national record) including 414 runs in 4 innings against a World XI.

Along these lines though, a trend was arising that would see Zaheer cash in with easy runs, even in what was to be his Waterloo in the longer run, New Zealand, but struggle badly in test matches. It could be argued that the most striking failure (New Zealand Away in 1972-73) was because of Zaheer being played as an opener. However, even for a makeshift position, one would expect a proper batsman to reach 20 at least once.

The biggest disappointment till then was the 1976-77 home series against New Zealand. In a rubber in which the debutant Javed Miandad averaged 126 and four other Pakistanis averaged above 50 and even Imran Khan, then batting at number 9 averaged 35, Zaheer only managed a total of 60 runs at 12, repeatedly falling to bowlers who were never heard of again after that series. He had returned to Pakistan scoring over 2500 first-class runs in the English season but failed to deliver even on wickets where Richard Hadlee conceded almost 4.5 runs per over in a test series played in the 1970s.

As mentioned in one of the earlier episodes, Zaheer’s test career was going nowhere at the end of this series:

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave 100 50 0
20 35 1 1109 274 32.62 2 2 3

 

And as mentioned earlier, all one needs to do is to remove those two big double hundreds, 514 runs in two innings, and we have the record of a glorified tail-ender. That Zaheer, at the time, was Pakstan’s number 3 batsman was merely on the basis of those two big innings – the first one carried him on for almost three years. The second one came just at the right moment to give him two more years in the team.

Inns NO Runs HS Ave 100 50 0
33 1 595 72 18.59 0 2 3

 

His overall first-class record at that stage (nearly 16,000 runs in 210 matches at an average of almost 51) with 49 hundreds was in stark contrast to his failure at test level. It is unlikely that Mushtaq Muhammad, one of the three greatest captains of Pakistan along with Imran Khan and Abdul Hafeez Kardar, never noticed his helplessness at the test level despite a massive (albeit a dry) English Season in 1976. The problem was that there were no replacements available and like any mature captain, Mushtaq was left with no choice but to persist with Zaheer on the critical tour of Australia.

So just a recap – 8 series, an average of above 30 in just two of them and one of them owed to a big double hundred. Consistent? Not by a distant.

The 1977 Australian Series:

Zaheer was persisted with more out of hope than genuine expectation for the Australian tour. However, he delivered with 343 runs which, until Mohsin Khan’s 390 runs in the 1983-84 series, would remain a Pakistan record. Whether he would have scored this many had Thomson been around is debatable. By the time Thomson was injured on the first morning of the series, Zaheer had already survived two chances. After Thomson’s injury, he went on to score 85 and then scored his only hundred in Australia. On paper, it was a marvellous return. In reality, Zaheer was fortunate: He might still have scored his runs against Thomson but the real trouble-maker, Dennis Lillee was already handicapped with a toe injury. Furthermore, in the second innings, Majid Khan had weathered the early storm in a defiant  opening stand with the debutant Mudassar Nazar. The Kookaburra ball goes soft quickly and the hard Australian outfields and the flat Adelaide wicket in bright sunshine expedites this process. Reverse swing, although already known to Australians as the “Irish ball” was not a skill Lillee had command of. He never quite managed it and had to develop his leg-cutter later on for days when no help existed. Zaheer’s hundred, though good and opportune, not just for him but his team as well, was a fortunate effort too.

This was exactly how things were managed in Melbourne. The match began on a green wicket under overcast conditions but Pakistanis bowled poorly and as sun came out, the wicket got firmer, harder and truer and the grass became dry and redundant. First the Australians and then the Pakistani openers cashed in with Majid in particular giving Lillee a hammering hitting 76 out of 113. If was here that Zaheer made his contribution – 90 before Lillee, armed with the second new ball produced one of the greatest displays of fast-bowling to turn the match around. Zaheer scored a somewhat flashy 50 in the second innings before twin failures in Pakistan’s win at Sydney.

Failure in the West Indies 1977

Safe for a brilliant knock of 80 in the third test, he did not do much, scoring just 51 runs in the other five innings of the three tests he played. In retrospect, Zaheer should have score much more especially because Andy Roberts in particular was collared by Majid Khan. Despite a series-deciding burst in the last test, Roberts struggled, buying his wickets at 40 runs each. In the third test, he conceded a horrendous 174 runs in just 45 overs. However, Zaheer did not quite crack the West Indians – two rookie fast-bowlers in their debut series were not that bad either. Even though, Wasim Raja and Majid Khan needed at least one more consistent support in the top order. Mushtaq scored 60 percent of his tally in one test, Asif more than half in one innings.

His overall record at the end of this season:

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave 100 50 0
26 47 1 1583 861 34.41 3 6 5

 

Technically, out of 10 series, he had just two successful ones or three if one could justify his 1974 series on the basis of his final tally. At least seven failures in his first seven years – consistent? Not quite.

The 1978 Indian Series

After two successful English seasons and a torrid run in the WSC, Zaheer finally came good in the home series against India. This has been discussed early. Contrary to the common belief, things were not all that bad with the Indian spinners: Bedi was just 32 and Chandra was still bowling well and together they had wrecked Australia over and over again in a series that India, with a little more nerve should have won 5-0 (they lost 2-3). Prasanna was the only one in decline (at 38). Zaheer did play them brilliantly – on flat wickets with no turn or bounce, he was without any doubt too good and what’s more: He never got bored with tall scores, his hunger for runs almost reaching the levels of gluttony.

Post-India-1978 – More failures

He played two tests in New Zealand for a cumulative return of 177 runs at 59 (135 of them coming in a single innings with 4 dropped catches) followed by a poor 2-test series in Australia. He was a spectacular flop in India and had two more miserable series at home against Australia and the West Indies.

In short, after one successful series, came four more failures.

The count now stood at four successful series out of fifteen.

The 1981-82 Australian Series:

Always concerned about his averages, Zaheer landed in Australia after an extremely successful English season. However, he skipped the Perth test under mysterious circumstances after struggling in a side game against West Australia at Perth. This forced the selectors to play the teenaged Rizwan uz Zaman and Mansoor Akhtar (who actually batted creditably in the second innings). How Zaheer might have fared at Perth is open to conjecture. Perth is a tricky proposition for both bowlers and batsmen not used to its pace and trampoline bounce as well as the swing that comes with the Fremantle Doctor. It was usual to see the host side pile up huge scores as rookie tourist bowlers got carried away while the experienced ones worked on finding the right lengths on which to bowl. Hence, it would not be very fair to pronounce judgment on Zaheer on the basis of these twin failures. Except that he should have played the test.

What is also known is that he struggled badly against Jeff Thomson (and got hit by him as well) in the match against Queensland during what was an otherwise a top-class innings of 84. The tour offered these games at the test match venues and Zaheer was in fine form when he played at Brisbane scoring 80 but was dismissed for a nought in the second dig. He scored another 90 in the win at Melbourne. Twice he fell to the off-spin of Bruce Yardley and once to Lillee. Hence, it is all the more likely that he probably would not have had that bad a test as most of the other Pakistani batsmen at Perth. Zaheer Abbas at his peak would probably have won the series for Pakistan – that he neither was at his peak nor did he play the full series was fully in line with his past record.

However, it was a successful return on the whole.

The Captaincy Race

Three former captains of Pakistan, Mushtaq Muhammad, Javed Miandad and Imran Khan have bluntly criticised Zaheer for his negativity. If Mushtaq is to be believed, Zaheer ganged up with Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan and Imran Khan to engineer his ouster from the 1979-80 Indian tour. What is likely though is that Asif started it all and Zaheer joined him taking the Indian series to be a relatively easy tour given the phenomenal success Pakistan had had last year. Majid was already a critic of Mushtaq and Imran was likely to fall in line with his older cousin. Already Imran parroted several of Majid’s views for example the ones about the Pakistani first-class structure.

Zaheer would continue to eye the captaincy – even after the horrors of the Indian tours, his biggest regret was not to have been offered the position and to see Javed Miandad appointed instead. Here, differing accounts from Javed Miandad and Imran Khan hint that it was actually Zaheer who hoped to replace the former as captain after the disastrous 1981-82 Australian series. The tour was notable not just for the Lillee-Miandad fight but also an episode between Zaheer and Miandad. Later, during the revolt, Zaheer was the only individual to have openly stated that he would willingly accept the captaincy if offered. Imran’s account, that Zaheer called him up and expressed his regret at having not been offered the captaincy, falls completely in line with his approach towards the game. This ultimately hurt Zaheer more – already defensive and obsessed with a safety-first approach, captaincy brought out a the worst out of him as we shall see.

1982 – 1984

After a poor series in England (131 runs with just one innings of note), Zaheer started off with a chancy 91 against Australia. This turned out to be the lucky break he needed as he started rattling up big scores again. In all, he hit 919 runs in that season with 4 test hundreds. This was to be his peak.

His tour to India, his first as captain of Pakistan, was notable for his negative approach and unusually slow batting. However, he was far more successful this time, with 156 runs at 52.

He led Pakistan in three tests in Australia – one defeat and two draws (one of them a lucky escape) and had a consistent, if unspectacular series with 323 runs at 40.38.

He had twin failures in the home series against England but led his team to win. Opting for draws in the next two tests, he batted slowly but steadily on featherbeds to wind up the series at 195 runs at 48.75.

His last hundred, a patient unbeaten 168 against India at Lahore, ensured that his average reached a career high of 48.19.

This was to be the only consistent phase of his test career. After those two series against India and Australia though, he was no longer the dominating batsman that people had assumed him to be. During this phase, he scored 1761 runs at 76.57 with five hundreds and 8 fifties in the 21 tests he played. He averaged at least 40 in seven series which ultimately meant that he had 12 successful series out of 23.

Since this was his last hundred, a review of his twelve hundreds would help:

Inn Score Team Score Result Comments
1 274 608-7d Draw Flat wicket; Pakistan could have won but for rain and a stronger bowling support for Asif Masood
2 240 600-7d Draw Flat wicket – Dull draw with an average of 59 runs per wicket
3 101 466 Draw Scored his runs against a weakened Australian attack with Thomson absent due to injury and Lillee bowling with the old ball and carrying a toe injury
4 176 503-8d Draw Faisalabad’s first test
5 235* 539-6d Win Lahore – flat wicket. Pakistan bowled India out when the wicket was lively at the start and Zaheer played brilliantly on a flat track that had no help for the medium-pacers or the spinners
6 135 359 Draw Flat track – dull draw
7 134 500-7d Win Sri Lanka’s fourth test – utterly destroyed the bowling on a flat wicket
8 126 501-6d Win An Australian bowling line-up on a Faisalabad turner
9 215 485 Win Flat track – dull draw
10 186 452 Win Flat track – Imran bowled India out twice for less than two hundred through extraordinary bowling performances
11 168 652 Win Pakistan scored runs at 4.6 runs per over. Zaheer scored his 5.7 runs per over.
12 168* 428-9d Draw Slow dull draw

Records and averages were very dear to him and this was the ideal moment to retire but it would have left him short of 5000 runs as well as the position of captaincy. So the brave call to retire never came. In the next8 tests, Zaheer had a disastrous runs – 147 runs at 13.36 – with no hundreds or fifties in three more failed series as batsman.

Summary:

Against spin and medium pace on flat wickets, Zaheer was the most elegant and the most serene destroyer. Unlike Richards, the lack of challenge never bored him and unlike Gavaskar, he scored his runs at lightning pace. Little wonder then that eight of twelve hundreds were what Graham Gooch would have called Daddy Hundreds.

Imran Khan quite correctly believed that Zaheer would overtake someone like Javed Miandad with utmost ease if the two were batting at their best. There has hardly been a more fluent and sweeter timer of the ball than him and perhaps there would never be a more stylish right-hander. Apart form the hook which he could never play because of his fear of pace, Zaheer could execute every other shot in the book with ridiculous ease and grace. He was an utter destroyer of medium pace and spin, especially on the slow Pakistani and English wickets that he had grown used to batting on. His signature cover drive was a sight to behold. His height and high backlift meant that that he was loads of time to go on the backfoot to identify anything marginally short from medium-pacers and spinners and dismiss it from his presence to anywhere on the ground.

Some of what what went against him was circumstantial; he was cruelly denied some easy series when at his peak. He kept on piling mountains of runs in the county circuit but denying him two easy series against England in 1977 and 1978 on flimsy grounds at a time when he was at his best was unfortunate.

Zaheer was an outright failure against the West Indies and New Zealand in test cricket. His struggles against the West Indies are understandable as he seemed to fear genuine pace but his inability to score runs against New Zealand is unfathomable especially when he was scoring runs against their state sides even in 1985.

His career seemed to be over when hit by Sylvester Clarke in 1981. However, as things would go, a better Pakistani domestic return, a Wills Cup win as captain of PIA and then a highly successful English season set the tone for the most consistent segment of his test career. For a change, Pakistanis got a good number of tests too and Zaheer was fortunately still scoring runs. Ten years earlier, it would have been three tests in two years where one dubious decision would ruin the whole rubber. Here though Zaheer, after having a ball at home in 1982-83, became steady and patient over the next few rubbers and kept piling on reliable runs.

This episode has not discussed his one-day career – it does not need to. Zaheer was by a distance the greatest one-day batsman produced by Pakistan. With seven hundreds in just 62 matches and almost 2600 runs at a strike rate of 85, Zaheer was ahead of his era. There, he never rarely struggled against New Zealand or the West Indies – possibly because he knew there was no chin music coming his way. However, there is no doubt that in the first half of the 1980s, the top three one-day batsmen were Richards, Zaheer and Greg Chappell in no particular order and then there was daylight. Hundreds at over a run-a-ball were routine stuff for him as was conjuring some preposterously great innings – his 83 not out against England during the World Cup in 1983 came off 104 balls – a strike rate of almost 80% while the rest of the team hardly managed 100 in 42 overs.

His obsession with captaincy did not do him good – as stated earlier, the perfect time for him to retire was after his last test hundred. Instead he clung on and after a controversial series, quit captaincy rather timidly. It was predictable, especially after his steady decline that any authoritative captain would ensure his ouster. That turned out to be Imran Khan. Ironically, Imran’s first great team had Zaheer as the backbone of batting. The second began with his ouster. Like many others, there were no replacements when his career ended but things had to move forward. His exit meant that a completely different team was now going to evolve – one that drew its strength from its tenacity than from trying to imitate the record-breaking demolition squad of 1982-83. For eight years, the team would stay undefeated in test rubbers save for close defeat in Australia in 1990.

As for Zaheer, he was good fair-weather batsman, never to be relied upon in trial and just not good enough to play good bowling or bat for the team on bad wickets.

Concluded

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