October 7, 2007

Inzamam: Pakistan's tragic hero

Thrilling strokeplay and enthralling running

In a curious twist of fate, as Inzamam announced his retirement, Darrell Hair was contemplating a return to umpiring international cricket. Just over a year ago, the career-ending boot was on the other's foot. Not that Inzamam wishes to dwell too long on his obstinate nemesis having diligently ignored a summons from an English court. Instead, Inzamam will wish for an exit that befits his stature as a giant of Pakistan cricket.

Comparing yourself with Imran Khan has become something of an occupational hazard for Pakistan cricketers, but I can say without fear of being struck by Shoaib Akhtar that Inzamam desired to match, perhaps surpass, his old master. This last year was meant to be the crowning glory of the way of Inzamam, cricket and religion united in a World Cup triumph. As we all know, Inzamam delivered the exact opposite of his ambitions and had to cope with the terrible death of his coach in the process. Little wonder Pakistan's most impenetrable cricketer has taken the sensible decision to slide away with a final farewell in Lahore.

Too many great Pakistan cricketers have retired without due honour and it is a welcome move by the PCB to afford Inzamam this moment of glory. He certainly deserves it. This is not a time to linger on Inzamam's failings--there will be plenty of opportunity for unemotional critique--for this is a time to consider the genius of Inzamam and hope to glimpse it one last time on the international stage.

The task will not be easy. South Africa are strong and confident. Inzamam and his middle-order deputy Mohammad Yousuf are formidable but under prepared. Pakistan's bowling plan has carried an unfortunate spin-heavy look about it, an approach that misunderstands Pakistan's strengths. In addition, those modern blights of an unsettled opening attack and an unsettling wicket-keeper remain to curse every step of Pakistan's reinvention.

Yet with Inzamam comes hope. His stupendous calm has rescued Pakistan incessantly, even when he has returned from the shadows. And memories of those last stands come rushing to mind. A final-wicket win against Australia in the last decade, another against Bangladesh in this. A valiant knock in South Africa this last winter. Every one of those innings, and many more, with Inzamam fighting against the odds, applying his mind to rescuing a lost cause, a disaster created by his fellow batsmen.

There can be few batsmen who have carried a batting line-up so consistently. For years it has seemed--and approached something close to the truth--that without Inzamam there is no Pakistan innings of substance. Only in the last 18 months has Yousuf raised himself to share his captain's burden.

Throughout all this, Inzamam has remained utterly compelling as a cricketer. Grand heroics combined with inglorious failure. A prized wicket from start to end, oblivious to pressure, situation, pomp or circumstance. Thrilling strokeplay and enthralling running. Unmoving yet unmissable. Fabulous but flabbergasting. Inzamam has won our hearts and gripped our souls.

Over the last year Inzamam has become something of a tragic hero, suffocated by the weight of his country's and his own expectations. What would he or we give for the levity of 1992? But our fates are seldom shaped for a never ending crescendo. Fortune brings happiness and just as easily desolation. Inzamam will have the dusty swirl of Multan as a companion to reflect on a magnificent career that could have been even more glorious.

But for the next five days, all Pakistan fans, and I'm sure many others, will be urging this implacable batting maestro to conjure another great exhibition of subtlety and strength. Inzamam-ul Haq, the taciturn man who revolutionised Pakistan cricket, first with his batting in a World Cup and then with his faith-based captaincy, is bidding goodbye.

I expect a cut and a pull, a forward prod, a clubbing drive. I expect a stroked beard, a trot between overs. I expect a trudge to the crease, a return that is an eternity. I expect a hand raised in farewell, a gush of tears. I expect a guard of honour, a final Bismillah in Pakistan's green. I expect a moment of sadness but also relief. And, for once, Pakistan should not expect and just allow Inzamam to breathe.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here