February 18, 2014

Fantastic Fazal

Neil Harvey said he was virtually unplayable. Frank Tyson said he was "like Bedser, only better". Remembering Pakistan's first great bowler, Fazal Mahmood

Fazal Mahmood: the first bowler to take at least 12 wickets in a match against four countries © Getty Images

As an aspiring young fast bowler in the early 1980s, I grew up worshipping Lennie Pascoe. Looking back now I really have no idea why this was the case, but he was my first cricketing hero. Lillee and Thommo were not far behind, but it soon became apparent that my desire to be the next "terrifying quick" was not supported in any way by actual ability. I came to the realisation that I was very much military-medium at best, and would never get beyond that.

I then became obsessed with the great medium-pacers throughout history. Stories of bowlers such as Maurice Tate, Alec Bedser, Bill O'Reilly, Sydney Barnes, Fred Spofforth and Charlie Turner fascinated me. The skill to deceive a batsman with spin, swing or seam without relying simply on pure pace seemed like the perfect compromise.

This is probably of no surprise to anyone who read my last article about the myth of the speed gun. However, my next cricketing hero after Pascoe was none of those previously named, and was actually a bowler of whom I still have never seen any video footage. Described by Frank Tyson as "like Bedser, only better", the great Pakistan bowler Fazal Mahmood managed to capture my imagination.

Fazal was born exactly 87 years ago, on Feburary 18, 1927 in Lahore. His father, Professor Ghulam Hussain, encouraged Fazal to play cricket from an early age and his sporting ability quickly became apparent. While he was still at school, Fazal started a physical fitness programme that would serve him well through his career. He completed a daily ten-mile jog and 500 jumps of a skipping rope, and would then finish off with 70 or 80 laps of the swimming pool during summer. This routine undoubtedly assisted his later capacity to bowl long spells without losing speed or accuracy.

After playing for Islamia College, Fazal was selected for his first first-class match in the annual Ranji Trophy competition in 1944. He represented the Northern India Cricketing Association, and his first wicket was the Indian Test cricketer Lala Amarnath. Fazal performed well in his subsequent first-class matches, and was considered unlucky not to be selected to tour England with the All-India side in 1946. The following year saw a continuation of his fine form, and in March 1947 he was named in the Indian side to travel to Australia later that year.

However, the Partition took place in 1947, and Fazal ultimately decided that he would not represent India and declined his place in the side. This choice meant that Fazal had to wait another five years to play Test cricket, as Pakistan was not made a full Test-playing member of the ICC until 1952.

Fazal was selected to play in Pakistan's inaugural Test, against India in Delhi in October 1952. This match was not a great success for Fazal, or indeed for any of the Pakistan team, with the visitors losing by an innings and 70 runs. The performance was quickly forgotten less than a week later, with Pakistan beating India by an innings and 43 runs in Lucknow. In just his second Test match, Fazal was instrumental, taking 5 for 52 and 7 for 42, as well as scoring a useful 29. His match figures of 12 for 94 compare well to Mitchell Johnson's recent 12 for 127 against South Africa. Ultimately, India won the five-Test series 2-1, but it was clear that Pakistan had uncovered a genuinely world-class bowler.

Perhaps the greatest factors underpinning why Fazal is less well known outside of Pakistan are his nation's new Test status at the time of his emergence and the lack of video footage of him

Pakistan's next international series was against England in Britain in 1954. This was seen as being a far harder test of the tourists' cricketing abilities than their previous Indian tour. The first Test was largely washed out, but Fazal showed early signs of his skills, taking 4 for 54 in England's only completed innings. The second Test was a disaster for both Pakistan and Fazal. After being dismissed for just 157, Pakistan's bowlers toiled away largely unproductively while England compiled a massive 558 for 6 declared, which underpinned their final victory by an innings and 129 runs. Concerns about Pakistan being prematurely admitted as a Test nation were raised when England dominated a rain-affected draw in the third Test. However, these murmurs were quickly silenced when Pakistan won the fourth Test and therefore drew the four match series 1-1. Fazal took 12 wickets in a match for the second time, with 6 for 53 and 6 for 46, and his bowling was again instrumental in Pakistan's victory.

Space limitations prevent a full recount of all Fazal's performances at Test level. He played a total of 34 Test matches between 1952 and 1962, taking 139 wickets at 24.70. Perhaps astonishingly, his best Test figures came from a match not against India, in October 1956, when he took 13 for 114 against Australia on matting in Karachi. Yet again his bowling was the key in Pakistan achieving their first win against a major Test competitor*.

Fazal took five wickets in an innings 13 times, and ten wickets in a match four times. He took five wickets in an innings approximately 25% of the time he bowled, which compares well to other players who largely carried their nation's attacks single-handedly, such as Muttiah Muralitharan (29%) and Richard Hadlee (24%).

He also led Pakistan ten times between 1959 and 1961, with a reasonable record of two wins, two losses and six draws. It is interesting to note that his bowling average as captain (19.14) is significantly better than his average when not captaining (27.03). After deciding to step down from both Test and first-class cricket in 1962, he continued working for the Pakistan Police Service, which had employed him since 1947, until his retirement in 1987.

Just how fast Fazal bowled remains a little unclear. Most cricketing correspondents of the time described his pace as "medium" and tend to paint a picture of a bowler similar to that of current day Australian Trent Copeland. Interestingly though, in his 2005 book My Spin on Cricket, Richie Benaud reported that Fazal bowled at a pace similar to Michael Kasprowicz. There are also descriptions of Fazal dismissing the great Garry Sobers with a bouncer that surprised the batsman with its pace. As Kasprowicz bowled consistently in the mid to high 130kph range, with his effort ball in the low-to-mid 140kph range, it would appear that Fazal was clearly faster than "medium" according to the batsmen facing him.

Even gauging what type of action Fazal bowled with is difficult now without any video footage to consider. In his autobiography, From Dusk to Dawn, contemporaries such as Mueen Afzal described Fazal as having "a high arm action", while Frank Tyson noted that Fazal had "a low almost slinging action". Nonetheless, it is apparent that he possessed incredible control over the ball. Ken Mackay described him as a wizard and the main reason that Pakistan were so hard to beat at home. Neil Harvey said he was "virtually unplayable" under favourable conditions. Keith Miller reflected that Fazal's bowling in Karachi in 1956 was the best bowling performance he ever saw; to put this into context, Miller rated Fazal's efforts above the 19 wickets by Jim Laker at Old Trafford in the same year.

While Fazal is widely and rightly revered within Pakistan, his legend sadly does not appear to have extended as much as it should have done into the wider cricketing world. The possible reasons for this lack of recognition can only be guessed at. The fact that Pakistan played on matting pitches at that time seems to be one of the primary criticisms aimed at undermining Fazal's record, but this is easily refuted by the statistics of his performances on turf in India, England and the West Indies. Perhaps the greatest factors for why he is less well known outside of Pakistan are his nation's new Test status at the time of his emergence and the lack of video footage.

I noted earlier my childhood fascination with Fazal the bowler, but as I found out more about him, this was matched with a growing appreciation for Fazal the man. After retiring from his lifelong role with the police, he become a strong advocate for the rights of the underprivileged, and used his own funds to open a school specifically to educate girls in rural areas. Fazal was obviously a wonderful bowler, but it appears he was an equally fine human being.

*While Fazal took at least 12 wickets in Pakistan's inaugural victories against India, England and Australia, he didn't manage to match this feat in Pakistan's first win over West Indies in March 1958. However, this wasn't really too much of a failure as he took 6 for 83 and 2 for 35 to again contribute strongly to his side's victory. Almost exactly 12 months later he took 6 for 34 and 6 for 66 against West Indies in Dhaka in 1959, thus becoming the first bowler to take at least 12 wickets in a match against four separate countries.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow