August 13, 2015

In praise of Zed

The elegant former Pakistan great is a good fit for the role of ICC president

Zaheer Abbas (right) talks to Shaharyar Khan (left) during the 2006 Oval Test © Getty Images

Contrary to what Quentin Tarantino might tell you, Zed isn't dead. Indeed, I'm convinced of the existence of a generation of Gloucestershire and Pakistan fans whose first thought on seeing Bruce Willis stagger into a redneck pawn shop isn't about the Gimp's cellar or the samurai sword murder that's about to unfold. Their minds wander to a bespectacled, bookish-looking batsman unleashing cover drive after wristy cover drive, on his way to one of his inevitable stylish centuries that helped him reach the landmark of a hundred first-class hundreds. Zed, you see, in the mind of a certain breed of cricket fan, isn't a sexually perverted hillbilly motorbike cop but Zaheer Abbas, perfectly respectable former Pakistan batsman and the newly appointed president of the ICC.

When the Gang of Three staged their coup in international cricket, some deals needed to be done. One of the inducements accepted by Pakistan to approve the new governance arrangements was a spin at the ICC presidency. At the time nobody expected that role to go to Zed but the return of Shaharyar Khan as chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board makes Zed's appointment more understandable. The two have history - a rather notable history, in fact.

I met Zed properly in 2006. The Pakistan team was training hard in the nets at Radlett Cricket Club in Hertfordshire. In the pavilion, Zed was making tea. He was manager for Pakistan's tour of England. The team was run and controlled by Inzamam-ul Haq, then at the height of his powers. Bob Woolmer was the coach, doing his best to penetrate the Pakistani psyche and the stranglehold of Inzamam on the players that Woolmer was trying to develop.

Zed seemed a pleasant enough fellow, a cricketer first and manager last. I'm sure he would have quite liked to have had more of a role in the running of the team but Woolmer and Inzamam wouldn't have any of that. Zed breezed through the summer, allowing the tour to take care of itself, helpfully providing updates on team logistics, fitness and selection, in his urbane and fun-loving manner.

Zed killed you with subtle hands, elegant wrists, and a relentless bespectacled brutality

All was dandy until tea on the fourth day of the Oval Test match. What happened next might have been the making of Zed as an administrator; instead it exposed the flawed power lines in Pakistan cricket and the redundancy of Zed's role. Inzamam was incensed by the umpires changing the ball during the afternoon session, and above all them insinuating that it had been tampered with. It took Inzamam a while to reach boiling point, and after a furious team meeting in the tea break, which included members of the PCB at the highest level, the Pakistan team refused to take the field in protest at the behaviour of the umpires. The match was abandoned, a victory forfeited for the sake of honour.

It was a decision that Woolmer and a few players didn't agree with, but Inzamam was the leader of the protest, with full backing from the PCB. Shaharyar Khan was then chairman of the PCB and he was present at the game. He stepped in and handled the intense media glare after the match was abandoned. Zed disappeared into the shadows and didn't return to England for the ICC hearing attended by Inzamam and Woolmer.

Not that any of this was Zed's fault, nor does it expose any particular character flaw. Rather, these events revealed Zed to be an old-school cricketer. He loves the game and relishes talking about it. He isn't an administrator or a hard-nosed manager. He enjoys the trappings of power but doesn't especially enjoy getting his hands dirty. He isn't a controversial fellow or a controversy seeker. For all these reasons he is a perfect fit for the presidency of the ICC, a titular role that will allow him to rub shoulders with eminent peers from around the world who loved the elegance of his cover drive.

It wasn't just the elegance of his cover drive, of course. The boy from Sialkot, home to the industries that produce the world's sports equipment, was elegant all round the wicket - just that his cover drive was something special. Zed was tall, enjoying great reach with legs and arms, which enabled him to drive even good-length deliveries. He wasn't particularly still at the crease, there was a shuffle across his stumps, but for a moment he stood perfectly still, poised like a mantis, just before he addressed the ball late, with speed and beautiful fluency, supple and strong wrists diverting the ball at the last moment into off-side gaps. Straight balls were flicked to the leg side, anything outside off went through the arc of cover.

Zed aka the Asian Bradman © PA Photos

Hence, Zed was a hard man to bowl to, and when on a roll his run rate was such that he excelled at one-day cricket - though the world imagined him to be at his best as a three-day or five-day cricketer. The medium-pacers he faced on the county circuit were meat and drink but he excelled most against spin. He was so prolific at one point that he began to be referred to as "the Asian Bradman". Zed killed you with subtle hands, elegant wrists, and a relentless bespectacled brutality. If he had a weakness it was against short fast bowling, but it was a common flaw among batsmen. Batting was a harder job in the 1970s and 1980s, before helmets became commonplace, pitches became placid and short-pitched bowling was regulated.

Zed is the third cricketer after Colin Cowdrey and Clyde Walcott, both gentlemen of the game, to hold the post of ICC president. The symbolism of this achievement and the illustrious company he has joined won't be lost on Zed. He wants to use his background as a cricketer to urge countries to tour Pakistan. Sri Lanka, the victims of the Lahore attacks in 2008, is the first major cricket nation he wishes to persuade. It is a risky mission but, as with his cricket, worthy of admiration.

It is easy and commonplace to become angered and disillusioned with senior appointments in Pakistan cricket. Considering the rogues who might have manipulated their way into the job, when it comes to Zaheer Abbas as president of the ICC, I'm Kool and the Gang.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. @KamranAbbasi

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