Dazzling, delicate; a reassuring presence
This is my Inzamam moment. At Mohali in 2005, Pakistan's top order had imploded tragic-comically against an imposing deficit. Ten for 3 in the fifth and heavy defeat read the scoreboard when Inzamam walked out. If his mood has ever been dark at the crease, it was here.
Lakshmipathy Balaji bowled the innings' sixth over; Inzamam struck three boundaries off the first three balls, none of them deserving their fate. The last I will remember till I remember nothing else: from the back, the contours of his love handles visible, he gently hunched forward. As the left heel landed, bat met ball, a forward push, no more, but mid-off never had a chance. Inzamam's 86 that day was unusually hurried, and though men below him saved the Test, without Inzamam they had nothing.
Others will remember other shots, other days: a World Cup semi-final six, the last-ball poke past point in Ahmedabad, the triple, a Karachi hundred against India, the Multan escape. But they all speak only one truth, that when Pakistan absolutely needed him, he pulled through. Not always, because he was needed most days and he wasn't one for the nine-to-five life. But much more often than not, he did, and that is precious.
The environment, the personality, didn't exist for him to become a glam lone ranger like Lara. Javed Miandad, Salim Malik, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan all helped ease the burden, not always equally. Neither was Inzamam as driven, as ruthless as Tendulkar, Kallis or Ponting. A louder media might have helped, but that hunger would've done so more. Against pace, on his day, he was the equal of any, and the same reflexes made him probably the best slip Pakistan has had.
A touch distasteful, maybe, to recall what he wasn't - because what he was was special enough - but in a time of such batting excess, it is important to situate him. The first time his average reached 50 was in his 92nd Test. Only from his 100th, marked with a century and win, did he sustain it. Tragedy is, it fell below the milestone in his final Test.
Miandad he is the greatest Pakistani batsman and undoubtedly one of the
best, most compelling of modern batsmen
Aamer Sohail, never one to call a spade by any other name, got to the core of the batsman Inzamam: a great player, a rare blend of force and delicacy, yes, but could he have done even more? Ten hundreds in 378 ODIs says maybe, as do ordinary records against South Africa and Australia, the best bowling attacks of his time.
Two of his finest came against the best: an unbeaten fifty against Australia to chase Pakistan's highest Test target, and a 92 the equal of any century at Port Elizabeth. Seventeen match-winning hundreds out of 25, among the best rates ever, also settles many debates. Batting so far down the ODI order hurt his conversion-rate, but in a stiff chase, the heat on, Inzamam was the sharpest tack, capable of innings chiselled from ice.
This is all to nitpick, of course, especially as Pakistan has fewer batting heroes than it should. Much more convenient to say that, alongside Javed Miandad, he is the greatest Pakistani batsman and undoubtedly one of the best, most compelling of modern batsmen.
Captaincy brought out the human in Inzamam, despite his reluctance for the post. He was a caricature before: aloo, overweight, loves a nap, (and his food even more), comedy runner, loses runs when he loses pounds, hits fans. He probably didn't mind it, because nobody minds goodwill, sympathy and endearment the world over.
His dry, sharp wit, already known to team-mates, emerged when he had to address press conferences. He was also honest: asked to assess an under-utilised bowler's performance once, he replied, "If he had performed I could've told you."
The Bangalore win, on the last afternoon, to level the series, was the making of Inzamam as leader. The allsorts attack he used then would today be good, honest Twenty20 material. Yet somehow he tricked Mohammad Sami, Arshad Khan, Shahid Afridi and Danish Kaneria into believing they could dismiss the most frightening batsmen in the world. And they did. On the field Inzamam was never more alert, more harassed, more proactive and under greater strain.
That sparked a 15-month period in which Pakistan prospered under Inzamam and Bob Woolmer. Suddenly Pakistan calmed down, came together. With the bat Inzamam touched his peak; five hundreds in 11 Tests at over 80, as Pakistan beat England, India and Sri Lanka.
But subsequently decay set in. Inzamam's calm became inertia, he drifted from Woolmer; religion, glue one year, became distraction the next. That most human of all maxims, that power corrupts, afflicted him. As Pakistan stumbled out of the World Cup in an ugly daze, Inzamam was famously accused of being a dictator, haughty and a maulvi (preacher).
In truth, he did things this last year which he shouldn't be remembered by, notably a cranky, emotional, accusatory press conference. His last dismissal was strange, but in a career that long, a blemish or two (an uneasy, indirect entanglement in match-fixing was another) is human.
With Inzamam departs the last of 1992, when Pakistan cricket was a different world. Not that it was stable before, but that world has since come undone. Inzamam didn't keep it all together; he couldn't for no one person could, but he was there through all of it, the highs, the lows, the thick, the thin: a reassurance. In that alone, there is greatness.
Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo