June 12, 2005

The eternal idol

Huw Richards
For a seven-year-old Glamorgan fan who couldn't place Pakistan on a map, Majid Khan was an exotic, romantic hero, and a cricketer of substance and style

Majid Khan was my favourite cricketer before I ever saw him in the flesh, discovered via print, radio and mind's eye in 1967. Not, for most people, an especially memorable cricket year: India and Pakistan sent a couple of their less distinguished touring teams to England. Most people, though, were not seven years old and discovering Test cricket for the first time.

Logically, India should have caught the imagination. A team led by a one-eyed prince, with a wicketkeeper who was apparently named after his job, and a turbaned spin bowler should have excited any seven-year-old.

Instead it was Pakistan. I couldn't have found it on a map - always assuming, only 20 years on from Partition, that either school or home could have furnished one that showed it. But the "Made in Pakistan" printed on my child-size bat wielded ineffectively on beaches that summer while listening to John Arlott and radio confreres describing Hanif Mohammad batting, apparently forever, at Lord's, furnished the illusion of affinity.

Majid, identified more often than not as the son of the man whose delivery had killed a sparrow at Lord's in the 1930s, failed in the Tests. Little matter. He had already stamped himself indelibly on this mind's eye with an extraordinary innings against Glamorgan, my team, in Swansea. One hundred and forty-seven runs in 89 minutes, with 13 sixes. Not long after, it was announced that he had signed for Glamorgan.

He joined the overwhelming wave of novelty associated with 1968, the transforming year in which international greatness - Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai et al - descended upon county cricket. He was Glamorgan's best player, but favouritism is inherently subjective, springing from something that strikes a chord, not objective assessment of quality. Most Test selectors would choose David Gower rather than Derek Randall, Nathan Astle ahead of Chris Harris, Javed Miandad instead of Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Adam Gilchrist before Farokh Engineer. All are fine, engaging cricketers - but Randall, Harris, Inzamam and Engineer have struck in me some deeper nerve of affinity.

That Glamorgan team had numerous candidates for hero worship. Alan Jones and Don Shepherd, Welshmen both, were, respectively, the highest scorer and most prolific wicket-taker never to play in Tests. But Majid offered something different. Years later I interviewed American writer Robert Parker and quizzed him about the relationship between his life and that of his main character, the quixotic, literate Boston private eye Spenser: "There is a fair amount in common, but Spenser can do things that I can' t do, and nor can anybody else, because he's a romantic hero, and that's what they do."

Majid was our romantic hero. He came from a faraway country of which we knew little, and even before the incredible innings that won him his contract in 1967, had done implausible things like make his first-class debut, score a century and taking six wickets, at 15. And what small boy could not warm to a batsman who took bonus payments for exceptional performances from a grateful captain in the form of multiple ice-cream cones?

A friend who went into football journalism once said that the saddest part was the progressive disillusionment of meeting people he had idolised as players. But the flesh-and-blood Majid seen with the critical eyes of teenage years had all the magic of the imagined hero of childhood

None of our other, more local, heroes could change his name between seasons (Majid Jahangir became Khan from 1970 on) score a double-century in the Varsity match, or most importantly, an attacking 156 on a brutal wicket in the match that gave Glamorgan the championship in 1969. Tony Lewis' memoirs confirm that Majid was to Glamorgan what Adam Gilchrist was for Australia, a batting catalyst transforming his team's sense of the possible.

Romantic heroism cannot always survive the scrutiny of reality. A friend who went into football journalism once said that the saddest part was the progressive disillusionment of meeting people he had idolised as players. But the flesh-and-blood Majid seen with the critical eyes of teenage years had all the magic of the imagined hero of childhood.

Least of the joys of his 110 against Australia in Swansea in 1975 was that it came in two hours. Still more striking was the unhurried ease of his movements, and timing so uncanny that 85mph deliveries from Max Walker and Alan Hurst would be despatched firmly to the boundary without the contact of bat and ball making any sound. What might Wilfred Rhodes, famously capable of following cricket by sound alone, have made of Majid in this form? Greg Chappell, chasing the fastest double-hundred of all time when dismissed for 144 the following day (that Clive Lloyd broke the record at Swansea a year later says all you need to know about Glamorgan's mid-1970s bowling), seemed by comparison prosaic.

Nor was Majid just a man for good days and easy wickets. Bishan Bedi reckoned him the best bad-wicket player in the world, an instinctive master of the turning ball. Dennis Lillee tried (not, it would seem, on aesthetic grounds) but failed to knock off the floppy hat that was Majid's sole concession to inelegance.

A personal memory is of Majid batting against Geoff Arnold, Mike Hendrick, and Chris Old - an England attack that might have been designed for the conditions - at Headingley in 1974. For once, he did not make it look easy. Not much was timed. But as Sadiq and Mushtaq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas and Asif Iqbal mustered only 96 between them (Dennis Amiss, John Edrich and Keith Fletcher totalled 33 the following day), a four-hour vigil produced the highest score of the match, 75, and a comfortable first-innings lead for Pakistan.

Majid was a cricketer of substance as well as style, an imagined hero who turned out well in reality. Rob Steen was right when he decried the unthinking retention of heroes of childhood, but having thought about this one, I see less reason than ever to discard him.

Huw Richards is cricket correspondent of the International Herald Tribune. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2005