A triumph of concentration
It was made half a century ago, yet it is still the highest Test score away from home. There have been 20 other triple-hundreds, yet this remains the only one made in the second innings. In fact, it was made after following on - not from any mere 200-run deficit, but from an almost bottomless abyss of 473.
It was January 1958 in Bridgetown, Barbados. Pakistan, the latest entrants to Test cricket, were playing their first Test against West Indies. In response to a first innings of 579, Pakistan were skittled out for a humiliating 106. Hanif Mohammad came out to open the second innings on the third afternoon. It was a six-day Test, and saving it required that he stay at the crease for another three days - in cricketing terms, an eternity.
Hanif wasn't sure if he had any gifts of technique or temperament, but he did have confidence in his ability to concentrate. He decided to play every ball with the utmost concentration, determined to face each delivery as if it was his first. He was batting on a deteriorating wicket, against menacing bowlers, in front of local umpires. Every now and then the ball would kick. Hanif kept his head still and his eyes never wavered from the ball. He had no headgear, and even his pads were thin and slender, providing scant protection. He had no arm guard either, and a rolled up hotel towel functioned as a thigh pad.
Today, Hanif is a comfortably retired man, basking in his status as the original cricket hero in a land of icons. There are other bright feathers in his cap - soon after this Test triple-hundred he made 499, the highest first-class score for many years - but the 337 at Bridgetown is a topic that never fails to brighten him.
Reclining in the garden of his spacious house in Karachi, not too far from National Stadium, as it happens, he recalls the details vividly. One of the myths around that innings is it was so technically perfect, the ball never once touched his pads. "Well, almost," Hanif offers genially. "The pitch had some rough areas and a few times the ball did misbehave, which made me miss the line. This one delivery, I even thought I was lbw. But fate was with me."
The West Indian bowling in this match centered on the swing of Eric Atkinson, the furious pace of Roy Gilchrist, and the spin of Collie Smith and Alf Valentine. "Atkinson was the only one who really troubled me," says Hanif. "He used to put a lot of cream in his hair. That may have had something to do with the fact that he managed to swing it both ways, and swing it late."
Hanif batted all through the next day and returned unbeaten on 161. Kardar's note that evening said, "You can do it" - a simple enough encouragement, but one that Hanif recalls was strongly motivating. "We had put up an honorable rearguard, and there was an intense feeling of team spirit." At the end of the fifth day, he was on 270. Pakistan had progressed to 525 for 3 - an outstanding score but, under the circumstances, still a lead of only 52. With one more day to go, they remained very much in danger.
By this time, Hanif was in the middle of writing an epic. Kardar's note that evening implored him. "If you can bat until tea tomorrow, the match will be saved," he wrote. Hanif had already batted two and a half days, and he found himself reaching for reserves of energy and concentration he never thought he possessed. "It had to be done," he will tell you today, "so I did it."
He did not surrender his wicket until Pakistan were safe. "It wasn't a lapse of concentration," he is quick to point out even now. "The ball hit a tricky spot, knocking out some dirt from the pitch and catching the shoulder of my bat." At 970 minutes, it was the longest Test innings of its time. Fifty years later, it still is.
There has been no shortage of accolades for Hanif's endeavour. It left witnesses in awe of his powers of concentration, drawing generous commendation in the autobiographies of Hanif's team-mate Fazal Mahmood, and Sir Garry Sobers, who played against him. Fazal describes how Hanif eventually charmed even the partisan spectators: "The West Indies crowd was hostile to him during the first two days of his batting, but turned friendly on the third day. They then started instructing him how to tackle Gilchrist and the others. One spectator sitting on top of a tree would forewarn Hanif whether the next ball would be a bouncer or a yorker." Analysts, too, have saluted the innings. Peter Roebuck included it in his book Great Innings, awarding it the highest marks for courage and heroism. In a Wisden ranking in 2002, Steven Lynch recognised it among the greatest Test rearguards of all time.
Later generations have not seen Hanif bat, but it is not difficult to conjure up the image. He must have seemed a fortress at the wicket. Javed Miandad, whose father knew Hanif, tells the story of once receiving one of Hanif's bats as a gift; it left him awestruck, because the only marks on that bat were right in the middle - the edges and shoulders were spotless. Sunil Gavaskar, who never saw Hanif bat, nevertheless listened to his Bombay coach relate tales of Hanif's impeccable technique, and modelled his own on it. Sachin Tendulkar, who has taken on the "Little Master" sobriquet that Hanif originally inspired, proudly considers himself one of Hanif's batting heirs.
Hanif's magnificent achievement can be gauged by several yardsticks, but none more remarkable than that 50 years on, it is still celebrated as an unequalled feat. After that innings, he shot up in fame and stature immediately. But he readily acknowledges he had no idea that so long after, his effort would remain unsurpassed. In the intervening time the world has seen another 1400-odd Test matches and an extraordinary cavalcade of batting feats, but it has yet to see an innings of greater valour and defiance. One can never settle the question whether it is the greatest innings of all time, but Hanif's 337 is as good a contender for that title as any.
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Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi