February 8, 2010

Abbamania

Twelve years ago, Abdul Qadir, still good enough to turn out for Pakistan, spent a summer playing club cricket in Melbourne. The few who saw him remember it like it was yesterday

On a sticky Peshawar afternoon in 1998, Mark Taylor clipped a Test triple-hundred while Pakistan's spinners tossed and chased and collected one wicket for 327 runs. Next morning Abdul Qadir, who was not any more a Pakistani Test spinner, and hadn't been for eight years, found himself in a car bound for Princes Park in one of Melbourne's lovelier suburbs.

Carlton was playing Footscray that day.

Carlton was Abdul Qadir's new club.

Driving the car was Carlton's vice-president, Craig Cook, who was relating the contents of an email his legspinning son Calum had sent - something about a Footscray batting wiz named "Larko".

"Tell Abba," the email went, "that Larko only picks wrong'uns from off the track, not out of the hand."

Qadir stared out the windscreen. The car pulled up at the oval.

"Hey Abdul," roared Ian Wrigglesworth, Carlton's captain. "Listen. Larko can't pick a wrong'un. You set it up, do whatever you want."

Qadir nodded and said nothing. Not until many minutes later, as they were walking out to field, did he ask politely: "When does this Larko come in?"

Larko was Rohan Larkin, an ex-state batsman, and he stepped out that day at No. 4.

Qadir watched him approach, stuck a fielder at close gully. And bowled. Wrong'un. Larkin, failing to pick it, went to square cut. The ball smacked the bat's edge and whistled through first slip's hands for two.

"Great," Larkin thought, "I'm off the mark and I've seen his wrong'un. I'll be right from here."

Qadir's second ball was faster; wicketkeeper Micky Butera rocked back instinctively on his heels. It was also wider. "Very close to the edge of the pitch," says Larkin. It was too wide to make mayhem, so wide that the umpire cleared his throat and gave a preliminary twitch of his arms. Larkin flung his own arms high, his bat even higher - "to allow the ball to travel through harmlessly".

Instead the ball dipped - swooped, more like - as if by remote control. It landed, veered headlong in the wrong direction, then hit middle stump, like Shane Warne dumbfounding Mike Gatting all over again. In reverse.

"Abdul spun this wrong'un one and a half feet," gasps Butera. "Sounds ridiculous when you say it."

"I would play that ball the same way a hundred times out of a hundred," believes Larkin.

"There was an element of luck in the Warne ball," Cook points out. "Whereas Abdul's was absolutely contrived."

The only person not surprised was the contriver himself. Deep down, Qadir knew that by rights he should have been in Peshawar that Saturday, playing for his country not a suburb. His Carlton team-mates knew that he knew it. He did not need to say so; though sometimes he said it anyway. There was and remained only one wonder of Pakistani spin.

But Qadir was 43. His face was unwrinkled. Brown eyes still danced with mischief. But selectors of Test teams have no love for 43-year-olds.

That was why he wasn't in Peshawar. It does not explain how he came to be playing park cricket in Melbourne.

****

IT HAPPENED, like many of the best ideas, after a long and jolly lunch. The Carlton Cricket and Football Social Club was the setting. Big Jack Elliott, football club president and one-time prime ministerial aspirant, glared at the cricket club vice-president and barked: "Why can't you bastards win like us?"

"Well," said Craig Cook, "we've lost a little bit of flair. We really need a big-name player."

Big Jack barked again. "You get the player and we'll pay for it."

On his last weekend in Melbourne he was handed the new ball, not for the first time that summer. And for the umpteenth time, from mid-day till sundown, he bowled and bowled and bowled

Cook, a legspin fanatic, thought of Qadir. He phoned an old pal, Javed Zaman Khan, cousin of Imran. An evening net tryout was arranged and Cook's ticket to Lahore booked. "We took Abdul down to the Lahore Gymkhana Club nets, where he bowled for an hour. And he looked beautiful. We signed him up on the spot."

Forty thousand dollars Carlton paid him. They put him up in a flat in Brunswick, not far from the practice nets. Larkin was one of eight men from Footscray he fooled that Saturday. At spectator-less playing fields all over Melbourne, the ranks of the befuddled grew: at Windy Hill, at Arden Street, at Ringwood's Jubilee Park.

Arms bucked and swayed and his tongue kept licking his fingers when Qadir skipped in and bowled. The passing of decades had taken a few spikes out of his flipper, which now slid more than it spat. But the miracles of his legbreak remained two-fold: the sheer stupendous size of the spin, and the way he could vary it at will. Wrong'uns, meanwhile, arrived in threes.

"Three types," Butera confirms. There was a lightning wrong'un, a mid-paced wrong'un lobbed up from wide of the stumps, and a slow wrong'un. "It looked like a lollipop," Butera says of this last invention, "and the batsman would think, here's an opportunity to come down and score. But it would drop incredibly late, and as soon as the batsman got there he'd realise he didn't have as much time as he thought he had." The lollipop wrong'un left more batsmen licked than any of Qadir's other variations, helping Butera rewrite the Victorian Cricket Association record books for most catches and stumpings in a season.

"Best time of my life. Abdul put me on the map," he says. That is not just rosy-glassed affection talking. Nine days after the Larkin ball Butera, previously unheralded, made his state 2nd XI debut.

Mid-January came; an encounter with the competition's in-form batsman beckoned. Geelong's Jason Bakker, tall and lumbering and toe-tied against even the gentlest spin bowling, had heard all about Qadir's variations. His coach Ken Davis tried to replicate them, hurling balls down, floating them up, while Bakker watched Ken's hand in the hope of reading what might happen. After a week of this it was time to face the real thing in a match. And it felt, to Bakker, as if he were still in the practice nets.

With eyes wide open he'd stare at Qadir's wrist. He left balls he was supposed to leave. He defended others comfortably. If he could get to the pitch of the ball, he'd drive. When it was wider, he'd cut, but softly, never forcing anything. Bakker had heard batsmen more debonair than him talk about being in "the zone", and for the first time he really understood it. "This sounds incredibly vain but I felt like I didn't play a false stroke."

They paused for drinks. Captain Wrigglesworth despaired. He trotted up to his star bowler. "Listen. This bloke's picking your wrong'un."

And just like that Qadir stopped bowling it. No flipper or flotilla of multi-speeded googlies. The magic act was over. Every ball was a legbreak, landing on or slightly outside off stump. Every ball twisted harmlessly away. This went on for an hour. It was a scorching afternoon, a flat deck. Bakker cruised past 50. "I'd broken him." And something else had happened too - "I was getting more confident, more relaxed, less vigilant."

So when another one wafted down, as ho-hum as all the others, Bakker took one stride forward and shouldered arms, intent on letting the thing whirr past, and then just as it was about to bounce, inches from his nose, he noticed that this particular delivery was actually a touch wider, and the seam looked different, and by then it was too late to do anything other than think, "Shit I hope it misses", which it didn't. It knocked back middle stump.

Eleven years on, Bakker's head is still shaking. "An hour - he was prepared to wait an hour. There was I falsely thinking I had broken him, when all that time he was working up a trap for me. I mean, my God, the mentality of the man, the mindset."

Later Qadir would boast, "I saw it in his eyes" - saw that microscopic let-up in the batsman's vigilance, which was what he had been waiting for all along.

****

HE LIVED for Saturdays, his new team-mates sensed. In his inner-city flat he was on his own. The club vice-president drove him to matches, to training. Most nights he ate at the vice-president's house. "Abdul had never cooked a meal in his life," Cook explains. "Never made a cup of tea in his life. So if he wasn't eating at our place I'd organise the Pakistani community to bring food in. And he got a bit lonely, so I'd have to go around and see him."

He would clap opposition batsmen's fine strokes. He would tell people what a pleasure it was to meet them. "No, no," he politely informed his captain one gusty Saturday, "I will bowl downwind." Another Saturday, batting against a fast bowler and a spinner, he insisted that his team-mates jump the fence to alternately ferry out and fetch his helmet at the end of every over.

He did not swear. When Qadir was around, Butera used to soften his own language. "But I don't think the rest of the boys did."

He did not lairise, throw high-fives or drink beer. "I wouldn't have thought he made a friend while he was here," says Wrigglesworth. "I don't know what he did from Monday to Friday and I wouldn't have thought many people do. As soon as the game finished on a Saturday he was pretty much off. I don't think he sang the team song once."

The song, in fairness, was seldom aired, for Carlton kept losing despite Qadir's wickets. By the eve of the season's final match at Northcote Park he had 66 - only seven shy of the post-war record set by Richmond quick Graeme Paterson in 1965-66. Qadir thought about that record often. "He never," Cook reflects, "reckoned he should have been left out of the Test side. So when he came over here it wasn't a holiday. He was wanting to show what he could do."

On his last weekend in Melbourne he was handed the new ball, not for the first time that summer. And for the umpteenth time, from mid-day till sundown, he bowled and bowled and bowled. His preoccupation with the record and those seven elusive wickets had become something close to an obsession. Nobody except Wrigglesworth and the Carlton committee men realised this - until, that is, the fall of Northcote's ninth wicket, Qadir's sixth, at which point he bounced into the team huddle and shrieked: "One more!"

"If he had just shut his gob," says Wrigglesworth, "no one else would have known. Instead the boys were all going: 'Hey, hang on a minute!'"

One more, alas, did not come easily. Northcote's last-wicket pair looked untroubled. Runs flowed. Wrigglesworth thought about taking Qadir off. Wrigglesworth couldn't take him off. "By this stage," he says, "I was a puppet of the president and the committee. And they wanted to see Abdul get this record."

A few short years later Douggie was picked for Australia's team of intellectually disabled cricketers. He has since represented his country in South Africa and England, this stranger who had never bowled a wrong'un until the day he met Abdul Qadir and asked how it was done

Qadir kept going. He ran through all his variations. The partnership kept swelling - to 95 by the tea break. Forty-six overs Qadir had bowled unchanged.

"Should I take him off now?"

Permission was granted. Five balls later the wicket fell.

The Ryder Medal he won as the competition's best player still hangs on his wall in Lahore. His 492 overs in a season might never be surpassed. Seventy-two wickets at 15.87 in the era of covered pitches at the age of 43 is a feat carved in club cricket legend. It could have been 73, the record should have been his, he told the Age's gossip columnist the day before he flew home; if only the captain had listened, if only the captain had bowled him a bit more.

"Oh, Abdul," sighed Wrigglesworth when he saw the paper next morning. "Where's this come from?"

****

WHEN Jason Bakker remembers the day that he did not play a false stroke and was deceived by the most mysterious ball he ever faced, he thinks of the heat. At tea-time he galloped upstairs to the Kardinia Park dining room and began gulping down water. "I was tucking into rockmelon and watermelon and whatever else I could find." That's when he glanced out the window and saw that Qadir, who had bowled through the entire afternoon session without a rest, was still on the oval.

Qadir was out there with Craig Whitehand, known to all at Geelong Cricket Club as "Douggie", the guy who fronted up every Saturday in his whites and his spikes to drag off the pitch covers and carry out drinks and take care of the equipment. As Qadir was walking off, Douggie had stopped him at the players' gate and asked, how do you bowl a wrong'un. Now the two of them were standing on the grass, metres apart. A couple of balls lay between them. Qadir would wave his arms and talk a bit. Then he'd bowl a few. Then Douggie would bowl a few. After a while Qadir would wander across and say something. Then Douggie would bowl a few more.

Bakker went back to his watermelon and forgot what he'd seen. Twenty minutes went by before he thought about strapping the pads back on. "As I was coming down the stairs," Bakker recalls, "I looked out on the ground. And the two of them were still there. Abdul had given his whole break on a hot day to this guy from Geelong who he knew nothing about."

At Geelong training the next week Douggie was gleefully flighting wrong'uns. A few short years later he was picked for Australia's team of intellectually disabled cricketers. He has since represented his country in South Africa and England, this stranger who had never bowled a wrong'un until the day he met Abdul Qadir and asked how it was done.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket

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