August 5, 2012

'Fighting with Kardar was my biggest regret'

Israr Ali, Pakistan's oldest living Test cricketer, had a short and frustrating career, but one in which he made an Australian batsman his bunny

When 91-year-old Aslam Khokar died last January, Israr Ali became Pakistan's oldest surviving Test cricketer. At 85, Israr lives a humble life, away from cricket, in his hometown, Okara, southwest of Lahore.

Israr played in Pakistan's first Test, 60 years ago, against India. But unlike his famous team-mates from that tour, Hanif Mohammad, Fazal Mahmood and Imtiaz Ahmed, Israr is a forgotten man today.

A misunderstanding with his captain Abdul Kardar, then the most powerful man in Pakistan cricket, is what Israr believes kept his Test career to four matches. A left-arm fast-medium bowler, he was picked as a bowling allrounder for the 1952 India tour, but played mostly as a batsman, confused and frustrated by lack of clarity about his role.

Israr scored a half-century in the first tour game, against North Zone in Amritsar, and was sent out at No. 3 in the first Test in Delhi. Dismissed for 1 and 9 by Vinoo Mankad, he was dropped for the next match, in Lucknow - where he became Pakistan's first substitute fielder to effect a dismissal, catching Gul Ahmed off the bowling of Amir Elahi.

"It was Kardar who fought to get me in the side [for the India tour]," Israr told ESPNcricinfo. "He believed my being a left-armer could be lethal, and that my reasonable batting ability could be an advantage. But surprisingly, he didn't ask me to bowl and that was frustrating."

In the third Test, in Mumbai, he was relegated to the tail of the batting and bowling orders, getting only three overs in an innings that lasted 112.

"Kardar was a dominating captain at the time and I paid the price for the occasional argument with him and also some misunderstanding," Israr remembers.

He was rubbed up the wrong way by Kardar once summoning him in a disrespectful manner at the Gymkhana ground in Lahore. The two might have come to blows had other players not stepped in. Kardar was also under the mistaken impression that Israr was against his captaincy and had complained to the chairman of the board about Kardar. Israr puts this down to Kardar being misled by people with vested interests.

All that is water under the bridge now. "Life has been very simple so far and I am satisfied with it," Israr says, "but fighting with Kardar was my biggest regret. He was truly the best man in the history of Pakistan cricket. I went to him in Karachi to talk about my attitude and we resolved all the issues but it was too late."

Israr was 32 when he was recalled to the side for two Tests against Australia, in 1959-60. He took six wickets but failed with the bat. He remembers the games for his complete domination of Australia's opening batsman Les Favell. Israr dismissed him in all four innings without the assistance of fielders.

"A remarkable day in my career was when I bowled Favell in Dacca [the first Test] and a crowd of 50,000 spectators was on its toes, cheering for the dismissal. For a while I was stunned." He bowled Favell in the second innings in Lahore for 4, in the process breaking a stump that was then signed by the Pakistan president Ayub Khan and Israr, and handed over to the Lahore museum - from where it disappeared years later.

With that Test, Israr's international career ended, and not long after that he had to retire from first-class cricket too, when he was injured in an accident: a bus collided with his car, killing three of his friends who were in it. Israr escaped with a broken arm, but vanished from the cricket scene for a decade and a half, before returning to work in administration for a few years.

Today he spends his days waking at sunrise and being driven to his farm, where he supervises the cultivation of wheat, rice and occasionally corn. He has three sons none of whom played cricket competitively. "I took them to the cricket ground but it was a hopeless attempt. Maybe they didn't want to work hard or were lacking interest. So I was the only one in my family who played cricket at the top level."

Israr was the president of Multan Region from 1981 to 1982, and a member of Pakistan's selection committee in 1983 and 1984, before he decided to move away from the game. In 1997 he was a beneficiary of the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series played in Sharjah. "I parted from cricket after 1987, maybe because I was losing the passion, and decided to stay back in Okara," he says.

Like many former cricketers, Israr isn't happy with the how the game has evolved in the country. "The quality of cricket began to drop after the '80s, and administration got more politicised. It has been going down since then. Pakistan cricket has been on top for decades but things don't look good now. I feel cricket is reduced only to bigger cities like Karachi and Lahore. It's very sad to see the talent around the outskirts of the cities being ignored.

Inevitably, he thinks things were better in his time. "In our era we didn't have to go to any coach to learn," he says. "We just observed and applied it until we got perfect,"

In his first over in first-class cricket, he could have done with some coaching guidance, though. Playing for Southern Punjab against Northern India in Patiala, he was warned by the umpire twice for stepping on the danger area in his follow-through. "I remember it because I was asked to bowl over the wicket and I struggled for a while with my follow-through and I ended up in the middle of the pitch. But I recovered well."

For Israr, the period between his playing days in the 1950s and the 1980s was "the best era". "We didn't have any inspiring figures in cricket to follow but we were passionate about the game and wanted to play it. There was a real competitive environment around us at school, in the nets, everywhere we played. We were out there to prove a point."

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent