March 6, 2014

The power of the unremarkable

Like Asif Mujtaba before him, Fawad Alam brings to Pakistan a much-needed eye for detail and alertness to opportunity

Fawad Alam: find gap, cede strike, run hard, put away © AFP

Many years ago there was an unremarkable batsman from Karachi who sometimes did remarkable things for Pakistan. Actually Asif Mujtaba wasn't unremarkable. He was a bona fide domestic giant: 49 hundreds, just short of 18,000 runs, and in nearly 300 matches an average of just under 50. But internationally you could argue he was a little unremarkable, both in presence and ultimately in performance.

Except that he was often the instigator of, and the central figure in, some truly remarkable moments. He, for instance, hit the lesser recalled and least celebrated of Pakistan's memorable last-over sixes in December 1992. Pakistan needed 17 off that last over, delivered by the death-overs champion Steve Waugh, and they lost Mushtaq Ahmed off the first ball. Mujtaba somehow oversaw five runs scored by the bunniest of all bunnies Aaqib Javed, took five himself and then heaved the last ball for six. To tie the game; had Australia not been awarded a missing run at the tea interval, it would have been a winning hit.

That finish, as Mujtaba pointed out years later, wasn't even his best. He's right. That would be his unbeaten 60 from No. 8 in Perth nearly six years earlier. Again Australia were the aggrieved, as Mujtaba drew 145 runs from the last four wickets to chase 274 with a ball to spare. Mujtaba has remained a vastly underrated batsman, partly because finishing wasn't really a thing when he played. There were batsmen and there were bowlers and that, pretty much, was that.

Also, he was versatile enough to defy specialisation. But mostly it was because he was the collateral damage of Imran Khan's idea of what a young player should be: brash and brave, extravagantly gifted; and Mujtaba was none of those. Javed Miandad, of course, loved him. In those two sentences alone is written many a career epitaph. Imran can think what he wants of Mujtaba, but he cannot deny the genius of those two innings. Nor can he deny the incongruous but essential contributions that produced two much-celebrated triumphs. It was Mujtaba's outstanding, instinctive catch at short leg, of course, on a January afternoon in Hamilton in 1993 that dismissed Andrew Jones. New Zealand were 65 for 3 at that stage, chasing 127, and well, we can probably recall every single wicket thereafter.

Even a cursory glance at Alam's scores before he was dropped show he is capable of unremarkable but vital hands

A month later in Durban, in an ODI against South Africa, Mujtaba's left-arm spin (slow really, not much spin) somehow defeated the defences of Peter Kirsten. South Africa were 159 for 1 and needed just 50 from the last ten to win. In the funniest, craziest way possible, they could not do it, that wicket triggering an almighty collapse. Who had earlier top-scored for Pakistan incidentally, an unbeaten 49 gently tugging them to respectability? That's right.

Why Mujtaba now? Because, Fawad Alam. Because every time I see Alam bat, which hasn't been that often over the last three and a half years, I think of Mujtaba. In physical outline both are similarly slight, enough to be blown away by an ant's sneeze, and both have surprisingly deep voices. Both are lefties, though Mujtaba was more old school in stance and general technique. He didn't have the quirks and awkwardness of Alam. But something in the way Alam bats, in the way that he is such a servant to the situation, is so Mujtaba. He is a 2.0 version of course; fewer dot balls, wider range of strokes, and perhaps more insecure about his off stump, but the model is essentially the same (and Alam's 168 on Test debut as opener hints at greater versatility).

His 74 in Pakistan's record chase against Bangladesh was from the same mould. The target was higher, the boundaries smaller, but essentially he was doing the exact same things Mujtaba did in those two innings. He found a sustainable space within the chaos Shahid Afridi generated. Take strike, find gap, cede strike, run hard, put away what can be put away: it really was that simple. Mujtaba had similarly ordered himself amid bullish cameos from Manzoor Elahi, Saleem Yousuf and Rashid Latif in the two games.

It is too simplistic to say both represent a Karachi school of batsmanship, because it is ridiculous to say this of a city that has given us both Hanif Mohammad and Shahzaib Hasan. But it isn't difficult to detect an organic link between them, conjoining them to the city's batting sons, from Mushtaq Mohammad to Asif Iqbal to Javed Miandad. What it is, is best seen in a couple of examples. Another sharp memory of Mujtaba is from a 1993 ODI in Port-of-Spain, where he made a 40-ball 45 (with just four boundaries) to chase down 260 in a 45-over game, against Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop. Having completed a gentle single to long-off, Mujtaba spotted the fielder with ball in hand. As the fielder lazily prepared to underarm a throw back, imagining the passage of play to be over, Mujtaba stole a second and with Inzamam-ul-Haq of all partners.

In the 2009 World Twenty20 semi-final against South Africa, readers will remember Alam rocketing in a throw from long-off to run out Albie Morkel in the last over. After a brief celebration running in, Alam gestured to the bowler, Mohammad Amir, pointing out that he wasn't standing at the stumps backing up the throw. They are different situations entirely but reveal the same adherence to basic detail and alertness to opportunity. Neither, it must be said, are particularly extraordinary traits elsewhere but in among the general unconcern of most Pakistani cricketers for such details, it amounts to rocket science.

That way Alam comes from the very cradle of Karachi's cricketing infrastructure. His father, Tariq, was a fine domestic batsman and a club circuit legend, acknowledged by many to be the finest player of spin in the city. Younis Khan, Saeed Anwar and Rashid Latif among others were his keen disciples at the Malir Gymkhana. Further development for Alam has come in the city's two main nurseries, at Latif's academy for a period, as well as the Customs academy run by former fast bowler Jalaluddin. Around him is the city's circle of cricketing trust and it only bodes well for his return that Latif is now head selector.

That it needed this innings to remind ourselves of his qualities is proof only of the incoherent and defeating ways of Pakistani selection. Even a cursory glance at Alam's scores before he was dropped show he is capable of precisely these contributions: unremarkable but vital hands, increasing the chances, Mujtaba-like, of remarkable results. How Pakistan, with that frail lower-middle order, have believed for so long they are better off without even giving him a run is the most remarkable thing in all this.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National

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