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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Yasin on March 11, 2014, 15:56 GMT

    Those who are talking about "Stance" what about Ijaz Ahmed's stance? And he served Pakistan from 1987 till 2001. Looking at stance only is very simplistic. Greatest batsmen of Pakistan known as men of crises Asif Iqbal, Mushtaq Mohd, Miandad what stance they had? Solid batting line is about stroke making & run accumulating players. Plan A is to win the game with stroke players but that doesn't happen & run accumulator becomes the key to execute Plan B in this article they are "Unremarkable And Vital Performer". Going into the game without defense is a disaster at the 1st place. Top world sports are comprise of offense & defense to have solid winning combination. Stroke playing & run accumulating are two different mindset. As a Pakistani we should be very clear that our opposition has sharp eyes on our weakness & they will capitalize. One can argue Pakistan with many great players just won one WC, why? Because we ignored the "Unremarkable And Vital Performer" with our stubborn attitude.

  • Syed on March 11, 2014, 10:57 GMT

    Fawad brought two records for whatever limited chances given to him in Test and ODI . One record is about himself which shall be never be broken i.e becoming the first Pakistani cricketer to notch up test debut century outside Pakistan, the other is helping Pakistan chase their highest score in ODI against Bangladesh in Asia cup recently. He has a healthy first class batting average of 55 which is more than Miandad, Hanif, Zaheer, Inzamam. So why he is ignored, does'nt it smells some nepotism, favouritism or regional politics in cricket. I am of the view that people should tolerate that cricket is a national sports and it should not involve regional politics/quota in playing eleven, only merit should prevail. If all 11 players on merit comes from Punjab, Sind, KPK or Baluchistan than we have to respect them There should be sincerity, transparency and merit in selection process

  • Syed on March 11, 2014, 10:41 GMT

    I do not know why people speak too high or too low if a batsman emerge in the international scene. They compare him with former great players which is totally nonsense. Every player has his own style. I have noted that despite his heriocs in Asia cup people are critical about fawad batting stance and vulnerability against fast bowling, but they must also admit that Fawad has played in just 3 test matches and very limited ODI and unlike other players Hafeez, Umar Akmal, who are given extended run in international cricket.So Fawad should be given extended run say 10 test matches and 20 ODI and by then we will be able to see where he stands. As far his batting stance is concerned Fawad himself has to worry about it and no one else should criticize and just admire his run getting ability.

  • mainul on March 11, 2014, 3:27 GMT

    Even being a Bangladeshi no Pakistani i think is a better fan than me of Fawad. In last 3 and half years i posted many comments in cricinfo simply on Fawad to see him in the Pakistani team.Some were published some were not.I am so passionate about this great Pakistani left hander...He is a great great (but wasted) talent.I can swear if he were given a proper run in the team he would have will simply pass Younus, Misbah by a mile.I like Misbah but i hate him only in one aspect.He was instrumental behind Fawad's exclusion along with the selectors. Lastly i want to request Misbah and selectors to continue Fawad in Pakistan team for the next decade for the benefit of Pakistani cricket and to recover their sin and he will be a legend by then

  • Yasin on March 10, 2014, 20:22 GMT

    Long story short you all: We need Mindad School of Batsmen regardless which part of the country he is from that's the solution to the Pakistan's batting. Historically speaking greatest batsmen of Pakistan came from Karachi e.g. Haneef Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas (played his cricket in Karachi born in Silkot), Mushtaq Mohammed, Saeed Anwer... Greatest bowler came from Punjab e.g. Fazal Mahmood, Imran Khan, Serfraz Nawaz, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younus...

    This is how simple our cricketing equation is. The problem starts when one region started to dominate completely and that's where our cricket goes into nose dive.

    Please make an effort don't let one region dominate Pakistan's Cricket; establish a system where one region can never ever dominate our cricket.

  • Dummy4 on March 10, 2014, 15:49 GMT

    Asif Mujtaba was similar to Muhammad Hafeez but Fawad Alam is more like to Younas Khan

  • Dummy4 on March 10, 2014, 14:07 GMT

    Not surprised to see so much hate in some comments; if people can criticize and dislike their captain, the most consistent batsman who keeps rescuing the team time and time again (despite his advancing years), then why spare Fawad Alam? Also, it's very funny to see people fighting on the Punjab-Karachi issue over selection matters. That's the spirit, instead of wishing for the best of Pakistan cricket, we are more concerned about which region has more representatives! Bravo, and then we hope for a better Pakistan? Fawad Alam is from Rashid Latif's academy and him being chief selector will hopefully bring some more transparency. FYI, Fawad Alam is not new; he made 168 on his Test debut (ages ago) and had an ODI average of 35+ before being dumped for batting with an 'ugly' style and not hitting enough sixes. Wonder if Graeme Smith and Chanderpaul would've had great careers if they were Pakistani. No disrespect towards Afridi, but why are we all so obsessed with boundaries and lusty blows

  • Syed on March 10, 2014, 6:09 GMT

    Unfortunate to keep players like Fawad out of national team for last 3 years and we invested a lot in grooming Imran Farhat, Yaseer Hameed, Shoaib Malik and many others who in the end proved the waste of time. Fawad performance should be eye opener for the selectors, he looks me a true finisher, like Asif Mujtaba who played the game in accordance with match situation and were missing in Pakistan batting line up.

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2014, 16:53 GMT

    That was good write up osman

  • Yasin on March 9, 2014, 3:02 GMT

    People those who like to split hair would criticize Fawad Alam's 114 runs in the Asia Cup 2014 Final.

    Those who are criticizing should understand clearly: Pakistan batting won't be able to achieve success unless we resort to Mindad School of Batting. You can ask Imran Khan, he will say the same!

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