March 6, 2001

Zaheer Abbas: The Asian Bradman

In the mould of greats of `the Golden Era', Zaheer Abbas was a stylish, elegant batsman. In full flow, he was a sight for sore eyes. His avarice for runs matched that of the Aussie legend, and that was why he was dubbed the Asian Bradman. High praise indeed for there have been many greats but none matches the aura of the Don.

There was not a touch of arrogance about Zaheer's batting but of lyrical, fluent movement, his innings memorable for a refined, effortless beauty. His strength was precision and timing. He had the ability to go on back and front foot with equal facility, on occasions moving from backward to forward or vice versa during the course of one stroke and yet send the ball crashing to the fence. A high back-lift gave him a touch of elegance, and combined with powerful and supple wrists guiding the ball into the gaps on both sides of the wicket, he scored a very high proportion of his runs in boundaries. When the going was good, he seemed like a maestro at work, his artistry, his elegance leaving connoisseurs awestruck.

Zaheer's first big score came in England, a double hundred, 274 to be precise, at Edgbaston in only his second Test. With that innings, not only did he prove the pundits wrong, who thought that his technique and high backlift would make him highly suspect against the seaming ball, it also heralded the arrival of a new international star. Such was his mastery, so profound his concentration that he never seemed like getting out. He may have gone on and on, when sheer exhaustion got him; by the time he got out he had batted for nine hours and 10 minutes.

Many counties immediately lined up to recruit this lean and bespectacled youth, but he opted for Gloucestershire, a less fashionable choice but one which he did not regret. He never switched to another county, playing for Gloucester right to the end, making runs year on year in a huge pile, well in excess of 1,000 almost every season, 2,544 in one glorious Indian summer of 1976 and another 2305 in 1981.

Having already scored another double hundred (240) in the Oval Test in 1974 and some big scores on the Australian tour of 1976-77 including 101 at Adelaide, he was signed up by the Kerry Packer circus, which resulted in his missing two rubbers against England. When the Packer bunch was welcomed back to the fold for the Indian series, after an 18-year gap, Zaheer was at his majestic best, putting to sword the feared Indian spin quartet to notch scores of 176, 96 and 235 in successive innings. His tally of 583 runs in a short rubber was then a world record.

The only Asian to have made a century of centuries in first class cricket to date, he really had a Bradmanesque appetite for runs. Nothing reflects this better than his making a century in each innings on eight occasions in a first class match, a world record. All the more amazing is the fact that in four out of these eight, he made a double hundred and a hundred. His 100th hundred, predictably, a double hundred (215) against India in the 1982-83 Lahore Test was followed by two more Test hundreds in that series.

That was the last of his great series, and though he got the captaincy, which he so desired when Imran Khan got his famous shin injury, he only played one major innings, an unbeaten 168, again at Lahore, again against India. Never really comfortable against genuine pace, but then nobody really is, by then age was catching up fast and his reflexes had deteriorated a great deal.

For one who was the epitome of grace in batting, his exit was rather unseemly as he opted out of the last Test of his career at Karachi in 1985-86 against Sri Lanka, not allowing himself a proper farewell. Zaheer blamed it on senior players, on Imran Khan in an indirect way. But perhaps he did so in a fit of pique, because having announced his retirement from Test cricket, he still wanted to remain active in the one-day version of the game. And the selectors, certainly with Imran prompting them, would have none of it. Whatever the reason, none would dispute that Zaheer deserved a better send off than he got.

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