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July 6, 2009
The man who bowled Pakistan's first ball in Test cricket is no more. Khan Mohammad also took Pakistan's first wicket and fittingly perhaps, for what was to follow, his victim Pankaj Roy, was clean bowled.
Fazal Mahmood, Mohammad's new-ball partner in those early days, was the blue-eyed, impossibly debonair star, but Mohammad was a compelling foil. At his peak, players from the era even suggest that he was the more difficult to handle.
Certainly, he was a different proposition. Well-built, with a high-stepping approach, Mohammad was swifter but not really express. That most of his victims were bowled or leg-before was a reflection more of his accuracy than pace. His stock ball was one that came in, though he complemented it with clever changes of pace and some natural, uncomfortable lift.
Mohammad was a Lahori through and through, growing up as the son of a timber merchant in the old city. He took to the game early and quickly became a key fixture in the city's thriving club cricket scene, representing first Friends CC, before moving to the big daddy among Lahore clubs, Universal CC. The move was beneficial and brought swift recognition: he was picked for Northern India to play in the Ranji Trophy, pre-partition, at the age of 19.
Soon after Pakistan came into being, Mohammad quickly established himself as the premier fast-medium bowler of the land, taking 14 wickets in two unofficial 'Tests' on a tour of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1948-49. He joined Lahore's Islamia College as a History and Economics student and further honed his skills in the legendary and fierce rivalry with Government College, a rivalry that did much to ensure Pakistan were a competitive side when they stepped into international cricket.
Recognition came also in the form of selection for the first Pakistan Eaglets trip to England, in 1950. The Eaglets was a visionary venture by the BCCP (now PCB), sending a group of the most promising players in Pakistan on annual trips to take on county second XIs and club sides in England. It was a prototype of A team tours, designed, again, to keep Pakistan competitive when they made their Test debut.
Mohammad impressed enough on his first trip to attract the attention of Somerset and took five wickets in his only match for them, against South Africa. He would've gone on, but for Pakistan's imminent entry into Test cricket: he decided to come back to play against an MCC side in 1951-52, the contests that sealed Pakistan's Test status. It was a wise decision, Mohammad taking a five-for in the first drawn game in Lahore and following it up with eight wickets in the famous Karachi win; eight months later, the ICC granted Pakistan Test status.
His Test career was impressive, but brief and disrupted by injury. He didn't complete either of the two historic tours to India in 1952-53 or to England in 1954 - he was playing in the Lancashire leagues when called up to the latter tour (he was among the first players in Pakistan to look at the game as a profession). But when his fitness returned, so too did his form and, briefly, he entered the best phase of his career.
India's return trip in 1954-55 was particularly fruitful; a dull, meandering and result-less series saw Mohammad taking 22 wickets, mostly on matting surfaces. A career-best 6 for 21 followed against New Zealand and a heady peak was reached as he and Fazal took all 20 wickets against a strong Australian (Mohammad taking seven) in Karachi in 1956, Pakistan coasting to a nine-wicket win.
But a couple of listless, injury-ridden Tests later, against Gary Sobers and a rampant West Indies, Mohammad's career was over, 13 Tests yielding an impressive 54 victims. He tread a wandering post-cricket path thereafter, briefly coaching Canada in the 1960s and, after picking up some coaching qualifications, working intermittently on pace camps in Pakistan. Attending one summer camp, in 1984, was the gangly, still unheard-of Wasim Akram. He worked with the Pakistan board in various capacities, though some might complain, it wasn't often enough.
His former team-mate Imtiaz Ahmed, who kept wickets to Mohammad, said while Fazal was famed for his leg-cutters, it was Mohammad who brought the ball in appreciably. "He wasn't easy to handle," Imitiaz told BCC Urdu. He bowled Len Hutton on the 1954 tour for a duck with one of those deliveries. He was always a total team man and a real friend of friends."
Another former team-mate Waqar Hasan said Pakistan's pace attack in those early years was considerably boosted by Khan's presence. "Both he and Fazal were very accurate but he was a bit quicker so often troubled batsmen more. He was a unique individual and always a team man."
He spent much of the latter half of his life in England though he was a regular visitor to Pakistan and was often seen at Gaddafi Stadium on match days. He was never short of advice for fast bowlers young and old, rookie and veteran and, on balance, it was advice they would do well to adhere to.
Ijaz Butt, the PCB chairman, said Pakistan cricket had lost a valuable asset and passed his condolences to Mohammad's family. Mohammad is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.
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