The sights and sounds from the two series that took place between Pakistan and India in 2005-2006 are still vivid in my memory. This regeneration of cricketing ties had led to considerable excitement in both countries and around many cricketing circles across world. Pakistan's captain Inzamam-ul-Haq had been gaining a fair deal of press coverage in Pakistan for his divinely inspired approach to cricket training and management. And as many Indian bowlers were to discover over the span of these two tours, there was definitely something holy about Inzy in full flow.
"I reckon he's on a level just below Sachin and Lara, and just above everyone els", spoke Australian commentator Ian Chappell of the burly saint from Multan. 'The rest' he was so casually referring to included glorified names such as Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid. There was not much disagreement among commentators about Inzamam's place on the pantheon during that particular season. Dean Jones, also on the panel, would signal Inzamam's arrival to the crease with what could be confused for George Burn's cue at the Academy Awards, 'And the great man makes his way onto the middle.' The rhetoric would make the departing Salman Butt's inning seem like a thiry-second energizer bunny ad. Robin Jackman, the English commentator, was often left in awe by Inzamam's deft touches: 'Oh Inzy, Inzy, Inzy, what a special player he is', he would speak as if Paris Hilton had been asked about her latest squeeze by an interviewer.
The Indian side consisted of the Usual Suspects - some of the giants of the modern day game: Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Pakistan had Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan. But it seemed to be Inzamam who mattered the most. Sanjay Manjrekar, always full of praise for Inzamam, would go on to state his importance various times while covering the two series. He insisted that Inzamam had to be in top five, if not the top three batsmen in the game of that generation.
Times have changed and so have opinions. There have been virtually no echoes of Inzamam's exploits after his retirement. Rarely mentioned as one of the top batsmen of the 90s and early 2000s, and entirely overlooked in the lists of batting greats, posterity has not been too kind to Inzy. He does have a stain or two on his resume. Although his average managed to swell above 52 in the latter stages of his career, it ultimately slipped to just under 50. This excludes him from the 50s club. Additionally, although his record against Australia and South Africa includes some remarkable innings, his overall statistical performance against these sides was generally disappointing for a player of his calibre.
Within Inzamam were the last few glimpses of a dying, waning brand of cricket. With a loathing for exercise and a portly frame, he would seem like a man from another generation; playing exclusively through natural ability rather than any athletic marksmanship. He was one of the game's greatest players of the hook, and authored a back foot game that rivaled the best. Imran Khan famously rated Inzamam as the second best player of fast bowling he had ever seen - after only Viv Richards. It was a point Wasim Akram ratified in one of his earlier commentary stints. When Waqar Younis and he were at their peak, and used to steam in full throttle in the nets, Inzy used to play them as if they were bowling medium pace.
Inzamam's cricketing achievements rival the best of his generation. Seventeen of his 25 Test 100s came in victories - a rate bettered only by the peerless Don Bradman. There was the heroic match-winning knock in the World Cup semifinal which signalled his arrival. And the career-resurrecting thriller in Multan. And then there was his reputation as the Pakistani batsman, a pedestal he later vacated for Misbah-ul-Haq. Little statistical work has been done on how many more runs he may have managed if he had taken his running between the wickets more seriously. Perhaps, just perhaps his name would have been uttered in the same breath as a Lara or a Tendulkar?
Questions of his legacy as an all-time great batsman aside, he remains one of the true great characters in the game's history. In between the wickets, he was a comedy of errors waiting to happen, and yet - at the same time, a jolly green giant capable of remarkable shamanism with willow in hand. There are indeed so many sides to the Inzamam-ul-Haq saga. How can we forget a fuming Inzamam threatening to beat up a helpless fan with a bat in his hand? Or Inzamam the Test match captain who became the first in history to walk his team off the field?
But what makes these incidents special was, in the end, the pure ability of the man. It was his genius that eventually rises above numbers and achievements. Take away his pedestrian running between the wickets and there were very few who could match him from the time the ball left the bowler's hand to when it met the full blade of the bat. No other batsman bewildered commentators more with his natural ability. "So much time, Oh my. He has so much time on his hands." - this was the mantra-of-choice for most commentators, simply by observation rather than on reputation. In his embodiment lay the sight of a man gifted by the heavens rather than by hard work or a particular methodology. Yet, at the same time, he was not by any means unorthodox. He was a genuine Test match batsman with a practical technique.
Many who follow Pakistan cricket will testify that there were few more sights in the game that matched the excitement of a burly Inzamam pouncing down the track to deposit a spinner into the parking lot - only to stumble onto the stumps the next ball. Only Inzy. There is a fair deal to be taken into account when it comes to judging the true place of Inzamam within the annals of cricket's history. But for the cricket analysts and fans who have spent a fair deal of time watching Pakistani cricket, a few words will most surely resonate from their hearts: "Inzy, you beauty".
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