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Zaheer Abbas burst upon the world of cricket in 1971 at the age of 23. In the opening match of Pakistan's tour of England that year, at Worcester, he made a rapid 100 and continued in prolific form, scoring 731 runs in May. The first Test match started at Edgbaston on June 3 and by June 4 Zaheer, during the course of a magnificent innings of 274, had completed 1,000 for the season.
Opponents, press and public were struck by the slender, bespectacled newcomer's mastery over an England attack which included Peter Lever, Ray Illingworth and Derek Underwood and had, only the previous winter, proved too strong for the Australians on their own pitches. His elegance, timing and powers of concentration (he batted for over nine hours and hit 38 4s) were acclaimed. Nevertheless, some reservations were expressed. England, having omitted the out-of-sorts John Snow, had no bowler of high pace to test this young man with the full and curiously looped backlift, and the Edgbaston pitch had been dead. Would the languid-looking Zaheer succeed on quicker wickets or when the ball seamed and swung? One who did not hedge his bets was Ted Dexter, who noted in a broadcast that up to the start of the tour Zaheer had made nine hundreds in only 45 first-class innings. "You must," said Dexter, 2be some batsman if you can score a century every five knocks you have."
In the event, Zaheer, or Zed as he has been almost universally known since his association with Gloucestershire began in 1972, has mocked the doubters. He has already made well 30,000 runs at an average of comfortably more than 50, and on December 12, 1982, his 215 for Pakistan against India at Lahore was his 100th first-class hundred. By September 1983 he had made a century in each innings of a match on eight occasions, and on four of them one of the centuries was a double; both are feats unparalleled in the annals of the game. In Test matches he had scored his 4,000th run and was averaging 46.81
This bald statistical recital gives the impression that all went smoothly for Zaheer after that remarkable performance in what was only his second Test match - his first had been against New Zealand in 1969 - but this is far from being the case. Zaheer's impressive Test figures mask some inconsistencies. After his triumph at Edgbaston he had to wait three years for his next Test century, which was again a big one and against England - 240 in The Oval Test of 1974. There was another long gap before his third, which was against Australia at Adelaide in 1976-77. Prosperous series against India and New Zealand in 1978-79 brought him three hundreds, yet in his next 23 Test innings he made only 528 runs. Then came some marvellous batting in Pakistan in 1982-83 against Australia and India, a veritable run-glut which included five Test centuries, the 215 at Lahore among them.
These ups and downs are mentioned less as criticism than as an illustration of the character which Zaheer, a man whose persona is quiet to the point of diffidence, has frequently shown in overcoming adversity. Poor form, for him, is a more serious matter than for most players, for apart from his wife, Najma, their daughters, Rudaba and Roshana, and the immediate circle of his family, cricket and more particularly batting is the breath of life to him. Where such dedication exists, failure is not easily shrugged off, and introspection and worry can compound a player's difficulties.
Technical faults have sometimes been advanced to explain Zaheer's extremes of form, but this seems to me to be nonsense. He has scored a century on every six and a half visits to the crease. Leaving aside the phenomenal Sir Donald Bradman, whose ratio of centuries to innings was one to 2.8, Zaheer's striking-rate, among those who have made 100 hundreds, is excellent. Batsmen who have made a comparable number of runs with a higher career average can be counted on the fingers of one hand. No one with a faulty method could perform at Zaheer's level over fourteen seasons, winter and summer, and to attempt to explain his failures in this way is to misunderstand the man and the nature of his art.
Zaheer's love of batting is manifested not through mere sterile occupation of the crease, with runs being scored at a rate dictated by the level of the bowler's competence, but rather through a will to dominate bowlers, almost irrespective of their skill or of the condition of the pitch. This is a characteristic he shares with his great contemporary, Vivian Richards. The shortish ball just outside of stump, which a player more prudent or less talented might studiously ignore, is to him there to be hit, and the same can apply to the straight, good-length ball, from which he scores with an ease and frequency which only Richards and perhaps Greg Chappell have matched in recent years.
Such an ambitious approach carries its own penalties. Inevitably, attacking strokes aimed at good balls leave little margin for error. Zaheer, therefore, more that most, can be affected by slight loss of form; the flowing cover-drive, if edged, carries to slip in a way that the careful defensive prod does not. On balance, however, his attitude is fully justified by his record. The spectator must expect the occasional early dismissal, but in compensation he sees, when Zaheer is going well, strokeplay of a beauty which illuminates a utilitarian age.
Like all great players, he has an uncomplicated method. It is based first on correct footwork, so that he is positioned advantageously in relation to the length and line of each delivery. Secondly, though his backswing may not please the purist, the bat's downward path, which is much more important, is so strictly vertical as to satisfy the most pernickety geometrician. His power is derived from a high backlift, sweet timing and wristy acceleration of the blade at the moment of impact. It is this wristiness, together with the consequent free follow-through, that gives his batting its seductive bloom. When watching him, I am constantly reminded of Beldham's photographic studies of the heroes of cricket's Golden Age - of Fry, Trumper, Ranji and MacLaren.
He has no favoured area of scoring, striking the ball as firmly off the back foot as the front and despatching it with the same certainty through mid wicket as past mid-off or wide of cover point. Such all-round mastery makes him at times impossible to contain, for no matter where the bowler directs his attack, Zaheer, his intentions almost invariably aggressive, can fashion a scoring stroke. He is still only 36, so that cricket-lovers (though perhaps not bowlers) will hope to be delighted by his artistry for several seasons yet.