In our series Come to Think of It, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. In this instalment, a reassessment of Saleem Malik, who might be remembered as a fixer but was so much more
You're not going to like this, not one bit. To many of you it won't matter because what you're about to read happened too long ago. But the world is in a rare pose of reflection - really its first ever. If not now then when to think deeper about, and beyond, accepted wisdoms and established truths: that is the central thrust of this series.
Which is how comes the opportunity to remember that before Saleem Malik the fixer there was Saleem Malik the batsman; and that he wasn't any batsman, he was one, more emphatically than is now recalled, capable of genius.
See, you don't like it. Why remember Malik as anything other than a fixer? Australian players called him the Rat and no one ever outraged much. Such is the stain he left that remembering him as we do is the perfect punishment, more robust than Justice Qayyum's life ban.
And sure. That will stick forever, unlike the ban, now overturned.
But forever needs stories to fill it, so here we are telling the one about when Malik first came to notice, way back when the '80s began, as the next big thing in Pakistani batting. These days, when we can finally say that fast bowlers come and go but a Babar Azam is forever, we can truly appreciate and understand how big a deal Malik's arrival must have been.
It happened just as one of Pakistan's most celebrated batting orders was breaking up. Sadiq and Mushtaq Mohammad and Asif Iqbal had gone, Majid Khan was done, and Zaheer Abbas hadn't long left. Javed Miandad, flourishing, needed company.
So landed Malik, a prodigy, with a first-class hundred in his second game, and a star and captain of Pakistan's Under-19 set-up. A hundred on Test debut - in a makeshift side ripped apart by a rebellion against Miandad's captaincy - set the seal on this potential.
Looking back now he was very much a sportsman of his era. He cut a shapeless figure, ungainly in a very middle-aged, subcontinental-male way. Not avuncular, exactly, but we all know an uncle like him: a little paunchy, a little curvy, a little bottom-heavy.
That doesn't mean he was a liability. On the contrary, he was an outstanding boundary fielder - not in the same way Jonny Bairstow is, but his throws were the work of a sniper, sleek, efficient and lethal. What, after all, do we remember of his contribution to the entire 1992 World Cup other than the throw from deep midwicket to run out Phil DeFreitas? Closer in, check out this catch - it's 1984; it could be 2024.
Bat in hand, waiting for action, the uncle didn't vanish. But once in play, here was a handsome batsman. The easy drives, the light feet, the rubbery whip of the blade whenever he went square either side, even as small an action as the shuffle to the off when he set up to drive had a pleasurable quality to it.
In toto, it could culminate in a range that matched Miandad's, only it played out on vastly different pitches. Miandad had Sharjah but Malik had Eden Gardens. Imran Khan promoted Abdul Qadir and Manzoor Elahi above Malik in the chase, so frustration and a teensy bit of anger, maybe, drove Malik. Rage could have helped a chase of 78 at over ten an over. But Malik was ice-cold, which, as a response, was much more calculating and complex and compelling than dumb old anger. He went hard at an injured Maninder Singh's SLA and dealt with the very mediumy pace of Madan Lal and Kapil Dev with the abruptness and lack of decorum that only a 23-year-old can conjure. Plus, a late chop through point off a Kapil yorker wide of off stump, having moved outside of leg stump to create the room, was the future.
Once he got ahead of the rate, he made sure to retain strike over the last couple of overs, picking up doubles and singles. He wasn't going to waste this. Here was Miandad's nous in killing the chase, but something altogether more formidable in setting it up.
Just as good was another, lesser-recalled gem, the 41-ball 66 in the Nehru Cup semi-final against England. Not just by numbers, in nature both innings were more aughts than '80s.
At another end stand three of the finest, most underappreciated Pakistani Test innings of the era: 99, 82 not out, 84 not out. All three came at Headingley across two Tests when swinging Headingley was a mean little hell for batting. The three innings showcased patience and technique, of course, but also sharp judgement and game awareness, especially the first of them: ground out over a day, alternating between steadying the batting and forging ahead, eventually setting up a famous innings win.
In that time only Queen's Park Oval was tougher to bat at. And Malik's only Test there? Sixty-six and 30, and the half-century was the only one from either team in the first innings. Khan once implied that Malik was a flat-track bully but Khan was sometimes off on his player assessments, just that we only remember the ones he got right. Malik was anything but.
Khan's ambivalence towards him was curious. Khan loved good body language, that most deceitful quality, which explains a little: Malik was no lion in the field. But Khan also loved men who stood up in crisis, and enough of Malik's best innings came in those moments, right under Khan's nose.
And somehow Khan rarely factored for one of Malik's most remarkable innings, when he batted one-handed, his left arm in plaster, against the toughest opponents of them all, West Indies. Forty-one minutes, 32 team runs, and enabling Wasim Akram's first Test fifty. A reminder not only for Imran but for us that humans are not binary creatures: one can be corruptible but also brave, selfless and committed when situations demand.
What Malik did seem to lack was the raw hunger of more driven, consistent players. He could and did go missing, as during the 1992 World Cup, or for the two and a half years and 19 Tests with just three fifties in the mid-'80s. He also ended with a single fifty in his last 13 Test innings.
The mood had to strike him, that much is true, and only he controlled when it did. When he became captain, for instance, and was afforded the respect he felt he deserved, he couldn't stop scoring. Early in his leadership he reaffirmed the depth of his quality, swatting away early-peak Shane Warne (Warne would dismiss him just once in five Tests, across which Malik averaged 71). Less remembered but a true-blue classic was his other 99, as captain, at the Wanderers - another tough venue, against a spiteful pace attack.
Captaincy suited him to the extent that it forms one of Pakistan's great what-ifs - how good might he have been? He took over a team, remember, much like the one he had debuted in, torn apart by factions and rebellions. He inherited one of the game's spikiest ego clashes, between the two Ws, and massaged it to a degree that both took nearabouts six wickets per Test each under him. Akram - who gravitated to Malik's charisma, not Miandad, after Khan's exit - had a better average under no other captain; Waqar Younis averaged better only under Miandad (among captains who led him in more than two Tests). And to think that initially not only were they not talking to each other, they weren't talking to Malik either because he had assumed the post they most wanted.
Captaincy, sadly, was the undoing; all that power and success merely grease for the ride down. And it's entirely plausible that even if Malik hadn't succumbed as he did, he might have ended up squeezed out between the two great pairings that overlapped and overshadowed his career: Khan-Miandad and Akram-Younis.
That he ensured he'll never be forgotten is, let's wager, no consolation.
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