In our series Come to Think of It, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. In this article, we turn our attention to a great batsman who doesn't get the recognition he deserves
November 15, 1993 and March 27, 1994; here are two dates that, on common agreement, changed the course of one-day batting. Opening for the first time on the first date, Sanath Jayasuriya. Twenty-three off 27 promised a bit but not for another year would the size of the canvas he would be painting on reveal itself. The latter, meanwhile, began with Navjot Sidhu's stiff neck in Auckland and a plea from Sachin Tendulkar to be allowed to open. The scope of that was clear immediately.
Not long after came the 1996 World Cup, after which the ODI opener would never be the same. These two had switched on a light, and now the first 15 overs were a frontier that merely awaited conquering. Jayasuriya - because he won the tournament and because his berserker was more berserker than anyone else's - and Tendulkar had brought about a paradigm shift.
A fortnight before Jayasuriya moved up, another southpaw had just scored his 1000th run as an ODI opener. His strike rate as opener at that point was 85.03. The next best, in the entire history of ODIs to that point, had been Kris Srikkanth's 71.74. That was a big enough gap for our guy to be considered an outlier; maybe even the paradigm shift before the paradigm shift; the guy who was doing for over three years what Jayasuriya and Tendulkar would be feted for. (Before you say Mark Greatbatch, know that his 1992 World Cup was an aberration: his strike rate before it was 73.59, and after it, 64.65.)
Saeed Anwar made his one-day debut on the first day of 1989 but it was not until the Benson & Hedges tri-series the following year, on February 13, that Pakistan were sure they wanted him to open. Two days before, in Brisbane, coming in early at one down, Anwar had breezed to a 24-ball 37 against Australia. It made sense to move him up, and how. He made 27 off 30 and then, within the week, 126 off 99 balls and 43 off 36. On the runs chart, he ended the tri-series third. On strike rate - 105.39 across nine games - he was a chart of his own, with more fours and sixes than anyone.
So if you're looking for the moment ODI opening was being yanked into the future, this was it. If you don't believe it from the numbers, believe it from the reactions of the broadcast commentariat. Breathless awe, yes: "a touch of Superman about this shot", as Anwar stepped out and across in the 9th over, outside the line of off, to a Terry Alderman delivery, back of a length, around off and slanting away, and swished it away over square leg for a monster six.
Prudish tut-tutting also: "For all those young men with aspirations of playing cricket at the highest possible level this is not necessarily the way to play", as a dainty little skip down the wicket to Greg Campbell in the 12th over produced a dainty little ping high over midwicket for four. For a while Pakistan didn't know what to make of him either, happy to luxuriate when the going was good, but never all in on this future; sure signs that somebody was doing something that nobody had seen before.
By the time Jayasuriya and Tendulkar happened, Anwar's had been a disrupted career - he only played in 42 of Pakistan's 108 ODIs from his debut to the day Jayasuriya opened. Injury robbed him of the 1992 World Cup, which should have been his coming out. But his body of work by then - six hundreds in 41 innings - was substantial enough to leave little doubt that it began with him.
Now, if you didn't think of him quite like that, you're hardly alone. The oversight is of a piece with his entire career. But at least in ODIs, if not a trailblazer, Anwar is at least ultimately acknowledged as a great - how couldn't he be, as the highest -scoring opener of the '90s, one of the most transformative decades for the format?
His Test career, on the other hand, remains entirely overlooked and grossly under-celebrated. And nearly 20 years on, we can only guess at why this is.
It wasn't a long career and these days greatness is pegged to longevity and endurance. Anwar's 55 Tests unintentionally place him in a less abundant and relevant era: Hanif Mohammad, after all, played 55 Tests. The sample is also small enough that it stands vulnerable to being dulled in comparison to ordinariness: Mohammad Hafeez has also played 55 Tests.
That was a by-product of Pakistan's early wavering on Anwar. He didn't play a Test for three years after that debut pair, despite averaging 68 in first-class cricket the season before he was picked (so deserving more than just one Test) and nearly 48 between his first and second Test. (Imran Khan haters, feel free to mail in your thoughts about why he ignored and then pigeonholed Anwar as a white-ball player.)
But try and think back, in those 55 Tests, to a signature Anwar series, a duel, a passage of play. No doubt you'll eventually find one but nothing that jumps out in the way it does for Brian Lara or Tendulkar.
See, unlike those two, Anwar wasn't his side's only star. The 188 not out in Kolkata is a good example. Potentially his finest Test innings, a genuine epic, yet it's like the middle-child memory from that game: ignored between two deliveries from Shoaib Akhtar, Tendulkar's run-out, and Moin Khan's rearguard, and jostling instead with Javagal Srinath's 13 wickets for attention.
Anwar was not an outsize personality, and he was surrounded by outsize characters. Quieter, more contemplative (though with a genius for pranks to match his batsmanship), Anwar was genuinely lo-fi alongside the Ws, Mushy, Moin, Inzy, Sohail, Shaiby, Saqi, Afridi and Malik.
Not just Pakistan, actually, but the decade had characters spilling out from every XI. All those fast bowlers, the Waughs, Shane Warne, Tendulkar, Lara; it was easy to slip by unnoticed among this mob. And forget mobs, if you're left-handed and existing in the age of Lara alone, you'd best settle for the shadows.
Post-retirement he has shrunk further away, now but a dot on the game's horizon. It's admirable in the way you can admire someone who resolutely chooses not to hang on to past glories. But because he's not that ex-player, coaching or clogging up newsfeeds all the time, he has been easier to forget.
More than anything, though, the aesthetics of his game have, insidiously, engulfed the Test impact of it; as Warne, in picking him as the best Pakistani batsman he had bowled to, wrote, "[it's the] style you remember, not the figures". It was always easy to forget Anwar was not being pretty for the sake of being pretty but to some bigger, more functional purpose.
It's an easy trap. Here, watch this. No foot movement, no force, nothing - just a ball's fleeting acquaintance with bat, face expertly twisted sideways at contact, as if a snub. And off she goes, teasing point to his right, giving eyes to third man to his left, eyes itself only for the boundary rope. It's as minimalist a boundary as you'll ever see and it's stunning.
Another, and this time Mark Nicholas' commentary is enough. Cursory recognition that it's a good shot before, a second later, the realisation that it's much more: "in fact, it's astonishing timing". In fact, this happened a lot - the timing was such that it could disorient the senses. From early in the 188 not out, note this: straight, not exactly a drive, but a four still. Unlike Lara's flourishes that proudly announced his boss-ness, it often took a second or two to understand what Anwar had done; in fact, like the greatness of his career creeping up on you.
From the same innings comes another reminder of his inventiveness, the last shot he plays before Pakistan's innings ends. Look especially at how late he dabs in this shot, the bouncer well past his left shoulder, bat-face to the skies, pointing towards third man. Not an upper-cut - or "an upper-glide", as Sanjay Manjrekar corrects himself - but an early - perhaps the earliest? - iteration of the ramp against bouncers that proliferates in the modern game. Again, most of the world probably remembers Adam Gilchrist as having first played that shot, on his Ashes debut in 2001.
The range of Anwar's strokes was not only vast but, it seemed, forever expanding. Often, in each substantial innings he was playing a shot you hadn't seen him - or, sometimes, anyone - play before. And… and, we're deep in this rabbit hole, like Warne, not talking about his Test figures.
But then that's the easy bit. Second highest Test average of all openers in the '90s (40 innings or more).
Highest away average of all openers in the decade (20 innings or more); and he averaged slightly more away (45.66) than at home (45.36).
Test hundreds in all countries he played in (except the two weaker sides of that decade, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh). The only other opener to match that is Gary Kirsten, who had hundreds in each of the five countries he played in (Anwar had six in six). Among all Asian batsmen only Mohammad Azharuddin and Tendulkar scored Test hundreds in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia that decade, like Anwar.
Four hundreds at the business end of Tests, in the third innings, and don't miss their geography: Brisbane, Kolkata, Durban, Colombo. Three of them came with Pakistan facing a first-innings deficit or looking to extend a slender lead.
Three daddy hundreds away from home in the '90s. Only one other opener - Ravi Shastri - had more than one. You remember Jayasuriya's double at The Oval, Mark Taylor's triple in Peshawar, and definitely Michael Atherton's 185 at the Wanderers. Well Anwar had three 150-plus scores overseas, all in wins. All in a decade, we don't need repeating, that was among the toughest in recent generations to be an opener in.
Could go on too, though who's to say it'll make any difference. Your WhatsApp will be full of forwarded best-ever lists these days, none of which will have Anwar in them. Meanwhile, we created this wonderful game:
A tough one, even if we've restricted it to Test batsmen who've played in the past three decades.— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) April 20, 2020
Your top six would be... pic.twitter.com/2nbcWasPG7
Marvan Atapattu has the loveliest eyes, but, guys, over Anwar? Hi Marcus Trescothick; good, solid player, county giant, but, umm, no. And look through the replies: no one's protesting.
You should be, but come to think of it, maybe that time is more valuably spent watching Anwar bat.
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