The scale of Hanif's 499 can be measured by the names on either side of it in the record books: Bradman and Lara © Getty Images

"Why Hanif?" was the question, asked by a 12-year-old nephew of mine who had just heard the news that three Pakistanis - Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, and Hanif Mohammad - had been inducted into the ICC's Hall of Fame. The boy has been raised on a standard diet of Pakistani cricket DVDs - 1992 World Cup, Sharjah six, great spells of reverse swing - so the inclusion of Miandad and Imran was easy to understand. But who was Hanif, he asked skeptically, and what had he done to merit admission ahead of names like Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul Haq?

The answer stopped him cold. Because if you know nothing else about Hanif Mohammad, all you need to learn is that he once played the greatest Test rearguard of all time, and a year later set a new record for the highest innings in first-class cricket.

Individual scores of 400 or more are rare. There have only been 10 in all of cricket history, so on average first-class cricket witnesses one every decade and a half. Fifty years ago this week, January 1959, Hanif Mohammad made one such score - 499 in a first-class match in Pakistan. The scale of his achievement can be gauged from the names inscribed on either side of it: Don Bradman's 452 not out had stood as the highest first-class score for 30 years; after Hanif's knock it would take three more decades and a genius like Brian Lara to go past it with 501 not out.

"Bowling to Hanif was the most disheartening thing you could ever do," says Qamar Ahmed, the veteran Pakistan cricket journalist, whose first-class career as a left-arm spinner coincided with Hanif's. Qamar's memory of those days is vivid, not least because he had the distinction of dismissing Hanif in the innings that immediately preceded the 499.

These were the concluding days of the 1958-59 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan's flagship domestic tournament. Hanif was playing for Karachi, the competition's most formidable outfit, boasting several Test players. Qamar bowled to him for Hyderabad, in a match that Karachi won by an innings. Hanif was already a huge figure by then - he was Pakistan's leading international batsman and barely a year earlier had made that triple-hundred in the West Indies. Qamar's mother and sister had come to witness the match, but their primary interest was in Hanif rather than their next of kin. In the end they had it both ways, because Qamar had Hanif caught at long-off after he had made 129.

One week later, Karachi met Bahawalpur in the semi-final. The match was played at the Karachi Parsi Institute Ground, an unassuming venue that had no idea it was about to be immortalised.

On the first day Bahawalpur were dismissed for 185 by tea, after which Hanif set about his business. By close the following day he had reached 255 - on a matting wicket that offered a fair bit of sideways movement, and against an attack that included the Test spinner Zulfiqar Ahmed.

His team knocked out, Qamar had made the 100-mile bus journey from Hyderabad to watch Hanif in this match. He remembers a tranquil, unfussy atmosphere, with perhaps a hundred quiet spectators who clapped modestly and munched on snacks served on banana leaves. Reluctant to spend money on staying overnight in Karachi, Qamar returned to Hyderabad that evening. He figured he had seen most of Hanif's innings - the man had already gone past 250; how much more could he make?

"Nearing my triple-century, I was wearing out," writes Hanif in his autobiography, Playing for Pakistan. All that intense, uninterrupted concentration - Hanif's exceptional gift - was catching up with him. It was his captain and brother, Wazir Mohammad, with whom Hanif shared a third-wicket stand of 103, who alerted him to the milestone ahead. "I told him it was a bit too much, but he said no, keep playing," Hanif remembers. So keen was Wazir that he had Hanif massaged with olive oil that evening, and made sure he got a good night's rest.

The next day, by the time Hanif went past 300, the crowd had swelled to a thousand, and the applause had gone up by several decibels. Soon after tea he went past Bradman, with a boundary through the leg side, entering territory where no batsman had gone before. The next compelling landmark was 500.

Congratulatory telegrams poured in for Hanif, including one from the Pakistan president, Ayub Khan, and another, which touched Hanif the most, from Bradman himself

"There were two deliveries left in the day's play, and I noticed the scoreboard showing me on 496," writes Hanif. He worried that Wazir might declare on their overnight score. The next delivery, he pushed past point and took off for a single. When the fielder fumbled, Hanif turned and went for the second, but the throw beat him by a yard and a half.

Hanif thought he had made 497, but in fact his total was 499, as confirmed on the scoreboard when he started walking back. He had just broken a 30-year record for the highest score ever, but Hanif's memory of that moment is that he was furious. "Had I known I was batting on 498, I would have waited for the last delivery to get the required runs," he noted with indignation.

"After I got out, the Bahawalpur captain came to the dressing room with his team to congratulate me," Hanif recalled recently. "He said, 'See, I told you we'd get you out at some point. And at least we didn't let you make 500.'"

The match wasn't covered on radio, and it would be another five years before television came to Pakistan, so people first learned of it in the morning papers. It's not the kind of story you keep to yourself, and once the news was out, it went global. Congratulatory telegrams poured in for Hanif, including one from the Pakistan president, Ayub Khan, and another, which touched Hanif the most, from Bradman himself.

A tragic footnote was appended a week later when Abdul Aziz, Hanif's partner when he got to 499, was struck in the chest by a ball while batting; he collapsed and died on the way to the hospital.

Six years later Pakistan toured Australia under Hanif's captaincy, and Bradman met the team in the nets before the final tour match, in Adelaide. "He told me he imagined I would be one tall, strapping man. Instead, he said, he was quite pleased that I had a similar physique to him," Hanif said.

Bradman was generous with his praise, and expressed the wish that Hanif, who had already made 104 and 93 in the one-off Test in Melbourne, would make another hundred. He did, remaining unbeaten on 110 in Pakistan's only innings against South Australia.

Hanif's 499 did not leave everyone smiling, however. He recalls hearing from people who were shocked at the fall of The Don's famous record, and who questioned the standard of Pakistan's domestic competition. Such criticisms died their own death, and no one gets exercised about them now. When Hanif Mohammad enters a room, even Imran and Miandad stand up. That just about says it all.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi