In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week, we ask whether the aesthetics of Ijaz Ahmed's batting have blinded us to his quality
Let's get the gags out of the way first.
There's the Dominic Cork dismissal doing the rounds, though it'll have to do many more rounds before anybody can make sense of it.
The 1992 World Cup, where, well, Ijaz Ahmed was there. Bemused all these years later, we still ask: why? He faced 26 balls in seven matches. Which would be the most remarkable thing had it not been for the other thing, that he bowled 216. Thirty-six overs - a third of all the ODI overs he bowled in a 250-match career. Overs of what, who knows, and with an action even a mother couldn't love. But he was there.
His stance we'll come to, though having lived through Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Steven Smith, Ahmed and his posterior-proud start barely raise an eyebrow.
Let's also kick the elephant out of the room. His name is all over the Justice Qayyum report, in nearly all the major allegations. His wife and Salim Malik's wife are sisters. But he was not found guilty of anything and faced no sanctions. So what if he was embroiled in a cheque forgery case nearly a decade later?
Stripped of all that, you're left with a career neatly split into two halves. The first seven years, a drifting, unfulfilled jumble; the second, whatever constitutes exactly the opposite. Mostly it is this half, from 1994, that is the business here, a time when Ahmed could claim to be all but Pakistan's best batsman. That comes across all preposterous but it's not. We just tend not to pay much attention to him because with the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Malik and Saeed Anwar - three once-in-a-generation types - swanning around, it's easy not to. And because there's the first half of his career to drag his legacy down.
Now that stance, which wasn't weird as much as that it made him play weird. He really was an unusual batsman, a quality amplified by the contrasts with the trio above in particular. An accurate description was once rendered by Sanjay Manjrekar, who said Ahmed was a badtameez batsman, a description to capture the swagger and disregard he brought. There was something uncouth about his batting, a healthy unconcern for the social mores and rules of batting.
Had he been playing today his game would have been dissected down to the last newton with which he hammered his bat down, waiting for the delivery. Dissected, more likely celebrated.
He had two areas: one square of the wicket on the off, one square on the leg, and the rest was scenery. Every ball on off or wider, pretty much regardless of length, was cut. I say cut but would much rather call it a slap, and I'd much, much rather call it a jhaanp, or a chapair: slaps in Urdu or Hindi but the pronunciation allows for so much more feeling. Chapairs everywhere, in a semicircle from over the cordon all the way through extra cover.
Most of everything else was an indescribable brutality through leg. He loved pulling and was effective with it, even if it always looked like he only decided at the very last millisecond to pull and then hedged his bets and tried to evade the ball as well as play it.
There does exist evidence of him driving, straight as well as through extra cover, but with a bottom hand so dominant, he was built to play square. Not unlike MS Dhoni, actually, with equal swagger and less foot movement forward. It was only natural, with his love of pulling and jhaanp-ing, that Australia suited him to a tee. Like very few other subcontinental batsmen.
Everyone can recall how good Ahmed was in - and against - Australia, at least by the headline numbers. Half of his 12 Test hundreds were made against them; half of those in Australia. The first was, for me, one of the great what-ifs. What if Geoff Marsh hadn't pulled off a catch that everyone from your great-grandfather down to your great-grandson would be blown away by, at the MCG in 1990 (off a proper cut)? Could Ijaz have marshalled the tail to pull off a heroic chase? How different would Pakistan's modern history in Australia look had they won that Test?
But it was better than that. Only a handful of players have at least one Test hundred on every tour of Australia (from three or more tours) and Ahmed is one of them, bettered by Brian Lara, and alongside Archie MacLaren, Herbert Sutcliffe, Richie Richardson and Virat Kohli. Only Sachin Tendulkar has as many as Ahmed's three Test hundreds in Australia through the 1990s.
If you take away the 1994-95 series in Pakistan, in which he played just one Test, he made at least one century in every series he played against Australia, from 1988 all the way through to 1999. That is, right from Australia's resurgence to deep into their golden years; against Craig McDermott, Terry Alderman, Merv Hughes, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, all of them. Not that it is any validation but for the sake of this argument, it is striking that he didn't make Warne's list of the top 100 cricketers of his time: even Monty Panesar made that list.
That Australia record is the cornerstone of Ahmed's career, but from 1995 - a year after his return - until 1999, he pretty much scored runs against everyone, almost everywhere (except South Africa and India), in all formats. In that time he had a more prolific Test record than even Anwar: more runs, better average, more hundreds, better conversion rate, and a better average and more hundreds than Inzamam. Most of it happened at one-down, where Inzamam and other worthies didn't want to bat. People snigger at that Cork dismissal but Ijaz's scores in that series after it were 76, 141, 52, 61 and 13 not out.
He made 48, 79 and 59 in the ODIs on that tour too, which is little surprise given that he was behind only Anwar in the format in that period - and he's probably even more underappreciated for what he did (as well as when and how) in ODIs. Three simple facts illustrate this.
Every single one of his ten ODI hundreds, from the first in 1988 to the last in 1999, was made at a 100-plus strike rate. Only four other players - AB de Villiers, Jonny Bairstow, Shahid Afridi and Shimron Hetmyer - have done that (with a cut-off of five hundreds). AB's genius is unmatched, but Ahmed is the only player on that list who finished his career before T20s had even arrived.
An even better illustration of how long ago he was doing such modern things is in the table below, of all batsmen with at least ten ODI hundreds at a 100-plus strike rate. Note his debut year, the earliest on this list by a distance; by the time Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle and Tillakaratne Dilshan were starting their careers, Ahmed had already made his last hundred.
This final one shows the difference in strike rate between him and all the other batsmen in the games in which he scored hundreds. The company he is in speaks for itself - he wasn't playing different matches to the others, he was playing different eras.
Finding himself in unexpected company on unusual lists was Ahmed's thing. The reason, ultimately, that he didn't end up with higher averages, more runs, or a shinier place in the pantheon is evidenced in one final list: exactly a third of all of his international dismissals were for under 10, the fourth-highest percentage of all time (among batsmen in the top seven with a cut-off of at least 300 international innings). Once he was in, he was in, but boy was he a candidate for not getting in in the first place.
The company here is eclectic: behind Shahid Afridi, Kapil Dev and Grant Flower, and ahead of Marlon Samuels. Two allrounders, a batsman from a historically weak side, and, in Samuels, an all-time enigma. In the final reckoning, who's to argue Ijaz doesn't fit right in here as well?