Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator
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In cricket's lifelong contest between bat and ball, the highest points are inevitably reached during Test matches, which have the time and space to strip a man to the bone. The great players land blows in such a way as to determine the outcome of a match in short, sudden and dramatic bursts that are missed by those waiting at the turnstiles or queueing at the bar; like with boxers who land knockouts at the very moment a member of the crowd has nipped to the bathroom. The cricketers of Pakistan land these blows more often than most. There is something visceral in their play, which has a tendency to lurch from impossibly good to impossibly bad and makes for thrilling and always unpredictable viewing.
My favourite image of a Pakistan cricketer, and of any moment in Pakistan's rich history, comes from a one-day match played in coloured clothes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1992. It is of a man's back with his arms stretched wide. He is on the move towards another man who is wearing a hat and whose face is at the point of ecstasy. To the right of them is a third man, whose body is trapped in an emotional freeze, the pain written into his eyes clear through the bars of his helmet. This man is dressed in pale blue and across his chest is printed "England". The other two men are in lime green. On the first man's back the name check says "Akram" and on the second man's chest, that of wicketkeeper Moin Khan, is the title "Pakistan". It is among the most graphic and exciting photographs of sport ever taken.
Understandably, this image means a great deal to the people of Pakistan because it is the split second after Wasim Akram has all but decided the World Cup final with two knockout blows. The first, dismissing Allan Lamb with an extraordinary outswinger from round the wicket; the second, cleaning up Chris Lewis next ball with an outrageous inswinger. Soon enough, Imran Khan was lifting the trophy. Even as an Englishman, it was hard not to rejoice in this triumph for it meant so much to so many, celebrating the game's free spirit over the more prosaic alternatives and giving sympathy to instability, while brushing away structure and pragmatism.
The picture tells us about confrontation, about prey and predator, reason and retribution. The bowler is hunting for his kill, sure in the knowledge that his opponent is vulnerable if unsettled. He probes for weakness, mental or technical, and then looks to burst through the target's defences with speed, power and enviable skill. The target, meanwhile, is looking simply to survive. He shows a strong face, taking his time at the crease to slow his breathing and gather his mind, but deep down - somewhere in a sub-conscious stream of reality - he knows that the man with Akram on his back is soon to be dancing on his grave.
Only a few cricketers have had the presence and ability to bend a game to their will. Pakistan have had more than their fair share and, among them, Akram is foremost. Elsewhere, Garry Sobers, Viv Richards and Virat Kohli; Mike Procter and Ian Botham; Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne come instantly into view as others with this almost super-human power. Imran Khan is up there too; Javed Miandad close by.
I have written about Imran on these pages before. It is enough to say that he was an imperial leader, a man able to forge a team in his own image. He understood the insecurities of the men around him, having been a part of some of the broken institutions that fed them, so he convinced his players to put aside their doubts and pay full attention to their gifts. He was not a born cricketer in quite the way of both Miandad and Akram but he found a formula for success in thought, work and craft. Fierce concentration fired his batting, enviable athleticism his bowling. He studied opponents and delighted in exposing their flaws.
To play against Imran was to go face to face with a warrior. The tools of his trade were bat and ball. The first of those he used intelligently to spend time at the crease and, on occasion, to swing freely and usually over mid-on; the second he swung at a searing pace, mainly into the bat and venomously late. Richie Benaud picked Imran in his all-time best team. Further qualification is not required. His opponents needed heart, mind and stomach for the fight. It was rare that Imran rode into town and left without the spoils. His country has known no greater cricketer.
Pakistan came to play Hampshire in Bournemouth in 1982. The excitement of the locals cannot be overestimated. The only disappointment was that Imran chose not to appear but there was some solace in the man at first drop, Majid Khan, who made 40-odd in the second innings as if he were picking apples from a tree. Any ball a fraction short of a length was flicked this way and that with delicious timing; any ball overpitched was eased into space with a smile. The only modern comparison I can think of is Mark Waugh, or perhaps a languid version of Babar Azam. At the time he was the next most beautiful batter to Barry Richards and Greg Chappell I had seen.
Among other players to marvel at was Wasim Bari, who kept wicket silently. You neither heard the ball arrive in his gloves nor wondered how it got there, so natural did it all seem. There was glide to his footwork and nesting in his glovework. Alan Knott thought him the best, which is the biggest of green ticks.
I made a few runs in the second innings and spent much of the time figuring out Abdul Qadir, who had more tricks than Houdini. Warne used to love to sit with him and they flicked balls across the coffee table at each other like happy children at play. He marvelled at the Qadir googly, a delivery he never truly mastered himself, and learnt about energy through the bowling action and the different points of release that would change the flight of the ball. Qadir was the first top-notch legspinner I batted against and every second lives with me today.
In 1978 I played against Gloucestershire in Basingstoke. Wet behind the ears, I was in awe of everything and everyone, not least Procter, who cut one heck of a dash. The hundred of all hundreds though came for Zaheer Abbas, who hit the ball remarkably hard for someone who didn't look like he was hitting it at all. Basingstoke is a small club ground and Zaheer made the place feel like a postage stamp. Each time our skipper moved a fielder, he hit the next ball from whence that fielder had come. Z's driving and cutting was majestic, his wristy brilliance mesmeric. By the end, he was taking the mickey and it became very funny, in a masochistic sort of way.
Then came Miandad, the hustler. A provocative man with a sharp and competitive instinct, he was a fantastic batter - among his country's most substantial achievers. The pace of his innings met all requirements in all types of conditions, an attribute that would bear gold in this era of fast cricket for huge reward.
Always Javed had an eye for the main chance and he once made a flawless 142 against us on the old ground in Southampton. Honestly, we were candy to him. In the end, I put everyone on the fence to give him a single, which was a bit childish. He walked the 20 yards every time, gesticulating that my field placements were drowning the game in boredom, so I brought a couple up and he hit the next two balls over their heads and into the road before limping off and then declaring the Pakistan innings closed!
Inzamam-ul-Haq is first remembered for being Jonty Rhodes' run-out victim in the 1992 World Cup. It is an endearing image of a game proven to be for all men. In the early part of his career, Inzy was thought to be harmless - a little heavy and slow on his feet. Wrong. He could bat against anyone, anywhere with the most exact contrast in method and style to the impish and fleet-footed Javed. Inzy defended straight, belted in attack and loved to bat long. At the outset he was counted among the most feared one-day batters but by the time of ascending to the Pakistan captaincy, he was considered a master of the formats.
Recently England arrived in Pakistan for the first time in 17 years and the first of three Test matches begins on Thursday. Ben Stokes' team will need their wits about them. Mainly, the modern player knows what to expect but it is in the surprises that the magic of Pakistan cricket lives.
The first time Imran saw Waqar Younis live was in the nets before a Test match. Not long after, he was in the team. In the English summer of 1990, playing for Surrey, he knocked my middle stump out with a spearing yorker that swerved in so far and so fast, I defy any man to have resisted it. A year later at The Oval, he broke my hand in two places with a killer short ball. I should add that Robin Smith, who was at the other end and could really bat against the quicks, immediately, and for the only time in his career, called for a visor to be attached to his helmet instead of just the side pieces. Returning to the pavilion before moving on to the hospital, I remember thinking, "Who are these guys?"
I have written here of the Pakistan cricketers who, through on-field experiences, most impressed. Their range of talent was incomprehensible to us journeymen. Since then, and watched only from the commentary box, an array of gifted batters and bowlers have continued the line.
Spend a moment considering Mohammad Asif's guile and Mohammad Amir's flair, along with the various skills given to Saeed Ajmal and Yasir Shah. Bring yourself up to date with the explosive Shaheen Shah Afridi, today's Wasim Akram; wonder at the strong upper body with which Haris Rauf pounds the pitch, and the brilliant originality in the batting and wicketkeeping on show from Mohammad Rizwan.
Think of them all and then take a while longer to think about Babar Azam. Keep thinking, and understand that Babar is up there with the gods. There is a flow to Babar's play that cannot be imitated. It comes from the perfect blend of technique, movement and timing. There is no weakness, only strength. In each of his innings is opportunity, probability and dignity. He is the face of Pakistan cricket now and he is the light.
Not until the 1970s did Pakistan field a side that was able to hold its own against any opponent anywhere in the world. Now they do so with regularity and have managed to maintain their standards while consigned to the wilderness of the Middle East for their home matches in the decade that followed the terrorist attacks in Lahore in 2009. But they are back, at home and surrounded by the promise of youth. It is a compelling narrative and one that England will do well to overturn.