An evening with the Little Master
In September 2011, the writer alongside Abdul Dyer and Arslan Mirza, paid a visit to legendry Pakistan opening batsman, Hanif Mohammad. The great batsman of the bygone era, on his annual visit to U.K. was staying with his family in Wembley, London.
Twice tourists to England with Pakistan Eaglets, Abdul Dyer needs no introduction for even to this day he enjoys close relationship with the Mohammad brothers and will go down as one of the leading benefactors of cricket in Karachi. To fulfil his ambition to one day emulate the feats of other leading cricketers, a matting wicket was laid in Pakistan Textile Mill, in the early 1960s. The Dyers were only too pleased to invite members of the Pakistan team, to come and hone their skills, on it which by now had nets erected as well. He also had the honour of playing under Hanif and alongside Mushtaq for Karachi in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy.
On the other hand Arslan Mirza, aged seven at the time, had a clear recollection of interaction with the great man whilst he nursed a hand injury that kept him out of the Test Match between Pakistan and West Indies at Bagh-e-Jinnah, Lahore in March 1959. Arslan was also fortunate enough to watch Hanif, then Pakistan captain, score a double hundred against New Zealand at Lahore Stadium (now Gaddafi) in 1964-65.
An avid cricket follower, his deep interest in Pakistan domestic cricket, in both Karachi and Lahore, till the mid-1980s, makes him a reliable source for information on players, grounds and the management. Arslan’s anecdotes, featuring Hanif Mohammad, Agha Saadat Ali, Khawaja Abdu Rab, Haji Mohammad Bashir and Javed Babar, are a real throwback in the past. The sight of lean and bespectacled Zaheer Abbas, having made his Test debut few months ago against New Zealand and now representing PIA ‘A’ against Lahore Blues in an Ayub Trophy fixture at Lahore (now Gaddafi) in February 1970, remains one of his abiding memories.
On a personal note, having only met Hanif Bhai twice before, at his residence in Karachi alongside his Pakistan colleagues Shuja-ud-din and Haseeb Ahsan in 1994 and then at Lord’s during the 1996 Test match between England and Pakistan, it was hard to expect anything in particular from him. But all three of us were in awe of the great man. In his typically soft tone, Hanif, even at seventy-six, was more than capable of holding the audience, captivated by his logical argument and detailed analysis on all aspects of the game. Mild manners and an innate capacity to listen and take in were the two obvious features one came across in his company. Each and every movement was measured and calculated, for all his life during his playing days and for that matter afterwards, Hanif, unruffled and unperturbed, neat, composed and economical, had been a model professional, both in theory and practice.
It was an absolute privilege to be in the company of a cricketer, who after having quit international cricket way back in 1969, still commanded huge respect and following, both in and outside Pakistan. For number of years Hanif, the third in line of the five sons of Ameer Bee, had shunned the media attention to opt for a quite life and hence our meeting with the great man ran on the lines of nothing more than an ‘informal chat’.
Make no mistake for Hanif was a truly great international batsman with a star quality. A schoolboy prodigy, and a pupil of the famous coach Master Abdul Aziz, Hanif had a triple hundred to his name whilst playing for Sind Madrassatul Islam in the Rubie Shield inter-school tournament in Karachi. Soon he would be dubbed as the ‘wonder boy’ of Pakistan cricket.
At seventeen he had shown enough promise to be called to open the Pakistan innings alongside Nazar Mohammad against the touring MCC side in 1951-52. In Pakistan’s famous win at Karachi Gymkhana, that was to pave the way for its promotion to the full membership of ICC and a Test status, Hanif’s carefully-crafted 64 runs in the second innings whilst defying Brian Statham and Derek Shackleton, was a laudable effort for someone so young and playing only in his third first-class game. Not surprisingly, the success against MCC made Hanif, alongside skipper Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Fazal Mahmood, Imtiaz Ahmed & Khan Mohammad etc. a household name. The game of cricket had taken its roots in the newly independent Muslim state of Pakistan and its popularity grew with every passing year.
Amazing batting feats awaited the Karachi schoolboy, who with a watertight defence and intensity of concentration stood above all in the formative years of Pakistan batting line-up. In the country’s first ever Test match, against India at Delhi in 1952-53, Hanif opening the batting scored 51 in his maiden innings to be followed by 96 in the third Test at Brabourne Stadium, Bombay. Given Pakistan had the likes of Imtiaz Ahmed, Waqar Hasan & Maqsood Ahmed in its ranks to up the tempo, Hanif, adapted himself in the mould of a defensive opening batsman, who thrived in denying the opposition early inroads and taking the shine off the new ball. It was during the 1952-53 tour that he was given the title of ‘Little Master’ by the Indian Press. Showing masterful technique and a calm temperament, the Junagadh-born batsman enhanced his reputation on the tour of England in 1954. His maiden Test hundred arrived against India at the Dring Stadium, Bahawalpur in 1954-55.
Hanif’s marathon innings of 337 against West Indies at Bridgetown in 1957-58, was in the most trying circumstances. An epic vigil. In all he batted for a then world-record stay of 16 hours, that is equivalent to three full days’ cricket at the time in the Caribbean. It was his patience and endurance that defied the odds to help his country to draw the game and stay afloat in the series. He re-wrote cricket records with an innings of 499 for Karachi against Bahawalpur at Karachi Parsi Institute Ground in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy in 1958-59 thus overtaking Don Bradman’s 452 not out that was the highest innings at first-class level. How can one not mention his memorable 160 in the opening Test at Brabourne Stadium, Bombay in 1960-61, for it was his family and friends that persuaded him to ‘play for Pakistan’ despite a foot injury.
At the time Hanif was invited to lead Pakistan in the 1964-65 winter that would include eight Test matches, he had dropped down to the middle order. In his only Test match in Australia, at Melbourne, he scored 104 and 93, showing full range of strokes whilst top scoring in both innings and becoming the first Pakistan batsman to reach 3000 Test runs and as a stand-in wicket-keeper took five catches in the match. Few months later the New Zealand bowlers found themselves up against the great man who pulled his team out of a crisis with an unbeaten 203 to his name at the Lahore (now Gaddafi) Stadium. He batted on and on for little over nine hours in compiling another match-saving 187 not out against England at Lord’s in 1967, his last significant contribution with the bat for Pakistan.
In reality with the exception of a wretched tour of England in 1962 when he batted with a painful left knee, Hanif from the period of 1951 to 1967 was the mainstay of his country’s batting. With only 55 Test appearances in a career spanning 17 years, Hanif’s aggregates of 3915 runs and 12 centuries were overtaken in the 1980s but in terms of craftsman-like batting technique and mental aptitude, he still remains at the top of the list. He was the young nation’s first great batsman of international class and just about an ideal man to lay the foundations.
Since then, amongst Pakistani, one feels it is only Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq, who have performed and achieved consistently well enough in all conditions and in all formats to be bestowed with the word ‘great’. The merit and calibre of outstanding Pakistan batsmen - Imtiaz Ahmed, Waqar Hasan, Saeed Ahmed, Mushtaq Mohammad, Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Sadiq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas, Wasim Raja, Mudassar Nazar, Mohsin Khan, Salim Malik, Shaoib Mohammed, Ramiz Raja, Ijaz Ahmed Sr., Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail, Yousuf Youhana (now Mohammad Yousuf), Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, etc. to name a few, can’t be argued for a moment but the word ‘great’ need not be over-used for it to lose its essence. Perhaps a harsh call and a one that is likely to kick off a debate.
Hanif’s grand services to the game of cricket in a variety of roles for Pakistan, Karachi & PIA as a batsman, captain, selector, batting coach & advisor, manager, cricket pitch inspector, expert analysis on TV and Radio, has been acknowledged at the highest level for he remains one of the most decorated and celebrated sportsperson in the country’s 64-year history. Three of Hanif’s brothers, Wazir, Mushtaq & Sadiq, also played Test cricket with the odd one Raees acting as 12th Man against India at Dacca in 1954-55. Hanif’s eldest son Shoaib, a studious, hard-working and often under-rated, did not need searching for a role model and went on to represent Pakistan in 45 Tests and 63 ODIs in the period: 1983-95. His grandson Shehzar, has carried on the tradition of the great Mohammad family.
NB: Hanif Mohammed passed away on August 11, 2016 in Karachi, aged 81.