Ijaz Khapra - So near yet so far
Bahawalpur CA were the pioneers of franchised cricket in Pakistan when the elite batch of Pakistan cricketers, including Hanif Mohammad, Wazir Mohammad, Maqsood Ahmed and Khan Mohammad were invited to represent it in the inaugural Quaid-e-Azam Trophy in 1953-54, which they won.
In this period Makhdoomzada Syed Hasan Mahmood, emerged as the great patron of cricket in Bahawalpur State and as one of the three BCCP Vice-Presidents was also chairman of the selection panel to pick Pakistan squad to tour England in 1954. The Dring Stadium (now Bahawal Stadium), first welcomed MCC team in November 1951 and then became the first venue to host a Test match in the west wing of the country, against India in January 1955. The Bahawalpur State remained autonomous until merging with Pakistan later in the year, with the consent of its ruler – Nawab Sadiq Khan.
After such an auspicious start, to the surprise of many, the cricket Board distanced itself from the southern Punjab and very little attention was paid to the development of the infrastructure of the game. So much so that there has never been another Test match held in the city and some of its best talent, i.e. Javed Bhatti, Ijaz Hussain and Farooq Shera, though invited to camps were given the cold shoulder. Even after 72 years since its first international encounter with West Indies in 1948, no single player of Bahawalpur origin has represented Pakistan at the highest level.
One of the unfortunate ones from Bahawalpur, Ijaz Hussain’s career also coincided with Pakistan team having a lean time in the 1960s. With limited opportunities in a small number of international fixtures, it was all about being in Karachi or Lahore camp, to stand any chance. The culture of picking players from small towns was still a novice notion and Ijaz being from Bahawalpur has a valid claim for being dropped at the peak of his career, when almost a certainty to be picked as a batsman wicket-keeper for Pakistan.
Syed Ijaz Hussain, better known as Ijaz ‘Khapra’ for his determination and stubbornness as a batsman, was born on April, 7, 1942, in MuzaffarNagar, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (British India), known as Uttar Pradesh since 1950. His father Syed Izhar Hussain had taken a decision, a couple of years before the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, to settle in the State of Bahawalpur, where he would serve as Road Inspector for a private firm.
As the eldest amongst five brothers and two sisters, Ijaz was to be burdened with additional strain, following the death of his father in the late 1950s. Some of his school friends at Government Technical High School, Bahawalpur observed his photographic memory in a cricket field for he counted and could also recall all his runs and the strokes that were productive.
Just like his father who played hockey at a District level in British India, Ijaz too was keen on the game before a leg injury forced him to give it up. An unsavoury incident occurred in this period when his school class mates threw him out of the train, whilst Ijaz was in deep sleep. A head injury he suffered prompted a long period spent in dark room for him to regain his composure and return to cricket. This could have easily been the end of his sporting ambitions.
His first-class debut came when included in the Bahawalpur squad for the 1956-57 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, whilst still at school and one of its revered sports figure. Ijaz featured in two matches of the 1957-58 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy winning Bahawalpur team. By now he had earned a name as a multi-dimensional cricketer who as a right-hand batsman, could open the innings or bat in the middle order, efficient wicket-keeper and when thrown the ball by skipper, could bowl both, medium pace or wrist spin. Not many cricketers could make such claim, at this level of the game.
In the 1958-59 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy he was now asked to open the innings and share wicket-keeping gloves with Tanvir Hussain, by captain Mohammad Ramzan. Against Quetta at Bahawalpur, he walked in with his side struggling at 95-5 and stood firm in a 128-run 6th wicket stand with Farrukh Saleem (65), whilst himself missing a hundred by three runs.
In the semi-final against Karachi at Karachi Parsi Institute (KPI) Ground, Ijaz took a throw from Mohammad Iqbal to run out Hanif Mohammad, whilst in pursuit of his 500th run. His name now is etched in the history of the game as the one who denied Pakistan opener in becoming the first ever batsman to reach quintuple hundred. Later research showed that everyone at the ground was under the impression that Hanif had already gone past the 500 mark and it was only later on when the scoring sheets of the two teams were compared that the batsman was found stranded to create an undesirable record.
After taking his matriculation, Ijaz left Bahawalpur in 1960 and worked in Colony Textile Mill, Multan and would represent the city in the two seasons of domestic cricket. His maiden first-class hundred came when as an opening batsman he contributed 68 and 134 in Multan’s convincing win against Lahore ‘B’ at Sadiq Egerton College Ground, Bahawalpur in the 1962-63 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy.
He accompanied the PIA-sponsored Pakistan Eaglets to England in 1963, though did not meet with much success whereas his colleagues – Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Shafqat Rana, Pervez Sajjad, Sadiq Mohammad and Farooq Hameed – nudged the national selectors with their progress and would go on to become Test players. As a second-choice wicket-keeper behind Naushad, Ijaz only appeared in three first-class matches on the tour.
On his return to Pakistan, he joined Railways who would not release him when a better offer from PIA was on the table. For Railways, in the 1964-65 Ayub Trophy, Ijaz hit 124 in their massive total of 910 for 6 declared against Dera Ismail Khan at Railways Moghalpura Institute Ground, Lahore. Opening the batting without the responsibility of keeping wickets he hit a career-best 173 and added 224 for the 2nd wicket with Saeed Butt (105) for Pakistan Railways Reds against Lahore Reds at Pindi Club Ground in the 1965-66 Ayub Trophy. In the previous match, at the same venue, he was at his most skilful in negotiating Rawalpindi spin trio, featuring Mohammad Sabir, Javed Akhtar and Shuja-ud-din, with scores of 91 and 57.
As an opening batsman, against Ceylon in 1966-67, Ijaz scored 44 (Lahore ) and 39 (Dacca) in the two unofficial ‘Test’ matches, on both occasions providing his side with 90 plus stands with Mohammad Ilyas and Javed Burki respectively, before making way for Wasim Bari for the final game at Karachi. Later in the season he also appeared for Pakistan u-25 in all three representative matches against the touring MCC u-25, purely as an opening batsman. Given his form and selectors’ confidence, his exclusion from the 1967 tour of England was a shock to many and certainly dampened Ijaz’s hopes. It was Fasih-ud-din and Bari, who got the selectors’ nod in the squad that was led by Hanif Mohammad.
In the 1967-68 winter a Commonwealth touring team led by Richie Benaud, acquired Ijaz’s services for their three-day match against Pakistan Universities at PU Ground, Lahore. The Australian all-rounder was quite impressed by Ijaz’s leg-side glove work of his bowling, acknowledged later in a correspondence. Ijaz scored 111 as an opening batsman, in his first match for PWD, whom he joined in 1968, against a full-strength PIA side at Karachi. In a three-day game for West Pakistan Governor’s XI against the 1968-69 England team at Sahiwal heavy rain washed out the game when Ijaz was unbeaten on 36 and came close to appearing in a Test when named 12th man for the third and final match at Karachi.
In the last of his eight hundreds, he hit 126 and shared 197-run opening stand with Mahmood-ul-Hasan (182) for PWD against Quetta at Quetta in the 1969-70 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. In 1971 he made yet another career move in joining National Bank, and in his last season in Pakistan in 1975-76, Ijaz was asked to captain National Bank B in the BCCP Patron’s Trophy.
In 1976, Ijaz was amongst the first group of cricketers from Pakistan to arrive in Dubai, UAE, initially for few months. He performed exceptionally to win the tournament for Sharjah Cricket Club, owned by Abdul Rehman Bukhatir and even got the best player of the tournament award, shining both as a batsman and wicket-keeper. After his initial stint in UAE, Ijaz came back to Karachi for he was still employed by National Bank. On a number of occasions, he was recalled to UAE to play some crucial games on Friday’s by Bukhatir and this continued for almost a year until he was offered a job in Bukhatir Group of Companies, with family status provided.
At 33, Ijaz finally gave up his first-class career for greener pastures and financial security. He started his professional career in UAE as storekeeper in an Aluminium Factory (ALUMTEC) of Bukhatir Group and continued to represent Sharjah Cricket Club in local tournament each Friday with great success till early 1980’s. By this time Ijaz’s has helped establishing the club into a force to reckon with in the local tournament and his career progression in Bukhatir Group as Assistant Purchaser, forced him to quit the game.
However, Ijaz continued to be involved in Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS) tournament till the mid-1990s, mostly in the capacity of Liaison Officer of Pakistan Team and/ or Ground Facility Co-ordinator for the visiting teams. Some of the leading Pakistan cricketers, i.e. Javed Miandad, Wasim Raja, Abdul Qadir and Iqbal Qasim, were keen to pick his brain in references to the playing conditions in UAE, particularly Sharjah that initially invited international players for exhibition matches in 1981 before hosting its first ODI, part of the inaugural Asia Cup in April 1984.
By the late 1980’s cricket was flourishing and taking stronger roots in the UAE with many local firms, especially Banks starting to establish their cricket teams by giving employment to cricketers from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. Ijaz was given an opportunity in 1987 to work for Middle East Bank, which merged into Emirates Bank in 1991, and establish their cricket team. This was also his first step towards the administration of the game he played with great passion. He established a diversified team by hiring reputed first-class cricketers from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, first of its kind in UAE.
The team very soon became a success and went on to win a number of local tournaments in UAE. Even in his 50s, he was so passionate for his team’s success that, in the absence of a regular wicket-keeper, he would enthusiastically step in to fill the role. Many of his team players went on to represent UAE in ICC events and finally World Cup. Ijaz was made a manager of UAE on tour of Pakistan in 1997 and later of UAE u-19 in an ACC event in Singapore.
He bid farewell to the cricket administration in 1998 due to ill health and the nature of the job. With his stable temperament and focused approach, Ijaz was widely acknowledged for his pitch reading skills, more so in the transitional phase when local tournaments in UAE played on cement, had their first taste of turf wickets.
In March 2001, Ijaz suffered a major stroke which paralysed his left side. The doctors suggested the reason could have been an old injury he has suffered during his playing days or accident of being thrown out of train during his school cricket team trip. However, through his determination and strong religious belief Ijaz surprised the medical team by walking back to office in a month’s time.
After retiring in 2004 Ijaz returned to his home in Karachi from Dubai to be with family while his only child Zeeshan Ali from his marriage in 1969, went on to become a senior banker and settle in the middle-east region. Ijaz admired both Gul Mohammad and Wasim Raja and encouraged his son to bat left-handed, in which role he represented Sharjah Cricket Club and Sharjah Colts.
By spending 4-5 months a year with his grandchildren, Ijaz was a rejuvenated soul on his return to Karachi, where he was often spotted at National Stadium, mixing with old cricket acquatanvies. He suffered his second stroke in May 2018 in Karachi and has not completely recovered but still continues to face daily challenges with great determination and patience.
In his first-class career (1956-57 to 1975-76), Ijaz represented Bahawalpur, Bahawalpur and Multan, Central Zone, Multan, Railways, Railways Reds, Karachi, PWD, National Bank B and National Bank, in 81 matches, scoring 4476 runs @ 33.65 with 8 hundreds and 18 fifties, caught 119 and stumped 13 and claimed 16 wickets @ 25.00, with a career-best of 5-37.
Iqbal Qasim – ‘I came across Ijaz Khapra at the beginning of my career at National Bank, where he was batsman first and secondly wicket-keeper. He spoke of his disappointment and the treatment meted out by the national selectors. As someone from Bahawalpur, he didn’t have the PR or the backing to push his case. I saw him as a mentor who advised me on all aspects of the game, whether it was a KCA trial, off the field behaviour or bowling in unhelpful conditions. I was so glad he was able to build his life in UAE and after the birth of his son Zeeshan, he was a contended soul.’
Majid Khan – ‘Ijaz Khapra was with me on the Eaglets tour to England in 1963. As a second wicketkeeper, he had a relatively quiet tour but in 1966-67 winter won selection for the Pakistan u-25 against the touring MCC u-25 team and did reasonably well. It was a disadvantage for he came from Bahawalpur and the selectors were not known to look beyond Karachi and Lahore. In the second half of the 1960s, Ijaz was in direct competition with the likes of Abdul Kadir, Naushad Ali and Fasih-ud-din, for they all opened the batting and kept wickets.’
Saleem Altaf : ‘What I can’t understand to this day is that if Ijaz Khapra was good enough to be picked against the 1966-67 Ceylon team at home, why could he not go to England on the 1967 tour. I recall him being primarily a batsman, who kept wickets and he took a nice running catch, a top edge off my bowling against Ceylon. He was a stubborn batsman and needed a real effort to remove from the crease.’
Zaheer Abbas : ‘Ijaz Khapra was senior to me and I had heard a lot about his qualities as a cricketer. In the 1968-69 season we both represented PWD and I remember having a partnership (96 runs) with him and Ijaz went out to score a hundred, against PIA at National Stadium, Karachi. He had a sold batting technique and it was always a joy to catch up with him in Sharjah.’
Shafiq Ahmed : ‘I had a couple of seasons with Ijaz Khapra when he was at National Bank and then would move on to UAE. He was a good batsman and very adept at playing sweep shot, often from middle stump, with a success ratio of 98%. Only Imtiaz Ahmed in Pakistan, previously had mastered that stroke at all levels of cricket. He had a good technique as an opening batsman and could bat for longer periods but I always thought he played spinners better and did prize his wicket. I believe one with a humble background and somewhat submissive nature and having come from Bahawalpur, Ijaz’s rise to the top would have been very difficult.’