Iqbal ‘Bala’ Sheikh – An Obituary
The death of Iqbal ‘Bala’ Sheikh, caused by brain haemorrhage on December 19, 2019, in Lahore, surprisingly went unnoticed, even in his home city. One of the leading off-spinners in the 1960s, he had his bowling action questioned, as was the case with his chief rival Haseeb Ahsan, who managed to win 12 Test caps.
Although, the art of off-spin practised by many in Pakistan, in the 72-year history of its cricket, only three executioners -Tauseef Ahmed, Saqlain Mushtaq and Saeed Ajmal – have emerged as match-winners, at the highest level. Limited international opportunities in the sixties, deprived a generation of players in the country, to fulfil their cricket talent. One such name in the period was ‘Bala’, a slow bowler, who could not quite make it to the top, although prolific at the domestic level, for both Punjab University and Lahore Division.
Iqbal Ahmed Sheikh, was born in Lahore (Punjab), British India on May 31, 1937. As a product of Minto Park (now Iqbal Parks), the hub of the game in the city, Bala’ initially represented Freebatters, a club financed by Latif Butt and exclusively made up of players from within the walled city, before taken in by Crescent, the top cricket club in Lahore. He also had the honour of captaining Islamia College, Lahore in the 1961-62 winter.
Bala’s off-spin was first recognized with his first-class debut for Khairpur, Sind, in the 1958-59 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. By taking eight wickets against Quetta at Sukkur, he saw his side to a six-wicket win in a low-scoring match. His promise was acknowledged by his selection for Central Zone, led by Mohammad Ramzan, against the touring West Indies team at Bahawalpur. He dismissed Basil Butcher and John Holt in claiming 2-92 off 27 overs, in the first innings.
After a winter off the first-class season, Bala represented Punjab University in the 1960-61 Ayub Trophy and followed it up by claiming 7-57 (11-85 in the match) against Punjab Governor’s XI in the annual fixture at Bagh-e-Jinnah, Lahore. In the cricket circles of Punjab, a bowler with a suspected action, is referred as wata bowler, with the word wata meaning a stone and hence implying chucking or throwing of a cricket ball. Though Bala had the unwanted tag with his name, he was never officially warned for throwing.
The 1961-62 winter was to be one of Bala’s best with the ball, starting with a 12-wicket haul for Pakistan Eaglets against the touring Associated Cement Company (ACC) from India at Lahore. On the opening day, his devasting 7-48 with six batsmen clean bowled, included Rusi Modi and Dilip Sardesai, both in single figures. An outstanding return, winning him selection for the President’s XI match against the 1961-62 MCC at Pindi Club Ground, a game in which he was outshone by fellow spinners, Javed Akhtar and Ziaullah Khan.
As a useful tail-end batsman, he top-scored with an unbeaten 42 – also his career-best - in Lahore ‘A’ total of 243 against Pakistan Universities in the 1962-63 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy at Lahore Stadium. Not a bad effort, for the line-up, besides skipper Javed Burki, also included Mohammad Ilyas, Zafar Altaf and Majid Khan. Iqbal’s achieved a career-best 7-37 for Lahore Greens against Punjab University at Bagh-e-Jinnah, Lahore, in the quarter-final of the 1965-66 Ayub Trophy.
In 21 first-class matches (1958-59 to 1966-67), ‘Bala’ scored 285 runs @ 12.39 with a highest score of unbeaten 42, picked up 11 catches and claimed 87 wickets @ 21.16, best figures of 7-34 with 7 five-wicket hauls and two ten-wicket hauls. In the 1999-2002 period, ‘Bala’ stood as a match referee in seven first-class matches.
After gaining his masters in statistics from Islamia College in 1962, ‘Bala’ opted to go into banking and was taken as trainee officer at National Bank of Pakistan (NBP). Following a successful career, in which he was posted in Japan, China and Hong Kong, he retired from NBP as Executive Vice President. Originating from a humble background in Lahore, through sheer determination ‘Bala’ secured a comfortable living for himself and his family. His younger brother, Habib Sheikh, a contemporary of Asif Masood at Islamia College, too bowled off-spin. He had lost his elder sister, few days prior to his own death and is survived by wife, son Dr. Sajid and two grandsons.
Khawaja Shuja-ud-din, first-class cricketer and retired PIA officer, led the tributes, ‘Sadly no one in the cricketing circle in Lahore, knew of ‘Bala’ Sheikh’s death. In his prime, he was a big name in Lahore cricket and once invited for trials for a tour to India. A couple of years ago, I was invited for a cup of tea at his house with a gathering of friends that included cricketers - Mohammad Ilyas, Asif Masood, ‘Bala’ Natha, Javed Saeed and Salim Baig. We all had a great time recalling our past in the game. In my year – 1960-61 - as captain of Islamia College, ‘Bala’ was my deputy and the following year he took over the post and I played under him.’
Najum Latif, author, historian and founding curator of museum at Bagh-e-Jinnah, Lahore, recalled his interaction with ‘Bala’, ‘The minute I entered National Bank of Pakistan and as soon as Iqbal Sheikh saw me he would immediately leave his seat to assist me with the paper work. He was so pleasant and was always smiling. In those days, cricketers, class fellows and college fellows had a great regard for each other and helping out without any interest and without asking, was so common. I feel so sorry at his passing away. I wish I'd known about it but had been out of touch with him since 1966. He was a very decent and humble gentleman.’
Mohammad Iqbal, better known as ‘Bala Natha’, now in Switzerland, shared his memories, ‘Sheikh Sahib was a family friend. I accompanied him in his meeting with Fazal Mahmood and Imtiaz Ahmed, regarding his selection for the 1960-61 tour of India. Fazal didn’t mince his words by saying, ‘Iqbal you have no backing to play for Pakistan and should rather focus on your career outside the game.’ I faced him whilst playing for Ravi Gymkhana, led by Munawwar Hussain Khan against Crescent CC, led by Murawwat Hussain Shah, in a very competitive environment of Wazir Ali summer league in the late 1950s onwards. He was a big spinner of the ball and a threat on all surfaces.’
Mohammad Ilyas, Pakistan Test opener and a teammate at Crescent CC, ‘His death takes me back to the days when Crescent CC and Muslim Model HS had their nets to each other in Minto Park. Iqbal would pop into our nets and give us schoolboys, tips and instruction on batting. He didn’t argue in cricket environment and encouraged all to enjoy the game and ‘play with your heart’. He took lot of interest in young cricketers’ development, more so after he knew he would not make to the top with an ‘objectionable’ bowling action. At Crescent, both Agha Saadat Ali and Iqbal, were the two seniors that guided us in all aspects of the game. In Iqbal, I have lost a very good friend. He was a funny man and always had a smile on his face and that is how I am going to remember him.’
Aijaz Baig, captain of Islamia College and with first-class cricket for Railways and Punjab University, shared his memories, ‘I faced Iqbal at club level in Lahore in the late 1950s and found him to be more effective on a matting. Although he rarely bowled a short ball and was known for his pinpoint accuracy and spun his off-breaks appreciably, my feeling was that he did not take as many wickets as one thought he would, with his two strong points. In the modern cricket, England’s off-spinner Graeme Swann, was a good example, who achieved great success with his control over the amount of spin. As a batsman, once you picked up Iqbal’s length and pace, he became predictable and not so dangerous. He was a friendly person, both on and off the field.’
Shafqat Rana, Pakistan Test player, added his tribute, ‘Bala Sheikh was an outstanding bowler of his time but no one to back him up. I played both with him and against him. At Pindi Club Ground in a match between President’s XI and the touring MCC in October 1961, he was standing next to me when the late President FM Ayub Khan told him to eat more. He was quite lean but physically fit. Incidentally next year again I heard the FM Ayub telling him now you are looking better than last year. In that particular match, on the final day, when we were pressing for a victory, Bala, after having Peter Richardson caught behind, he clean bowled Ted Dexter for 12. Bala was quite witty and a good human being. I was not aware of his going away from us for good.’
The writer acknowledges the contribution of Asif Butt, first-class cricketer and captain of Hailey College, Lahore and all six contributors, in the obituary.