Test and Tribulation - Agha Zahid
Agha Zahid, the battle weary soldier of Pakistan cricket is back as the Chief Curator, a role which he previously resigned from in April 2020, following a 19-year stint in preparing some of the best pitches for both domestic and international cricket.
Agha’s return came about on the persuasion of Ramiz Raja, Chairman Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), who valued Agha’s expertise as one of the leading curators in the sub-continent. Given the culture in PCB, often influenced by family clout and likes and dislikes, it is almost unheard of someone with Agha’s principled and no-nonsense approach to survive for such length of time in the game, he fell so madly in love as a Grade 6 student at Islamia HS, Sadar Bazar, Lahore, six decades ago.
The Rawalpindi Test starting today, five days after the conclusion of successful staging of PSL7, under his curatorship is both historic and exciting for cricket world, given the Australians are playing their first game on Pakistan soil after 23 years. The tourists, at full strength will start the game as the odds-on favourite on a wicket prepared by Agha, now on a rolling contract with PCB, and his close buddy Mohammad Ashraf, who has achieved a unique hat-trick having prepared wickets for the Australians in Rawalpindi, on their previous Test tours in 1994 and 1998, both under Mark Taylor.
Born in 1953 in Lahore, Agha and his siblings would owe it to their mother for upbringing, after the passing away of their father. The strict discipline was just a part of life for all, in the household in Lahore Cantonment, spurring them to make their presence felt, be it in education, sports or other careers. In order to pursue his passion, Agha often had no choice but to hide his cricket kit when leaving home for matches. The sense of responsibility was drilled very early on when asked to captain his school team. It was the beginning of a journey for Agha, who would captain and lead by strong example for most of the sides he went on to represent, including Government College, Lahore, Pakistan Universities and Habib Bank.
Having joined Cantt Gymkhana, he would receive useful batting tips from his seniors featuring brothers - Aijaz Baig and Shahbaz Baig and Gulraiz Wali. In the second half of his career, when he himself captained Cantt, he made sure all players benefited from his experience of higher level of cricket and that key element of discipline will up their skills in batting, bowling, fielding and reading of the game.
Although Cantt Gymkhana was a strong club and competed pretty well against its close rivals, i.e. Prince CC, Dharampura Gymkhana, Lucky Stars CC, Dawn CC, it certainly paled in comparison with the quality of cricket played at Minto Park, Lahore Gymkhana or Model Town. This scenario would toughen up Agha even more and so did the experience of flying back from Dacca, amidst uprising in East Pakistan, in February 1971, after Lahore became the winner of the first ever National u-19 Championship, with captain Wasim Raja and Imran Khan in the squad.
On his first-class debut in the 1970-71 BCCP Trophy, for Punjab University at the Old Campus Ground, Lahore, Agha was straight into the record books. He opened the batting with scores of 86 & 74 against Rawalpindi Greens, and would add hundred plus in both innings with Nadeem Ahmed, son of Dr. Dilawar Hussain, All India wicket-keeper in the 1930s. There wasn’t a long wait for his maiden hundred either when he hit 112 in a stand of 220 with Talat Ali (104) against Railways A at the Railways Stadium, Lahore in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy.
At Government College, Lahore, Agha’s batch mates included Shafiq ‘Papa’, Wasim Raja, Arshad ‘Bata’, Sultan Rana, Azhar Khan and Mudassar Nazar, all but one of whom went on to represent Pakistan. Most of these players were an automatic choice for a number of teams at club and inter-collegiate cricket and Pakistan Universities certainly had enough strength and depth to challenge leading departments and associations, at first-class level. In the 1970s sports and education went hand in hand in Pakistan and most of the cricketers followed that route.
To his peers Agha was seen as a courageous batsman, who cared little of the reputation of the bowlers when taking guard against the new ball. With his pre-meditated front-foot movement, referred as Kenchee in Lahore cricket, he was a touch suspect to incoming deliveries. If his batting style was not one for the purists, Agha certainly made up with determination and consistency. An outstanding fielder and a handy slow medium pace bowler in limited-overs cricket, you could not ask more from a cricketer. As a great team man his positive outlook and eagerness to walk out to bat and take on the ‘fight’ with the opposition, most certainly added to his value in every dressing room that he was part of, including his four-year stint with Devon in the Minor Counties Championship in England, in the 1980s.
Agha was destined to play just one Test match and that too in considerably challenging batting conditions. As a debutante he along with experienced Pakistan line-up, found the pace and fire of West Indies’ Andy Roberts on a damp wicket, a bit too much and was dismissed for 14 & 1, in his two outings in the Lahore Test. Though in great nick in the 1974-75 season with the bat in domestic cricket, he perhaps was not quite yet ready for international cricket when asked to fill the opening slot left vacant by Sadiq Mohammad’s absence. Picked ahead of Shafiq ‘Papa’ and Mudassar Nazar, Agha never had a second look after that.
Once Habib Bank Ltd. (HBL) were given affiliation by BCCP for the 1975-76 season, Agha was its first choice as an opening batsman. It was in the following winter that he would pair up with his friend Arshad ‘Bata’ to go down as the most successful openers in the history of Pakistan domestic cricket. By 1977-78 HBL was strong enough to emerge as the country’s top team and proved it by achieving a grand slam after securing three domestic first-class titles. The opposition bowlers after Agha and Bata would have to deal with Mohsin Khan, Javed Miandad, Sultan Rana, Tehsin Javed and Azhar Khan, making a formidable middle order.
In the period Agha was with HBL, for whom he would help sign up Abdul Qadir, Saleem Malik and Ijaz Ahmed Sr. won Quaid-e-Azam Trophy once and lifted Patrons Trophy and limited-overs Wills Cup on five occasions each. In the great era of departmental cricket, HBL, PIA, United Bank and National Bank, dominated Pakistan domestic cricket for two decades and their inter-rivalry lifted the standard of the game to feed quality cricketers to the national team.
In his 227-match injury-free first-class career (1970-71 to 1992-93), all in Pakistan and primarily as an opening batsman for Habib Bank, Agha survived for 23 seasons against the best new ball bowlers of the country. One must judge Agha’s 13484 runs @ 36.84 with 29 hundreds and 66 fifties in the light of the multiple challenges openers faced in Pakistan domestic cricket in the era of pre-helmet days on uncovered and sub-standard pitches and with ball-tampering rife. His consistency was matched by very few opening batsmen in that era in Pakistan when he reached the 600 mark in eight seasons in a stretch before reaching his batting peak in the early 1980s by topping 1200 runs in two successive seasons.
Once his playing days were over, Agha went on to act as match referee, selector, coach, manager and finally as a curator. As a self-made individual with discipline and uprightness as his forte, one felt Agha was suited well in managing junior teams as its coach. Having successful overseas coaching assignment with Pakistan u-15 World Cup in England in 1996, Pakistan A in Bangladesh 1996-97 and Pakistan A in England 1997, surprisingly he was replaced. Agha has always maintained that the disciplinary issues that arose on the 1997 England tour, should have been tackled better by PCB, who would later regret of its consequences.
Within months of having received a golden handshake as a Vice President of Habib Bank, at the end of a 26-year association,
Agha took up the position of Chairman PCB Curators Committee in 2001 and later appointed as Chief Curator PCB in 2004. He considered the late Haji Bashir as an asset to Pakistan cricket and now is most pleased to have his son Mohammad Ashraf in his team of curators. Through communication with the media, which his predecessors rarely did, Agha has outlined the fact that curator shall remain at the mercy of the natural elements, more than the outside world perceives. In doing so he has avoided the backlash of media and the cricket followers.
During his long association with the PCB as chief of curators both at Lahore and other leading cricket centres, it has not been all plain sailing for Agha as foreign teams pulled out of the tours to play in Pakistan, in the aftermath of 9/11 twin towers attack in New York in 2001. Just when things seemed to be heading towards some sort of normality, the terrorist attack on Sri Lanka team’s bus during the Lahore Test in 2009 would lead to a decade-long phase when Pakistan was forced to switch their home series to UAE, leaving Agha and his team with just domestic cricket to focus on.
Outside cricket, Agha a man of strong faith is a kind-hearted soul who reaches out to share his life skills, based on hard work and discipline, the two virtues that has stood him in good stead. A round of golf with his friends over the weekend does the trick in re-energizing him for his next challenge and it certainly does not get any bigger than the Australians, with the entire cricket world anticipating thrilling contest between bat and ball on Pakistan pitches, at present in the safe hands.