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Zaheer Abbas’ great batting artistry, which fell victim to Pakistan's cricket politics

By Harsh Thakor* 

The legendary Zaheer Abbas has turned 75. Zaheer Abbas’s strokes were like a manifestation of aestheticism of cricket’s golden age.. His timing and artistry was simply god gifted. manipulating a cricket ball through the gaps with the wizardry of a magician. In my view for sheer style and elegance no batsman ever surpassed Zaheer Abbas.,who held a bat like a wand. No batsman as gloriously drove a cricket ball on other side of extra cover. It is hard to find an adjective to do full justice to the sheer poetry in Zaheer's batting whose strokes resembled the touches of a painters brush. His mere deft touches would send the best of balls scuttling to the boundary. Even when desecrating a bowling attack to pieces his strokes never lost the elements of composure or technique, like a boxer, poet and surgeon rolled into one.
Technically he was master, with shades of unorthodoxy because of his great inventive capability. Few batsman were better positioned when driving as Zaheer,’ At his best he could improvise like a magician. He was an absolute master against fast-medium and spin bowling. Zaheer bewildered the purists with his very high back lift, with his bat coming down at the very last moment, to send ball crashing to the fence which looked inevitably like piercing the gate. When watching him, I was constantly reminded of a Ghazal sung by Jasjit.
Like all great players, his method was most uncomplicated with most rhythmic synchronization of body movements in the manner of a ballad dancer. It was based first on correct footwork, positioning himself perfectly to the length and line of each delivery. His backswing opposed the purists with its unorthodoxy, but his bat traversed the most vertical path, pleasing the most accurate geometrician..His power was obtained from his semi-circular high backlift, effervescent timing and subtle twist of the blade of the bat at the moment of impact. It is the blending of his wristiness, with a free follow-through that made his batting blossom like a lotus. In the manner of a ballad dancer he could move backwards and forwards in the execution of a single stroke.

Cricketing career

His monumental 274 at Edgbaston in 1971 was amongst cricket's classics For nine hours, ten minutes spectators t he bowling attack was reduced to mere submission, but the ball simply caressed in the manner of a mother putting a ball to sleep.
In 1974 scoring 240 at the Oval, for sheer virtuosity Zaheer even surpassed his Edgbaston classic, being compiled in a most majestic manner.
Zaheer had his most impactful and majestic aura playing against India at home in 1978-79 and 1982-83 arguably no batsman batted more like Bradman as Zaheer.He averaged 195 ,scoring 583 runs in 1978-79 while in 1982-93 scored 3 centuries at an average of 130 runs and aggregate of 650 runs. One was reminded of an invincible emperor submitting an enemy kingdom to utter humiliation Zaheer performed the equivalent of a surgical operation of an army but executed with the touch of a scupltor.or sweetness of a musical symphony.
His best batting against genuine pace bowling was In 1976-77 in Australia Zaheer was an epitome of consistency on the fast, green Australian strips with scores of 85,101,90 and 58 in the first two tests. Few batsman ever drove the great Denis Lillee with such relish. Overall he averaged a remarkable 57.16 in that series, with an aggregate of 343 runs.
In Australia he was again successful against the pace bowlers in 1981-82 and was at his best in limited overs cricket. In 2 tests he had scores of 80 and 90 and averaged above 56, facing high class pace bowling. In the ODI's of the triangular tournament Zaheer gave an exhibition of some of finest batting ever seen in limited overs cricket ,with his 108 against Australia ,a true masterpiece.
In the 1979 Prudential world cup in the semi-final Zaheer took the all-conquering West Indies pace attack to the sword scoring 93 in the semi-final, dissecting the bowling as clinically as a surgeon performing an operation. A stroke he flicked over deep square leg for a six is embedded in my memories. In an ODI I have never seen the great West Indies pace quartet subjected to such embarrassment as that day.
However his career also had bouts of inconsistency, and Zaheer Abbas did not relish express pace bowling or fast wickets. He averaged a mere 17 against West Indies in his test career, with 80 at Georgetown in 1977 his only notable score against them and a 91 in a WSC supertests. Zaheer also was not at his best in Australia in 1972-73, England in 1982 or New Zealand in 1973 or 1984.Zaheer was shackled by a bouncer from Colin Croft in Pakistan in 1980,which crippled his batting against sustained pace bowling. He also lost form to such a considerable extent on the 1979-80 tour of India.
In First class cricket statistically Zaheer Abbas took batting domination to magical heights. No Overseas batsman displayed such an appetite for runs or staggered them at such a brisk rate as Zaheer who was the ultimate epitome of run accumulation. Zaheer was the only batsman ever to score a hundred in each innings of match on 8 occasions or score a century and a double century in the same match 4 times. Arguably no overseas batsman in English first class cricket plundered runs with the aura of an invincible emperor to the degree of Zaheer.Overall he scored 34,843 runs at an average of 51.54 with 108 centuries. He achieved the landmark of scoring over 1000 runs in a single English season 11 times’ must mention his classical century scored on the most treacherous of turning pitches against Kent, facing Derek Underwoood,
In test cricket he averaged 44.79 scoring 5062 runs in 79 tests, with 12 centuries and 20 fifties. However in he averaged only 31.77 overseas with 4 centuries as compared to 58.19 at home with 8 centuries .Overseas he was outstanding only in England where he averaged around 56.In test matches won Zaheer averaged 58.84 which is creditable.
In ODI's Zaheer Abbas scored at an average of 47.62 with 2572 runs with 7 centuries and 13 fifties I rate him the 2nd best batsman of his day to Viv Richards in that form of cricket. Rarely have I seen batsman improvise better than Zaheer in an ODI,who exuded the wizardry of a magician. I would select Zaheer amongst my 10 best ODI batsmen of all time.

Overall assessment

To me Zaheer Abbas was the most complete of all Pakistani batsmen. No Pakistani batsman blended all the ingredients like artistry, technical skill and concentration, in a total package.
Zaheer should have come to the party more against genuine pace, when his team was facing a crisis and on bad wickets. True that Zaheer could dominate even good length balls coming on to the bat more than greats like Greg Chappell and in the degree of Viv Richards, but he often fell prey to a delivery pitched up to his nose..Where he fell out was on temperament and to battle in a crisis. Zaheer was arguably suspect against express pace, unlike compatriot Majid Khan.
Still on flat pitches or batting strips or against spin bowling I would class Zaheer in the class of the very greatest. In his era I would place Zaheer amongst the top 6 batsmen of in test cricket at his best in 1978-79 I would have chosen Zaheer Abbas in my world XI. In One Day International cricket I would rank Zaheer Abbas amongst the best ever.
In the final analysis blending Test.ODI and First Class Cricket Zaheer Abbas should be awarded the tag of an ‘All-time great’ batsman. I would have chosen Zaheer in my world test XI in the late 1970’s.
As a captain he was ultra-defensive, but still led Pakistan to win their first ever series against England in 1984. He also led Pakistan to draw a rubber against all odds in India in 1983 and to a home serine victory against New Zealand in 1984.
What I admired about him was the grace and gentlemanly spirit he brought to the game. I can't forget the friendship he developed with Indian stalwarts like Bishen Bedi or Gavaskar. He played a positive role in the establishing of cordial relations of Indian players with their counterparts from Pakistan. At one stage he even gave generous advice to Indian star Azharuddin in how to change his grip the bat, after he had suffered reversal in form. Zaheer's advice to Azhar worked wonders.
Sadly he often fell a victim to the politics of Pakistan cricket and his efforts. It also pains me when I remember his tussles with Imran Khan and Javed Miandad for captaincy and his being unceremoniously dropped in early 19785 from the national team.
I would love a Zaheer Abbas to be reborn today to induct into it or resurrect the grace which is simply lost. It would simply give the game back it‘s soul.
---
*Journalist based in Mumbai

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