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Without Asif Iqbal, Pakistan wouldn't ever have reached its stature in world cricket

By Harsh Thakor 

Asif Iqbal was one of the most defining elements in the Renaissance or meteoric rise of Pakistan cricket. His advent was one of the pillars in Pakistan rising to become a cricketing giant, being amongst a bunch of talented individuals infused into a powerful unit. After the retirement of Gary Sobers, Asif Iqbal became the best batsman in the world batting at no.6.This year, on June 6th; we celebrated the 80th birthday of this veteran.
Few batsmen ever had more fleet footed movements, ran better between wickets or batted better with the tail. Asif was a sheer master in rotating the strike.Cometh the crisis, Asif was the man of the hour. On innumerable occasions, he revived Pakistan from dire straits. His characteristic flair won the hearts of cricket lovers, worldwide.
His nimble footwork was a sheer joy to watch; especially when he used it to drive the ball through the covers and square of the wicket.Asif had lightning speed of eye and fee. Asif played some of the most cavalier or dazzling innings against lethal pace attacks and in a crisis. He rarely scored in situations when no challenge was offered. In the field, he would move at electrical speed in the covers.
Asif was more than useful medium pace bowler, with special process for outswing, and often making a crucial breakthrough. Asif turned from a bowling all-rounder towards a specialist batsman, with occasional bowling spells, from the early 1970’s.

Cricketing Career Highlights

Asif made his debut against Australia in 1964-65, at Karachi, taking 2-68.and scoring 41 and 36, proving his all-round prowess, from the very start. In 1964 at Melbourne he captured 2-90.In 1965 in the 1st test Wellington had a 5 wicket haul, taking 5-52 and took 4-46 in the 3rd test at Christchurch. In 3 tests, he had remarkable 18 scalps in New Zealand.
Asif scored 76 in the 1st test at Lords in 1967, involved in a 130 run stand with Hanif Mohammad. In 1967, at the Oval in the 3rd test , coming in at no 9,he salvaged Pakistan who were reeling at 65-8 ,trailing 224 runs behind in the 1st innings, to be saved from a humiliating innings defeat, when scoring 146,with 2 sixes and 21 boundaries in a world record ninth wicket partnership of 190 with Intikhab Alam,,in a mere 175 minutes. Learie Constantine considered it the best innings he saw in his lifetime, while Wisden ranked it amongst the top 6 test innings of all time.Asif’s sheer flurry of strokes reminded of a boat cruising in full flow and his impact gave vibrations of a counter offensive being launched of an army battalion, a famous monument being resurrected after demolition or anew epoch being written. Asif was simply an epitome of cricketing genius, in that knock, taking cricketing skill, to regions rarely penetrated. In the same test, Asif captured 3-66 of 42 overs in the 1st innings and 2-14 in the 2nd.Thus he accomplished the unique feat, of scoring a century and taking 5 wickets in a test match. Sir Garfield Sobers would have been proud of such an all-round performance.
Quoting Wisden Almanak"Hitting boldly, Asif excelled with the drive and hook. He raced to 50 out of 56 and [Ken] Higgs, [Geoff] Arnold and [Derek] Underwood, so supreme at one stage, all suffered during his drastic punishment."
In 1971, in Birmingham in the 1st test, in a rain hit game, Asif scored a breezy 104, which paved way for Pakistan to come within a threshold of a famous win. In 1973, in New Zealand, Asif Iqbal was revelation, when scoring 175 at Dunedin. His batting in a partnership of 350 runs for the 4th wicket, with Mushtaq Muhammad gave touches of a famous monument being erected. In that series he averaged above 62. At home in 1974, against West Indies, Asif averaged around 3, including a fine 77. In the 1975 Prudential World cup, Asif’s 53 at Leeds against Australia took them to a touching distance of victory. It contained some of the most embezzling strokes.
In 1976 versus New Zealand, at Lahore, he scored a match-winning 166, giving a prop and nurturing Javed Miandad, for lighting his first spark, or making is first stamp on a cricket field. In 1976-77, in Australia, Asif was the fulcrum of a Pakistani team, that squared a series on Australian side for the first time, and carve a new epoch in it’s cricket. His batting turned 2 matches 180 degrees, brilliantly steering the strike.
At Adelaide in the Ist test, he scored an unbeaten 152 to take Pakistan to a total of 466 sharing a 107 run partnership for the last wicket with Iqbal Qasim.It resurrected Pakistan from dire straits, who were 182 runs in the arrears in the 1st innings, to earn a most honourable draw and even coming within distance of a victory.
On a Green top at Sydney in the 3rd test, Asif scored one of the most productive innings on by a no 6 batsmen, scoring 120 out of a score of 359. After Pakistan was precariously placed at 111-4, still 100 runs in arrears in the 1st innings,Asif batted in the manner of a surgeon healing a wound. Few batsmen in testing situation ever tackled the great Dennis Lillee with such assurance as Asif did, in that innings, executing some of the most dazzling drives or scintillating strokes. The pace and bounce of a green strip had no avail on Asif, at the crease, who rallied the batting of the entire side. Arguably a knock that elevated the status of Pakistani cricket, more than anyone, and one of the most defining knocks, in test history.
He averaged a remarkable 78, 25, topping batting averages, in that series. In West Indies, in 1977, e was hardly impactful, till scoring 135 in the final test at Kingston. In my view, that knock, ranks amongst the most combative or consummate, in a losing 4th innings run chase. Coming in at 51-4, Asif’s dazzling drives cuts and hooks all around the wicket, manifested artistry and strokeplay at the top drawer region. Rarely did any middle order batmen counter the great Caribbean pace battery, executing strokes in a more calculated, cultivated or scintillating manner. He was reminiscent of an army regiment launching a retaliatory offensive. It was incredible, that even shielded Wasim Raja, the best batsmen of that series, from facing the bowling.
Asif’s blistering 44 at Karachi and unbeaten 21 at Karachi in 1978-79, played an important role in shaping a historic series win. Asif was consistency personified in New Zealand and Australia in 1978-79, being the rallying point of his team, on crucial occasions. At Perth, on the fastest of strips, he scored a rearguard 134, out of a total of 285, which was a mini masterpiece. In Napier, in New Zealand, Asif scored 14 out of 237,in difficult conditions. In 4 tests in Australia and New Zealand he averaged around 71, scoring 361 runs.
In Kerry Packer World Series cricket, in a super test, Asif Iqbal , scored 107 out of a total of 471, for the WSC XI, one of the most spectacular centuries to inflict a humiliating defeat , against the powerful West Indies ,in 1978.Few centuries ,played a more constructive role ,in paving way for victories, or wins of such an overwhelming margin, over the dominant West Indian team, led by Clive Lloyd. He replaced Tony Greig,as skipper of the World Team. In an ODI, he resurrected his team from the woods, to pull off famous win.
In the 1979 Prudential World Cup, Asif scored match-winning 61 against Australia, and 52 against England at Leeds, which all but resurrected Pakistan from the grave, to be denied victory by mere 14 runs. In the latter game Asif displayed mastery against the moving ball, with his team reeling at 44-6,to take Pakistan within a threshold of a famous win. Sadly he threw his wicket away in the semi-final against the West Indies at critical stage, to deny his team berth in the world cup final.
Regretfully Asif retired on a losing note, after a 6 test series in India, in 1979-80.His batting failed to give impetus to a depleted team, who started as clear favourites. In English county cricket representing Kent, Asif aggregated over 1000 runs 6 times.

Evaluation

In my view, Asif Iqbal blossomed into a great batsman, late in his career. His test average of 38.95, scoring 3575 runs, with 11 centuries, hardly did justice to his true stature. He also captured 53 wickets, at around 28 runs apiece, which is creditable. In first class cricket, Asif Iqbal compiled a staggering 23329 runs, at an average of 37.26, scoring 45 centuries. He had 291 scalps, at the cost of 3.15 runs. In test matches won, Asif averaged a remarkable 58.38, scoring 3centuries. In drawn games he averaged 36,38,aggregating 1965 runs.
At his best, Asif Iqbal, could have joined the league of the great players, if you assess his durability and counter attacking ability in a crisis. He could overshadow the likes of Zaheer Abbas in a crisis. His best innings in England, Australia and West Indies, rank with the very best of all time. They were all played in perfect harmony with the state of the game, and rank amongst the finest ever to retrieve a sinking ship.
For some time, in the 1970’s, he ranked amongst the best all-rounders of the world, competing with Tony Greig, Mike Procter and Mushtaq Muhammad. In World Series Kerry Packer supertests, he turned more games than any Pakistan player. Rarely have any specialists at no 6, manifested batting skill and courage, at such a scale, or been more adept in turning games from the depths of despair. In the late 1970’s, amongst batsmen in a crisis, possibly only Ian Chappell was ahead. On a bad wicket he was up there with any top batsmen, of his time. Possibly at no .6 or no. 7 he may have made the World XI in the late 1970s.
Without the services of Asif Iqbal, Pakistan would never have reached its stature as one of the world’s leading sides. For Pakistan, I would place Asif Iqbal’s stature, par with that of Majid Khan and Mushtaq Muhammad. Captaincy, left a high question mark on Asif, or was a blemish in his career, who was found wanting in the 1975 and 1979 Prudential World cup and 1979 tour of India. He was unable, like Mushtaq Muhammad, to fuse a bunch of talented individuals, into an integrated unit.
Asif’s inability to play in group game at Edgbaston against West Indies, possibly cost Pakistan the cup in 1975,when they went down by mere one wicket margin. In the 1979 world cup he wrongly put West Indies to bat in the semi-final on a belter of a pitch, and after Pakistan were cruising home at 176-2,chasing target of 293, sent Haroon Rashid, instead of Javed Miandad or himself. This could well have cost Pakistan the world cup title.
On the Indian tour in 1979-80 he could hardly garner discipline amongst his fellow mates .He literally left Pakistan cricket in a state of disarray. Sadly Asif set a trend of politics splintering Pakistan cricket, which was overcome in the next decade by Imran Khan, but gained ascendancy again in the 1990’s. Still Asif did lead Kent to win the County championship, which is creditable.
Asif in major way revolutionised Pakistan cricket in the sixties and seventies. Be it the pay raise dispute with the Pakistan cricket’s strongman Abdul Hafeez Kardar in 1976-77 or be it his role in drawing cricket’s best talent to Packer’s World Series of Cricket, Asif always stood at the forefront not only for himself but also for his fellow cricketers. He enabled all Pakistani cricketers in earning a decent wage and concentrating only on cricket rather than worry about dollars and cents. In his early days Asif also used to work off season for travel agents Thomas Cook in the UK.
It is very controversial whether Asif Iqbal was part of match-fixing at Kolkata in 1979-80,as alleged by Sarrfraz Nawaz and late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi ,who stated that Asif deliberately lifted up the coin ,before opposing skipper,Vishwanath could see it. In 1999-2000, when the match-fixing scandal arose, Iqbal's name got the distinction of being one of the first players to be involved in fixing. The Justice Qayyum report, which investigated the case, had this to say: "For the Pakistani cricket team, the allegation of match-fixing seems to have started when Asif Iqbal was the captain of the Pakistani team in 1979-80. Asif was accused of betting on the toss.”
Another report, the Ehtesaab Bureau (EB) report, linked matches in Sharjah to illegal betting; holding CBFS responsible.It noted that gambling in cricket for Pakistan had its roots "in the development of cricket in Sharjah under the guidance of Mr Abdul Rahman Bukhatir and with the assistance of Mr Asif Iqbal." In 2001, with the match-fixing probe at its peak, Iqbal disassociated himself from the CBFS, saying that "heavy infiltration of politics in the sport has created an atmosphere about which I feel deeply uncomfortable". Distinct possibility that Asif was made a scapegoat by the administration, for match-fixing.

After Retirement

After his retirement as an active player Asif collaborated with Abdur Rehman Bukhatir who wanted to establish Sharjah as a serious cricket venue on the world cricket map. Asif turned into Bukhatir’s right hand in setting up the Cricketer’s Benefit Funds Series at Sharjah. This CBFS series not only went on to benefit new and old cricket stars financially but also made Sharjah’s a neutral venue for classic c contests involving Pakistan for the next quarter of a century. Some cricketers who were living literally below the acceptable wage line benefited from charity of this benefit series. Sharjah’s record as a venue of holding the highest number of ODIs (236) will still take be hard to surpass.
I greatly admired Asif Iqbal as a commentator and promoter, who always kept the spirit of cricket alive. He was an astute judge of cricketers, choosing the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Michael Holding Dennis Lillee and Sachin Tendulkar in his all-time team. Asif often had a good word for India and expressed hardly any bias against India. Even in it’s gravest times,Asif was a hard core supporter and kept the spirit of Pakistani cricket alive.
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Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist who has extensive research on Cricket history

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