by Sa’adi Thawfeeq
When he first toured England with Pakistan in 1971 he was just another player in the team having played the odd one Test against New Zealand at home and scored 12 and 27. But by the time he left the shores of England two months later, Zaheer Abbas had already gained international fame and was already a household name in Pakistan.
In his first appearance in a Test match in England at Edgbaston, Zaheer hit a magnificent 274, which was to remain his career best score and averaged 96.50 in the three-match series.
It was after his stupendous feat of scoring a double century that Zaheer was dubbed as the “Asian Bradman”, a name which he uses as his personal email address.
“The name came in 1971 when we toured England. I scored 274 and the English papers wrote ‘Meet the Asian Bradman from Pakistan’,” recalled Zaheer.
“I have been carrying that name since and luckily I proved that I was a run machine for them scoring 100 hundreds and so many other world records. If I could have done it at that time when cricket used to be less, just imagine. More history would have been created maybe I would have scored more runs, more centuries God knows what.
“Cricket nowadays is played virtually every day, during our time we have to wait 3-4 years for a series. These guys are lucky they are playing every day.”
Zaheer repeated that success three years later in England when he scored another double century – 240 at the Oval in 1974.
Soon after his first visit to England he was quickly snapped up by English county Gloucestershire for whom he made a mint of runs and became the only batsman from Asia to score 100 centuries in first-class cricket – 108. That was possible because of his links with the county whom he played 13 seasons from 1972 scoring over 16,000 runs and hitting 49 hundreds. He is the only player to have scored a century and a double century in a first-class match four times.
Zaheer is in Sri Lanka as the president of the International Cricket Council (ICC) with his wife at the invitation of Sidath Wettimuny, the Sri Lanka Cricket interim committee chairman.
“Sri Lanka is a very lucky country for me. I am the first one to be invited to this country as ICC president it’s a historical thing that has happened in my life,” said Zaheer to The Nation. “I am here as an ambassador of cricket and come to watch lovely cricket and so far Pakistan has been successful.”
Zaheer’s last Test match for Pakistan was against Sri Lanka at Sialkot, his birthplace in 1985. He made his final ODI appearance also against Sri Lanka at Hyderabad the same year.
Zaheer described his appointment as president of ICC as “a great honour” and said, “If you ask somebody that you are the ICC president it’s a big thing, but it’s a ceremonial job no doubt, but being a cricketer I can put some words to the ICC people and rightly so at least they will listen.”
He is the third Test cricketer to hold this position after England’s Colin Cowdrey (1989-93) and West Indian Clyde Walcott (1993-97) and the second person from Pakistan after Ehsan Mani (2003-06).
In his capacity as ICC president Zaheer said that he would try to convince other ICC members to resume tours to Pakistan. International tours to Pakistan came to a standstill after the Sri Lanka cricket team bus was attacked by terrorists in Lahore in 2009.
“Openly I can’t but by talking and trying to convince the ICC members maybe. Obviously everybody is there to listen to you. If I am speaking to them as a cricketer they will,” said Zaheer.
“Zimbabwe coming is a good change but why is it that Pakistan is the only country where international cricket is not being played? Take an example of Sri Lanka when they were going through a bad time we used to come and play here.
“You should not try to let cricket die in Pakistan it will be of no use. Our job is to spread cricket all over the world that’s why we have new members and we always encourage them.
“The time will come when our neighbours will come. I am hoping especially that Sri Lanka should come. We’ve been very close to each other in every department. If a gesture comes from them I will be very happy,” he said.
Zaheer’s success as an elegant batsman with a penchant for making big runs has been his self determination.
“If your mind is focused on the game and you are thinking and sleeping all the time what I am going to do tomorrow you will be successful. Obviously you have to work very hard,” said Zaheer.
“If you see my record in ODIs the average is about 47 which is good. My strike rate was 84 which is quite high and my overall performance was okay considering the amount of matches I played at the time and, the runs and averages which I have achieved I am very satisfied.”
Zaheer averaged 44.79 in 78 Tests and of his 12 hundreds he went past 150 on eight occasions that included two double hundreds each against England and India. He played in 62 ODIs and made seven hundreds.
The secret of his batting was his timing of the ball.“Timing comes automatically when you practice a lot. You have to touch the ball. In any other game you have to use your grip tight in this game you have to play with your wrists. If you know how to use your wrists the timing will come automatically,” said Zaheer.
“Cricketers from Australia, England and any other country other than the subcontinent are different. They have to hit the ball hard but Asians if you see they play with their wrists.”
Zaheer said that the Pakistan team has improved ‘tremendously’.
“I am really happy to see the way they are fielding and their energy on the field. This is because of youngsters who have come in and are trying to prove themselves,” said Zaheer.
“When they were in and out their performances were bad but now you see their performance it’s tremendous. Some of the things they did on the field (during the third ODI) I’ve never seen before in Pakistan cricket. It looks like the Pakistan team is a very good fielding side.
“Sri Lanka is also a very good fielding side but these days they are dropping too many catches which was never there before. They have to improve in that area. You need to have young players and 3-4 seniors but if they are not performing well, you have to bring a youngster. The World Cup is coming up in a few years so everybody has started preparations,” he said.
Zaheer had a word of praise for veteran cricketer Younis Khan whom he rated as an all-time great of Pakistan.
“I don’t know what’s happened to him don’t know which cell he is using. His performances are increasing day by day. Look at his age (37) he is one of the great names we have produced,” said Zaheer.
“What is unique about his batting is his determination. He likes to stick there at the wicket as long as he wants. He knows if he is in the dressing room he has no value. So he will like to be at the crease as long as he can.
“He knows that he has to improve more and more everyday because the youngsters are coming up, you have to compete against them. If you look at his performance it’s tremendous.”
Although cricket has advanced tremendously over the years with the T20 format hogging the limelight, Zaheer said the game is still the same.
“The only difference I can see is that in our days the cricket bat used to be this thin now the bats are thicker and in T20 cricket the grounds are smaller. In our time the boundary lines used to be 75, 80 or 100 yards.
“The only regret I have in my career is that we didn’t play too many Test matches or ODIs,” said Zaheer who after retiring from cricket continued his job as general manager of Pakistan International Airlines before starting a business of his own.