Saturday, October 13, 2007

A champion batsman departs..

A champion cricketer bids farewell

Yesterday marked the swansong for one of cricket’s most dominating batsmen, Inzamam-ul-Haq. A colossus of a batsman (and not just because of his burly stature), Inzi – as he is popularly known – can stake claim to being one of the best batsmen of this generation. Inzi’s career has been a jolly rollercoaster ride, with elements from the sublime and the supreme to the tragic and the bizarre. All along, however, he has maintained a silent dignity of a champion who has been one of the most dependable bats in the world.

Starting off as an unknown youngster plucked from anonymity, as most Pakistani cricketers were, Inzi’s first stab at greatness was his stellar performances in the 1992 World Cup when his superlative batting catapulted Pakistan to the finals, before contemporary Wasim Akram assured a championship triumph. His potential was highlighted when Imran Khan, the then captain announced that Inzi was the best player of fast bowling in the world. Imran was not far off the mark. Inning after solid inning confirmed this praise.

His batting was an ideal combination of power mingled with finesse. For a man of that bulk, subtlety came surprisingly easy. A good eye, capability to read the seam and swing early and tremendous timing ability characterised his batting all through his career. Added to this strong technical ability was his stubbornness on protecting his wicket and an unflappable attitude. No wonder, his fortitude generally rubbed on his teammates as he shared some excellent partnerships with even tailenders, often trusting their abilities without having to shield them. A recent example was his 92, not out, against South Africa, where he had to bat at number eight and enjoyed a partnership with unheralded tailender Mohammad Asif. The 184, not out, against India in Bangalore was another example of solid batting under immense pressure. Such innings were characteristic of Inzamam, batting was an art made easy.

This easy attitude perhaps was both his strength and weakness, as his cavalier approach to facing the delivery could not be sustained on other aspects of batsmanship, particularly running between the wickets. In this area, Inzi was a perennial malefactor, responsible for scores of run-out mishaps involving himself or his partners. His running foibles resulted in the public caricaturing this aspect of his cricket. Surprisingly, he was a robust fielder, with a canon arm from the outfield and quick reflexes at slips, showing no bit of sloth alleged by many as defining him.

A man of utter calm on the crease, on and off the field, Inzamam’s one black mark was the incident in a match against India in Toronto. Taunted by a raucous spectator on his girth, Inzi lost his nerve and chased the offender with a bat, a scene that was totally against his character. This incident apart, Inzi presented a pious image, nonchalant and gracious in victory and defeat. This cool attitude rubbed on the perennially tempestuous and mercurial Pakistan side, as his captaincy marked a period of unity and integrity in his teams that he led. His was a captaincy by example, as his courageous batting reflected leadership more than vocal admonition or handling of players.

The incident that catapulted Inzamam from being known as a calm, composed and mild-mannered captain to a no-nonsense indignant leader was the Oval Test match spat with umpire Darrell Hair, with the match being forfeited, an occurrence without precedent in Test Cricket. His team accused of ball tampering, Inzamam refused to bite the allegation and preferred dignity over defeat. His stout defence of his team and his standing up to an official, who had a history of controversial decisions against players from the Subcontinent, won him a lot of respect among several cricket lovers, particularly those who believed that cricket was still blighted by racial preference for the stiff upper lip and the white man. His actions, however, invited a four match ban, a censure that did not diminish his forthright rejection of imposed disrepute.

Inzamam’s actions were reminiscent of Arjuna Ranatunga’s stout decision to defend Muttiah Muralitharan after he was called for throwing by umpire Ross Emerson in Australia. While it would not be worthwhile to extrapolate this issue by calling it an act of standing up to colonial attitude, it is not far from the mark to say that Inzamam stood steadfastly for the pride of his team, unfairly accused of malpractice without sufficient proof.

The end to Inzi’s career, however, has been tragic. His captaincy and batting failed to help Pakistan march on to knockout stages of the 2007 World Cup, particularly because of a shocking defeat against Ireland (one of the biggest shocks ever in sport in this author’s opinion). The subsequent death of Pakistan’s coach Bob Woolmer and a tearful retirement for Inzi marked a dark end to his One-Day International (ODI) career. As Pakistan went on a rebuilding mode, Inzi declared that he was playing his last Test match against South Africa in Lahore. He missed breaking the highest runs scored by a Pakistani (a record held by Javed Miandad) exactly by three runs. International cricket’s loss is perhaps the Indian Cricket League’s (ICL’s) gain. Inzamam has signed a contract to play in the much touted Twenty20 league in India.

An eventful career thus marked Inzamam’s international cricket enterprise. From unique displays of sublime batsmanship under conditions of immense pressure to singular and bizarre ways of getting out (he was one of the few batsmen ever to have been given out obstructing the field, and he once fell over the stumps while attempting a sweep shot), from spectacular heights (the 1992 World Cup victory) to abyss (a complete non-show in the 2003 World Cup), Inzamam-ul-Haq has seen it all and experienced it all. He would, however, take immense pride and satisfaction from the fact that he carved a niche for himself among a generation of splendid batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. He will remain an inspiration for future generation of Pakistani players, as well as for batsmen from the Subcontinent. Pakistan and the Subcontinent owe him a glowing tribute.

The writer, trained in engineering and in political science, works with the editorial team at Economic and Political Weekly, and is an avid follower of sports, political economy and the performing arts

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