My childhood hero

August 21, 2016

There will not be another Hanif Mohammad. Gifted personalities like him are born once in a century. Rest in peace, Little Master!

My childhood hero

For me Hanif Mohammad was not only a cricketing icon; he was not only the greatest opening batsman of his time; he was not only a shrewd cricketing brain and a perfect reader of pitches; a popular, knowledgeable and much respected Radio and TV cricket expert. Hanif for me was much more. He was my childhood hero; he was my cricket role model; he was a commentating colleague; and above all he was a friend.

I was at the Oval when the news of his demise was broken. Once I had reconciled myself to the fact that the original "Little Master" of the game was no more, memories of more than 60 years flowed in. Time and space do not allow me to go into details. However, some memories could be shared.

In 1951 my father was posted at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. It was announced that Pakistan cricket team will be touring India in 1952 for five Tests and a number of side matches. They were to play across India. Of the five Tests one was to be played in New Delhi where we lived and one in Lucknow, the home of my maternal grandparents.

My father told me that the team included a teenage schoolboy (student of Sindh Madressah) called Hanif Mohammad who was a wicketkeeper and opening batsman. I did get a brief glimpse of him as I was taken to the Feroze Shah Kotla ground to see half a day’s cricket.

I also witnessed Hanif and Nazar open the innings at the University Grounds in Lucknow, not far from my grandparents’ house. Pakistan had lost badly at New Delhi but drew level by winning at Lucknow.

I was deeply impressed by this short and frail batsman and secretly hoped to play like him one day.

I then followed Pakistan’s fortunes in general and Hanif’s in particular throughout the tour. He played for hours in Bombay and defied the spin and guile of the maestro spinner Vinoo Mankad. The commentary throughout seemed to be consumed by "Mankad to Hanif…"

India paid a return visit to Pakistan in 1955 and I went to see the Test at Karachi’s National Stadium with my mother (from the ladies’ stand). Hanif opened the innings with Alimuddin to the medium pace of Phadkar and Ramchand. Hanif in trying to hook a short pitched delivery top edged to the short leg area; it ballooned in the air and Tamhane had plenty of time to get under it and catch it. Hanif out for two. The day’s play and even the match had ended for me!

Hanif only about 10 years my senior had become my hero and role model in cricket. I tried to emulate him by playing steadily and along the ground. My father also arranged for me to meet my hero through Ghulam Gilani, a good cricketer and the son of his friend from Allahbad days. Hanif encouraged me and also introduced me to the Pak Moghals Club which had produced many a fine player.

We followed with enthusiasm Pakistan’s tour of the West Indies in 1957 and the great batsmanship of Hanif, Imtiaz, Wazir, Saeed, and the bowling of Naseem and Haseeb. But what continues to be fresh in memory is Hanif Mohammad’s epic innings at Bridgetown when he seemed to have taken a permanent lease of the pitch. He batted for what it seemed days. In absence of commentary we were restricted to newspaper reports and it seemed they were printing the same report for three or four days. As every cricket fan knows Hanif played for 999 minutes, still the longest innings by any one in Tests, scoring 337 which remains the highest by any Pakistani.

In 1960 Pakistan toured India and Hanif once again figured prominently, defending dourly and scoring a big hundred in Bombay. It was the same year I think when his son Shoaib was born.

Hanif had problems with his knees. He even dropped down in the batting order, but my keenness and enthusiasm about following his performances never waned. His battles with the best bowlers of the day should be viewed in the light of the facts that he played on pitches which remained uncovered and under the supervision of hostile umpires.

There were no chest guards, elbow coverings or helmets. There were no front-foot no balls and no limit to bouncers and field placements.

The ICC had no referees or even the rules covering sledging and other misconducts which are in place today.

Hanif faced the fire and fury of the likes of Gilchrist, Hall, Truman, Tyson, Statham, Loader, Lindwall, Johnston, Miller, and the spin greats Mankad, Gupte, Laker, Lock, Wardle, Appleyard, Underwood, Pocock.

I did play for my school and colleges in Karachi and Cambridge but quickly realised my shortcomings and gave up the idea of playing "serious" cricket.

When I came down from University I decided because of my love and interest in the game to try my hand (or voice) at commentary. I went through the strictest auditions for Radio Pakistan and was given my first assignment to commentate on the first side game between Mike Brearley’s touring MCC Under-25 and South Zone at Hyderabad. To my delight and excitement the local team was led by the great Hanif Mohammad who was to captain Pakistan in England later that year.

Hanif scored a half century (70+) in his own inimitable style and I perhaps used a number of superlatives. I was describing the batting of my hero of the last 15 years. Hanif by now had dropped down in the batting order. He made 35 not out, still a century for the match.

By 1969 TV had come to Pakistan and cricket was one of the popular sports covered by PTV. In 1969 I got an opportunity to commentate on this medium for the Karachi Test against New Zealand. This was Hanif’s last Test for Pakistan and Sadiq Mohammad’s first.

Musthtaq having been a Test player for the last ten years was also included. So there was a sort of record with three brothers playing for the same side in a Test Match.

I could relate to Sadiq and Mushtaq as I had played with both at school level before Mushtaq became a Test player at the age of 15; Sadiq I played with at the club level as well. Later I was fortunate enough to do commentaries with all three and also have them participating in TV shows.

Hanif joined our TV commentary panel as an expert. He was very knowledgeable, had a dry sense of humour, was soft spoken, his criticism of players was couched in diplomatic and polite terms, he never interrupted or contradicted his fellow commentators. Hanif was always gracious. When Younis was approaching his triple century against Sri Lanka at Karachi, PTV invited him and he obliged by coming and joining the panel in spite of being in poor health.

He hoped Younis would surpass his 337 and was disappointed when the Khan was dismissed for 313.

Hanif’s passing away is a big loss to the cricket world in general and Pakistan cricket in particular. May Allah grant his soul peace and his family members the courage to bear this loss. There will not be another Hanif Mohammad. Gifted personalities like him are born once in a century. Rest in peace Little Master.

My childhood hero