Saeed Anwar: An unorthodox genius

August 22, 2021

Acclaimed as the most naturally talented batsman that Pakistan has ever produced, Saeed’s casual nonchalance and entrancing array of strokes delighted spectators and savants alike, leaving wonderful memories for all those who were fortunate enough to witness him in his prime.

Saeed Anwar: An unorthodox genius

Few Pakistani cricketers have captured the imagination of the audience or won praise from their peers in the way that Saeed Anwar did. His technique was certainly unorthodox, he practiced a style not described in the standard coaching manuals, a craftsman with an unique method, suited to his own precocious individual flair. He had that distinctive hallmark of greatness, the ability to make batting look effortless and easy, against all attacks and on all surfaces and occasions.He could play any shot that he wished but his favourites were the strokes square off the wicket in the area between point and extra cover. Using the length of the ball as a guide, he would either plant his front foot forwards or stay on the back foot, using any width offered by the bowler to thread the ball through the narrowest of gaps to the boundary ropes. Emulating the great Majid Khan before him, Saeed Anwar showed little interest in footwork and this tempted bowlers to deploy a strong offside field, pack the slip and gully cordon and pepper him with deliveries in the corridor of uncertainty around his off stump, hoping to induce a rash stroke or an edge. However, so early did Saeed see the ball and such was his hand-eye co-ordination and so exquisite his timing, that he would almost invariably win this battle of wits and tactics, leaning into his shots with an elastic reach and then using powerful and supple wrists to caress the ball past the awaiting field.

Against spinners he was equally at ease, coming nimbly down the wicket to drive them in the ‘V’ between mid-on and mid-off or lift them over the in-field for a four or a six. Another Saeed Anwar classic was the facile flick off his pads played with delicacy and deceptive ease. Unorthodox in his approach, he was not averse to pulling balls from outside the off stump through mid-wicket or sweeping off-side deliveries past vacant positions in the leg side field. A creative and bewitching left handed strokeplayer he injected adventure and excitement into the game drawing effusive praise from players and pundits alike.

Saeed Anwar’s father was a good club cricketer. An engineer by profession he worked initially in Iran and then in Saudi Arabia and sent a nine-year-old Saeed Anwar back to Pakistan to live with his grandparents in Karachi. Saeed’s childhood heroes were the squash players Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan. He would play squash and table tennis almost daily and developed sharp reflexes and strong wrists in the process. He joined the Malir Gymkhana Club primarily as an orthodox left arm spinner but soon started focusing on his batting as well, getting a friend to bowl to him regularly with a tape ball for practice. Interestingly the friend was Rashid Latif who would go on to play for Pakistan as an eminent wicketkeeper-batsman.

As Saeed successfully progressed up the batting order, he decided to seriously pursue a career in cricket after graduating as a computer systems engineer. He made his first-class debut in 1986 and soon made his presence felt with a knock of 150 for Karachi in a Quaid e Azam trophy match versus the National Bank side. After a couple of relatively nondescript seasons he got a big break when chosen to play for the NWFP Governor’s Eleven versus the visiting Australian side in October 1988. Batting at number five, with his team’s score at 75 for 3, he proceeded to make a flawless 127 against an attack headed by Craig McDermott.

A month later good fortune smiled once more on Saeed when he was playing for UBL against PIA in the final of Pakistan’s premier one day competition, the Wills Cup. PIA had scored 228 and UBL was 138 for 3 when Saeed came to the wicket. Facing the legendary Wasim Akram, Saeed hit him for 2 sixes and 2 fours in a 33-ball cameo that fetched him 36 runs and resulted in a tied game. Luckily for Saeed the match was being televised. He enthralled the audience and was particularly eulogized by the famous commentator Iftikhar Ahmed, who recommended him to Imran Khan.

Saeed was picked for the Pakistan side touring Australia later that year and made his ODI debut against the West Indies in the tri-nation Benson and Hedges Cup tournament, involving Australia, West Indies and Pakistan, that formed part of that tour. It was an inauspicious start, but the following year Saeed was back in Australia for the same tournament, with Sri Lanka replacing West Indies as the third side. Promoted to open the batting Saeed played a scintillating innings against Sri Lanka at Adelaide. In an opening partnership of 202 with Rameez Raja, Saeed launched a blistering assault on the bowling, scoring 126 off just 99 balls, with 8 fours and 6 sixes. Saeed Anwar, the opener had truly arrived.

Some more solid ODI performances won Saeed a place in the national Test team but his introduction to Test cricket was disastrous. Playing against the West Indies at Faisalabad in November 1990, he grabbed a pair, lasting a combined total of eight balls in the two innings. He was naturally dropped from the Test team. A loss of form and a mystery illness, the first of many that would intermittently plague him, meant that he played only 5 ODIs between December 1990 and February 1993, without reaching double figures even once, and missing the 1992 World Cup in the process.

The 1993-94 season would prove to be one of redemption for Saeed Anwar. During the Pepsi Champions Trophy in Sharjah he became the second batsman till then, after Zaheer Abbas, to score three consecutive ODI centuries. A recall to the Test side followed in 1994 and this time Saeed did not disappoint. A brilliant, stroke studded 169 with 27 fours in the second Test at Wellington was followed by an equally sublime 69 in the third Test at Christchurch that contained 10 fours and a six. In the following series against Sri Lanka he scored 94 and 136 in the first Test at Colombo. Later the same year, he carried this rich vein of form into the home series against Australia, scoring fifties in three of the six innings that he batted in.

A regular in both the Test and ODI national teams now, Saeed captured the connoisseurs attention on Pakistan’s tour of England in 1996. His electrifying batting at the top of the order had the gurus of the game in raptures. Scores of 74 and 88 in the opening test at Lords were followed by a knock of 176 in the third Test at the Oval, which was nominated by Wisden as the most beautiful innings of the series. The precision of his placements, his impeccable timing, the fluidity and majesty of his stroke-making all drew appreciative gasps from enthralled audiences. The Test series was followed by three ODIs which brought Saeed scores of 57, 33 and 61, or a total of 151 runs from just 159 balls with 20 fours and a six. With a total of 1224 runs on the tour from just 10 matches, at an average of 68.00 runs per innings, Saeed was deservedly named as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year. Incidentally, Saeed had been ill for months with an undiagnosed illness shortly before the tour began.

Saeed was now at the peak of his form, as the next few years would show. On a scorchingly hot day in Chennai in May 1997, Saeed set a new world record for the highest individual score till then in any ODI. In 146 balls of exquisite, yet excoriating strokeplay, Saeed raced to a score of 194. Suffering from cramps he required a runner from the 19th over, and relied more on hits to the fence. These totaled 22 fours and 5 sixes including a remarkable 26 run over from Anil Kumble when Saeed heaved him for three consecutive sixes. Sachin Tendulkar called it the best innings he had ever seen and it came to an end when a tired Saeed top edged a sweep off Tendulkar’s bowling and was brilliantly caught by Saurav Ganguly at fine leg.

In February 1999, in an Asian Test Championship match versus India, Saeed played another innings that will long be remembered. Pakistan trailed India by 38 runs on the first innings when Saeed opened the batting in their second outing. He proceeded to score a match winning 188 not out in Pakistan’s total score of 312 or 59.5% of the team’s entire runs. The innings contained 23 fours and a six, and made Saeed Anwar the third Pakistani batsman to carry his bat through an entire completed innings, the other two being the father and son duo of Nazar Mohammad and Mudassar Nazar. All three performed this feat against India. It also gave Saeed the singular honour of staying unbeaten through an entire completed innings in both Tests and ODI’s as he had already done so with 103 not out in a one-dayer against Zimbabwe at Harare in1995.

Saeed continued to entertain audiences around the world with his flamboyance and flair. Despite multiple earlier tours to Australia for ODIs, Saeed played his first Test on Australian soil at Brisbane in November 1999 and marked the occasion with a century, scoring 119 that contained 20 fours. His final Test was against Bangladesh at Multan in 2001 when he scored an effortless 101 from 104 balls with 17 fours and a six in his last Test innings. In doing so he became the first, and so far the only, Pakistan batsman to end his test career with a hundred. With Taufeeq Umar as his opening partner, it also marked the first instance in test history that two left handed openers had both made a centuries in the same innings. The occasion was, however tinged with a note of immense sadness, as during the match Saeed’s daughter Bismah passed away after a long illness.

Saeed soon retired from cricket and his focus shifted to religion, becoming a preacher as a member of the Tablighi Jamaat. He returned to cricket briefly and even played in the 2003 World Cup with a luxuriant beard, but could not regain his form of old and soon announced a final retirement from the game.

During his career Saeed played 55 Tests and scored 4052 Test runs at an average of 45.52. This tally included 11 hundreds and 25 fifties. In ODIs he notched up 8824 runs averaging 39.21 runs per innings, with 20 centuries and 43 fifties. He scored 3957 of his Test runs as an opener which is the highest aggregate by a Pakistani opening batsman. His Test average of 47.10 when opening the innings is also the best for a Pakistani opener. He also holds the record for the best Test batting average of any Pakistani against Australia, scoring 886 runs at an average of 59.06.

In ODIs his tally of 8156 runs as an opener is the highest by a Pakistani for this position. His 20 ODI hundreds is also a Pakistani record as are his 1595 ODI runs in a calendar year which he scored in 1996. His 938 fours in ODIs is the second highest tally by a Pakistani after Inzamam’s 970. His ODI opening partnerships with Amir Sohail and Shahid Afridi netted 2856 and 2056 runs respectively, the two highest on record in ODIs for the national side.

Acclaimed by the likes of Imran Khan, Inzamam ul Haq and Rashid Latif as the most naturally talented batsman that Pakistan has ever produced, Saeed’s casual nonchalance and entrancing array of strokes delighted cricket’s spectators and savants alike, leaving wonderful memories for all those who were fortunate enough to witness him in his prime.

– Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.

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Saeed Anwar: An unorthodox genius