Asif Iqbal: Pakistan cricket’s man of crisis

September 12, 2021

Loose limbed, lithe and nimble, Asif in his prime was a joy to behold. A batsman who used the bat both as a rapier for attack and as a wand to conjure its magic of creative sorcery, he enthralled all who saw him play

Asif Iqbal: Pakistan cricket’s man of crisis

Asif Iqbal Razvi was born in 1943 in Hyderabad, India, into a cricket loving family. His father Majeed Razvi played for Hyderabad and his maternal uncle was the famous off spinner Ghulam Ahmed, who played 22 Tests for India, including three as a captain.While he was still at college, Asif was selected to play in the Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad in the 1959-60 season at the tender age of 16. The following season, aged 17, he was chosen to represent the South Zone side against the visiting Pakistani team led by Fazal Mahmood and impressed everyone by taking 6 wickets in the match including 4 for 52 in the first innings. Fazal advised Ghulam Ahmed to send Asif to Pakistan where he would have better opportunities to showcase his talent. Many members of Asif’s family, including his brother, had already migrated and settled in Karachi and Asif soon joined them there. Shortly after his arrival he was approached by the umpire Idris Beg who secured him a job in the Public Works Department or the PWD and launched Asif on his illustrious career.

Asif was selected to tour England with the Pakistan Eaglets team in 1963. He was the most successful bowler on the tour and also showed his ability as a handy batsman, impressing the manager Mian Mohammad Saeed who predicted a Test career for him. This clairvoyance was not misplaced as Asif won a place in the Pakistan side to play Australia at Karachi in a solitary one-off Test in 1964. Playing as a bowling all-rounder, he opened the bowling with an another emerging talent, Majid Jahangir Khan. Two wickets as an opening bowler plus useful knocks of 41 and 36, won Asif selection for the national side’s tour of Australia and New Zealand. Damp conditions and green wickets in New Zealand ideally suited his swing bowling, netting him a haul of 18 wickets in the three Test series, at an average of just 13.77 runs apiece. He also managed to score his first Test fifty and established himself as a regular member of the team.

When the England Under-25 side visited Pakistan in early 1967 for a three match series, Asif was rewarded with the captaincy of a strong Pakistani Under-25 squad which would form the nucleus of its Test team in the near future. His team consisted of a surfeit of talent including, amongst others, Asif himself, Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad, Sadiq Mohammad, Wasim Bari, Parvez Sajjad, Saleem Altaf and Shafqat Rana. Asif led from the front, and excelled as a batsman, scoring his maiden first-class century, crafted in his typical flamboyant style, when he stroked his way to 117 off just 160 balls, to save his side from potential defeat in the second match.

Pakistan’s tour of England later that summer was when Asif really came of age as an international star. Before the tour began he developed a back problem and therefore decided to focus more on his batting. In the opening Test at Lords, overcast conditions helped his medium fast seam and swing bowling to procure him three wickets, that limited England to a total of 369 after being 283 for 2 at one stage. In reply Pakistan were in danger of being overwhelmed when Asif joined Hanif Mohammad at the crease with the score at 139 for 7. Mixing cautious defence with exquisite stroke play Asif made 76 in a 130 run partnership with Hanif, to enable Pakistan to reach 354 all out and achieve an honorable draw.

It was, however, the third Test at the Oval where Asif really stamped his mark as a player of rare pedigree. Trailing England by 224 runs in the first innings, Pakistan were close to annihilation at 65 for 8 in their second knock when Intikhab Alam joined Asif at the crease. In fact, so imminent did an early innings defeat look, that the sponsors had already arranged a 20 over per side exhibition match to follow the end of the Test. This potential ignominy was too much for Asif to stomach. He waded into the English attack with a vengeance, driving, hooking, cutting and pulling with a beguilingly enticing combination of silken grace and rare savagery blended into one. Wisden described it as an “amalgam of pure batting genius and joyous cheek”.

In two hours and nineteen minutes he had reached his first Test century, studded with 19 fours. When he was ninth out, Pakistan’s score was 255, and Asif and Intikhab had established a ninth wicket world record partnership of 190. Asif’s own tally was 146 in three hours and ten minutes with 21 fours and 2 sixes. It was the second highest Test score ever made by a batsman playing at the number nine position. England, forced to bat again, duly crossed their winning target of just 32 runs, but not before the indomitable Asif had snared both openers for just 14 runs. Not surprisingly he was nominated as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year and was flooded with offers to join the county cricket circuit. He chose Kent and would play for them for the next fourteen summers.

As a fixed feature of Pakistan’s side Asif continued to entertain spectators with his own brand of batting wizardry, using the willow as a scimitar with which to mow down bowling attacks around the world. On his first visit to New Zealand in 1965 he had excelled as a bowler, but on his next visit in 1973 he showed his batting class. In the second Test at Dunedin he put on 350 runs for the 4th wicket with Mushtaq Mohammad in just 274 minutes of sublime stroke play. This was Pakistan’s highest Test partnership for any wicket at the time and is still a national record stand for the 4th wicket. Asif’s share of 175 was his highest Test score and it enabled Pakistan to score 400 runs during the second day’s play.

Asif was acquiring a reputation as the player the team could turn to in times of crisis. When New Zealand toured Pakistan in October 1976, the home team were in a spot of bother at 55 for 4 in the first innings of the opening Test at Lahore. Asif joined Test debutant Javed Miandad at the wicket and shepherded him through a 5th wicket stand of 281 runs that changed the complexion of the game. While Miandad made 163 on debut, Asif’s innings of 166, in the role of the elder, guiding partner, was equally crucial to Pakistan’s eventual victory.

A few months later the team embarked on a tour of Australia and the West Indies. In the first Test against Australia at Adelaide, Asif failed to score in the first innings and Pakistan trailed by 182 runs when they began their second knock. Asif now played a superlative match saving innings of 152 not out, balancing his natural shot-making with careful protection of the lower order batsmen. His innings included a last wicket partnership of 87 runs in 96 minutes with Iqbal Qasim, in which the latter’s contribution was just 4 runs. The third Test of the series is widely remembered as the match in which Imran Khan announced his arrival as a genuine fast bowler, capturing 12 wickets to take Pakistan to victory. However, it was Asif’s contribution with the bat that made Imran’s success possible. Replying to Australia’s total of 211, Pakistan were unsteady at 111 for 4, when Asif mounted another rearguard effort. A watchful and masterly innings of 120 helped Pakistan to a score of 360 and a lead of 149, which eventually led them to an eight wicket win.

In the Caribbean, Asif’s ability to rise to a challenge was demonstrated in the fifth and final Test at Kingston, Jamaica. Chasing a mammoth target of 442 to win, Pakistan lost four quick wickets for 51, when Asif arrived at the wicket. He again fought doggedly making a determined and fluent 135, but for once it was not enough as Pakistan lost.

Asif had wanted to retire after this tour but the lure of a three-Test series against a visiting Indian team the following year changed his mind. In the opening Test at Faisalabad he achieved a life-long ambition of scoring a century against India, the country in which he had started his cricket journey. His 104 in the second innings followed a duck in the first knock, the second time within nine Tests that he had scored a hundred and a zero in the same match.

In the third and final Test of the series at Karachi a century in each innings by Gavaskar meant that Pakistan were set an arduous target of 164 to win in 100 minutes. In a quest for quick runs Majid and Asif were asked to open the batting. At the same venue of the National Stadium in Karachi, Majid and Asif had together opened the bowling for Pakistan in their common debut Test versus Australia in October 1964. Now, 14 years later, they had been transformed from opening bowlers into the national side’s opening batting pair, a strange quirk of fate and perhaps an unique one in the history of the game. After Majid’s early dismissal Asif and Miandad made a Pakistan victory possible with a 97 run stand for the 2nd wicket in just 9 overs. After Asif’s departure Imran joined Miandad and Pakistan crossed the winning line with 7 balls to spare. The man of crisis had delivered yet again. Alex Bannister called him “a specialist in the impossible.”

Asif’s swan song Test series was against India in 1979-80. As the captain of the touring Pakistan side he experienced an indifferent time as a player, in a series marred by controversy. In his final Test at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta he received a standing ovation from a crowd of 80,000 people as they bid him adieu when he left the field for the last time, a memory that Asif still recalls fondly.

Besides playing for Pakistan Asif had a long stint with Kent, from 1968 to 1982. He was appointed as their captain in 1977 and led them to become joint winners of the County Championship and finalists in the Benson Hedges Cup. Despite these successes he was relieved of the captaincy at the end of the season since he had joined Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket. He was reinstated as captain for 1981 and 1982 but by then he had retired from Test matches and the old spark and zest were gone. During his county cricket spell he was also nominated as the Player of the Match after Kent’s Gillette Cup win in 1973. In the same year he also won the Walter Lawrence Trophy, which is awarded to the player making the fastest century in the season. Asif had taken just 72 minutes to score a hundred for Kent versus the MCC at Canterbury, including 16 fours and a six.

Asif captained Pakistan in both the 1975 and 1979 World Cups and still regrets his decision to send West Indies in to bat after winning the toss in the 1979 semifinals. He also played with reasonable success for the World Eleven in Packer’s World Series Cricket, even captaining the side whenever Tony Greig was absent. As an ardent advocate of players rights he was a central figure in the successful dispute that Pakistan’s senior cricketers had with their governing board in the mid 70’s over match fees.

After retirement Asif helped Abdul Rahman Bukhatir in setting up the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series in Sharjah, to financially help cricketers from yesteryears who were experiencing difficult times. He also served as an ICC match referee and as an expert cricket commentator for different television channels.

Loose limbed, lithe and nimble, Asif in his prime was a joy to behold. A batsman who used the bat both as a rapier for attack and as a wand to conjure its magic of creative sorcery, he enthralled all who saw him play. His bowling suffered with time but at its peak he could move his medium paced deliveries laterally, both in the air and off the pitch.

A hundred metres sprint champion in his college days, his running between the wickets was impudent and peerless and his athleticism as a fielder electric. Blessed with an ever present smile, Asif was a compelling presence, who enjoyed his cricket and brought many hours of undiluted delight to his large legion of devoted admirers.

– 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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Asif Iqbal: Pakistan cricket’s man of crisis