Cricket World Cup: The solid centre of Pakistan

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The Independent Online
THE SIGHT of the bulk of Inzamam-ul-Haq collapsing, as if felled by a tranquiliser dart, in Pakistan's unforgettable encounter with Australia in Leeds is an enduring comic image of the World Cup. A fast delivery by Damien Fleming landed on his left foot; he was down and groping blindly towards the crease, but Wasim Akram had already run there from the bowler's end. Out.

But Inzamam had already scored 81 off 104 balls while the total rose from 46 for 3 to 230 for 6, enabling Pakistan's fierce tail-enders to make the score that was 10 runs beyond Australia's reach. Even so, the episode showed why even his own team-mates think Inzamam is a terrible runner between the wickets.

He only modifies the charge: "Definitely I'm bad, but I'm not very bad." Inzamam's excuse for another classic mix-up last Sunday - he found himself in the same crease as Abdul Razzaq - is that this was the first time he and Razzaq had batted together. "Otherwise, in the past two years, I'm just three or four times run out." Of course, he runs batsmen out too, as Ijaz Ahmed discovered on Friday against New Zealand.

No one has made such a habit of it in the World Cup. In 1992 there were four run-outs in six times at bat, but Inzamam played match-winning innings in the semi-final and the final. In 1996 there were two run-outs in five innings before Pakistan's quarter-final defeat by India.

Batting at five now, Inzamam has become an essential ingredient in an increasingly impressive mix, an opinion confirmed on Friday by his 73 not out off 61 balls against New Zealand - although he refuses to speculate about Pakistan winning the Cup: "Is dreams," he says.

The first sight of Inzamam in the flesh is a surprise. He is taller and thinner in the face than you expect, and looks younger than 29; civilian dress is neat - a blazer, tan chinos, collar and tie. He has a placid nature and a gentle manner; his English is fluent, but clearly a second language. Unlike most talented modern cricketers, he does not have a mobile phone or wear a watch.

One of his four older brothers, sons of a landlord in Multan in the Punjab, played professionally, and coached the young Inzamam, who started to dream himself when he was 11. The West Indies played a Test in Multan and Viv Richards scored 123: "I really admired him," he says. When Imran Khan first noticed the 19-year-old in the nets at Lahore he compared Inzamam to Richards.

Inzamam, a modest man, says: "I'm not near to Viv. Imran is talking about my style - I was playing fast bowlers off the front foot and hooking - that's why he says I look like Viv. I play off the front foot, and I love fast bowling." Just as well; he played regularly against Waqar Younis when they were in their teens.

Wasim Akram says simply that "Inzi" (the team's name for him) is the best player in the world of fast bowling. Wasim also notes that he has lost weight: "Inzi's got hungry," he says. Inzi himself reports that he has lost six kilos. A knee injury had made training difficult, but that is fixed and he is ominously fit, and unusually contented.

"A couple of months ago I was not in good form, and Wasim comes to me and says 'You're playing, never think you're not playing'. He gave me confidence. After that I go to India, and there I'm playing very well." So well that he scored 200 not out against India, raising his average in 55 Tests to 43.21. "This is captaincy. Cricket is a team game, but the team is good only if the capitain is strong and believes in the boys." He ought to know. He has played under no fewer than nine Pakistan captains. He is not a contender himself.

The crucial World Cup role for Inzamam is to shore up the innings if the top order fails, as it did three times in three games, and then to create a platform for the charge, led by Moin Khan and Wasim, in the last 10 overs. After a duck against the West Indies ("it was very cold"), he played the role first against Scotland, poking around for 15 overs and 12 runs when the ball was swinging erratically.

The job suits Inzamam's disposition. He admits he is the quiet type, though the passion is there, and it runs deep. Playing India in Toronto in 1997, he was arrested for attacking a spectator who had been calling him a potato - though what he objected to were insults to his family. "Afterwards, I am feeling very sorry. This is not good for me. It is not good for cricket."

His real passion is for Test cricket. "In the World Cup here, if you win the toss, you are half way there. In one-day internationals, if you play better for three hours you win. If you lose four wickets, you lose." This is why he won't speculate. He speaks well of South Africa ("very hard"), and England ("in these conditions"), but he believes that Pakistan's bowlers are good enough to defend a total as low as 220 or 230.

Days after, Inzamam was beginning to see the joke about the run-out against Australia. "Hopefully, in big games, I'll do better." In that case, Wasim, Shoaib and Saqlain will have plenty of runs to play with, and the rest will have to watch out.