Zaheer Abbas: Fearless master on a mission to change world order

Brian Viner Interviews: Zaheer Abbas in full flight was a spectacle to behold, not least because the legendary batsman took on the world's pacemen wearing glasses. Now touring England as team manager, he has a vision of his side rising to the top of cricket's Test rankings
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The Independent Online

Pakistan's cricketers have spent the past few days reflecting on the implications of their defeat at Headingley, and with it the loss of the Test series, yet their team manager, Zaheer Abbas, refuses to let his spirits sag. "They tried their level best," he says. "We are not too downhearted. Whatever is done is done, and we know we can do better at the Oval, in some areas particularly. We need to rely less on Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Our openers need to stay at the wicket for longer."

He is too modest to add that it would be nice if one of his countrymen next week produces a knock as magisterial as his at the Oval in August 1974, when he scored a thrilling 240 before being bowled by Derek Underwood. His was the only three-figure score in Pakistan's huge first-innings total of 600 for 7 declared, and the only really surprising thing about it was that it constituted his first Test century for three years. Not since his Test debut in 1971 had he scored a hundred, although it had been one that resounded down the ages: 271 against England at Edgbaston. His debut had somewhat overshadowed that of an 18-year-old team-mate, Imran Khan, and Wisden recorded it with due reverence.

"One soon appreciated that he was a batsman out of the ordinary," Wisden said of Zaheer. Pakistan finished the first day at 270 for the loss of only Sadiq Mohammad, caught and bowled Peter Lever, and with Zaheer and Mushtaq Mohammad having added 82 in an hour after tea. The substantial attack they hammered comprised Underwood, Lever, Ray Illingworth, Ken Shuttleworth, Alan Ward and Basil D'Oliveira.

Zaheer resumed the following morning on 159 and, when he reached 261, became the first batsman to complete 1,000 runs in that 1974 English season.

Unsurprisingly, he concluded his 15-year Test career in 1986 with an average of more than 50 against England. He also added another two Test double-centuries, both against India. In October 1978, in Lahore, his 225 not out helped Pakistan to beat India by eight wickets in the first Test between the two countries for 18 years. A national holiday was declared for the following day. It was no wonder that in public places, ordinary Pakistanis once queued up to kiss his hand.

This, then, is the near legendary figure - now a distinguished-looking 58 - who lets me into his Manchester city centre hotel suite with a small smile of apology for its cramped dimensions. Zaheer has not, on the whole, been happy with the team's hotel accommodation on this tour.

"The Marriott in London was good, but this is a very small suite, and in many places the AC [air-conditioning] does not work. In Northampton it wasn't working, and some of the players could not sleep. In Ashford the hotel was terrible. The hotels in Pakistan are much, much better. The rooms are bigger and the AC always works." So, I venture mischievously, might he perhaps go home and suggest that England is no place even to send the mother-in-law, just to turn Ian Botham's old insult on its head? He laughs delightedly, especially when his listening wife calls through from the bedroom: "Don't you dare suggest that you should send my mother here."

"No, no," he says. "Ian Botham was entitled to say whatever he liked, if that was his opinion. But I can't say that. I lived here for 14 years [playing county cricket for Gloucestershire]. I love this country. It is my second home."

As if to reinforce the point, his mobile phone suddenly bursts into life, its ring tone the evocative old BBC cricket theme tune, Soul Limbo, by Booker T and the MGs. This is the first of perhaps a dozen times that his phone rings during our interview: he is a man much in demand, although some of his duties are necessarily rather prosaic for a chap once lionised in his country, a chap who scored more than 5,000 runs in 78 Tests, averaging 44.8.

Not that he seems to mind. "This is my third time as manager, and obviously the job is managerial, administrative, although sometimes I advise the captain. He [Inzamam] is a powerful man who runs the show, and that is as it should be. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't. He has asked me about the wickets here, and I have been telling him all along to have one more spinner in the team because the ball is going to turn."

As it has for English cricket's slightly improbable new pin-up boy, Monty Panesar. I ask Zaheer, who faced many great left-arm spinners in his time, what he makes of Monty? He smiles, and counsels against loading the young man with too much expectation. "He is coming along well, but I can't say that he is suddenly one of the best bowlers in the world. He is still learning, and he still has much to prove." And what of England's other success story in Leeds, Sajid Mahmood? Did it trouble or tickle Zaheer that Mahmood - whose father emigrated from Rawalpindi in the late 1960s - was abused by some Pakistani fans in the crowd, for being a "traitor"? A merry chuckle gives me his answer. "It happens. It is one of those things. But he is playing for England and good luck to him. And I think he used it [the abuse] to motivate himself. He had not bowled well before Headingley, but there he was right on the box."

Yet Mahmood would probably not have featured had Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones been available for selection; indeed this series has been a story of who has been missing as much as who has played. Zaheer believes that with Pakistan's main strike bowlers all fit, in particular Shoaib Akhtar, there ought to be nothing stopping his team from rising to the top of the Test rankings. "The standard of Pakistani cricket should be like Australian cricket. When everyone is fit we have a very, very good team. Mohammad Yousuf, for instance, is a beautiful player, a graceful player. He middles the ball so well. But to be a great player you have to continuously score runs for your country. That is what I want to see from him now."

For once, Pakistani cricket's political infrastructure - traditionally as chaotic and argumentative as an Islamabad marketplace - is a model of calm. Zaheer ascribes this to three men: the president of the country's cricket board, Shaharyar Khan; the coach, Bob Woolmer; and the captain, Imzamam. "Mr Shaharyar Khan is no doubt a very big influence. A very stable man. Things are clearly going in the right direction. With Bob Woolmer, we have been very happy. We would like to have our own [Pakistani] coach, there is no doubt about it, but it is always nice to see where a foreigner takes you. We are very proud of him. And Imzamam, too, is doing very well. He trains by himself [or doesn't, if reports are to be believed] but there is nothing wrong with that. He knows what is good for him and for his body, and he is doing very well for himself. He is building a hospital in Multan, you know."

I didn't know, although I do, of course, know about the hospital Imran Khan had built in his mother's memory. And Imran has told me himself about his ambitions to lead Pakistan politically. What does Zaheer think about that? Can he foresee a day when his old team-mate will run the country? A pause: "I know him very well. We shared rooms for many years. I know him in and out, and if he thinks that one day he is going to be prime minister then good luck to him. He would serve the nation well, he is a very clear-hearted fellow. It will not be easy for him, but he has told me that he has already been offered the prime ministership of Pakistan, and that something happened to prevent it. I don't know. Time will tell."

It is always easier to wind the clock backwards than forwards, so let us focus on Zaheer's own career. He was seven years old in 1954 when Pakistan beat England in England for the first time, also at the Oval, which looms large in Zaheer's own story and that of his country. For that was the momentous victory that hastened Pakistan's membership of the International Cricket Council and really represented a fledgling nation's coming of age.

"I have heard all the stories, although I'm sorry to say I do not remember it myself," he says. "I first came here with a Pakistan International Airlines team in 1969. I performed very well, but just after the tour I told the manager that I wanted to go home. He was very surprised. Most of the PIA players did not want to leave this country. But I said that I wanted to come back as a VIP, with dignity, and that is what happened. In 1971 I came back as a Test player, with the senior players telling me how difficult it was to bat in England. They said the ball moves like a snake, but one day I told Wasim Bari, 'Bari, I think I'm going to win the lottery here. I can see the ball so very clearly'. And after my first day's batting at Edgbaston I remember that I got calls from most of the counties."

My own abiding memory of Zaheer's batting is that he wore glasses; it would be unimaginable now to face bowlers of the speed of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, not only not wearing a helmet, but in specs. Yet Zaheer fearlessly took them all on, and recalls only one unpleasant blow, in Adelaide, where he caught a short-pitched ball from Thomson on the chest. Not that it stopped him scoring 101, and "90-odd" in the second innings. "When you are young, you enjoy the challenge. Later, when you decline not with runs but with age, you start to worry that you might be a little late playing the hook shot. But I think helmets are good. They arrived when money came into cricket. Players wanted to protect themselves so they would play matches and not lose money. It was their future, their livelihood, and if a new chap came in they might lose their place for ever, so better to be fit. But for me to use a helmet later in my career was a hell of a problem. I needed air to my glasses, or they would get steamed up."

His mobile phone jangles again, this time with a call summoning him elsewhere. But he doesn't want me to leave without telling me about the encounter he had during the first Test at Lord's last month. "I saw Ted Dexter, who I used to admire very much, with his wife. I was with my wife and I said, 'There is a man I must meet'. I said to him, 'Sir, I'm privileged to meet you. I loved your cricket, and I used to adopt your strokeplay. I was in the Pakistan team and I am now the manager'.

"He shook my hand, but barely held the ends of my fingers. He said, 'The only player I used to like watching for Pakistan was Zaheer Abbas'. And my wife said, 'Sir, this is Zaheer Abbas. He is my husband'. Ted Dexter said, 'I don't believe you', but then he saw my name on my ECB badge. And he hugged me. For five minutes he hugged me. He said to his wife, 'This man was a much better player than me'. I said, 'There you are wrong, sir. You were the greatest'."

Zaheer's laugh follows me out of his cramped suite, where there is not quite enough room to contain it.

Numbers game: Zaheer Abbas' playing career

Born 24 July 1947, Sialkot, Punjab

Batting Right-handed

Bowling Right-arm off-break

First-Class Career

1972 to 1985 Played for Gloucestershire county. Appeared in 206 first-class matches, scoring more than 16,000 runs. Averaged 49.79, hitting 49 centuries and 76 half-centuries.

Test Record

Matches 78

Runs/Av/100s/50s/Top

5,062/44.79/12/20/274

Overs bowled 61.4

Wickets 3

Catches 34

One-Day Record

International matches 62

Catches 16

Batting

Runs/Av/100s/50s/Top

2,572/47.62/7/13/123

Bowling

Overs/Wickets/Av/Best

46.4/7/31.85/2-26

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