Zaheer Abbas a scourge of spinners

The famed Indian spinners Bishen Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar had made a number of batsmen hop and dance to the tune of their magical fingers in the 1970s.

Their guiles and wiles with the red cherry were such that many of them were literally flummoxed and became their easy preys. However, one willow-wielder put them to the sword and finished their careers much earlier than expected. Zaheer Abbas, who had a reputation for being a scourge of spinners, decimated the triumvirate with clinical precision along with Javed Miandad and others in the historic three-Test series in Pakistan in 1978-79 – the first between the two neighbouring nations in a shade under two decades – scoring 176 & 96 in Faisalabad, 235 not out & 34 not out in Lahore and 42 in Karachi.

The bespectacled batsman had just returned to the national side after having missed two series against England because of his participation in the rebel World Series Cricket down under launched by the late Australian business maharaja Kerry Packer. His performance against India proved that he was as fluent as ever and his hunger for runs and success had not waned a wee bit.

Throughout the rubber he batted in a murderous mood. In fact, so awesome was his posture at the crease and so voracious his appetite for runs that the Indian players were often heard telling him, “Zaheer Ab-bas karo!” But the Pakistani neither stopped nor showed any mercy on Bedi and company, who were never treated with such disdain by any other batsman before, not even by Vivian Richards.

By the time India next toured Pakistan for the six-Test series in 1981-82, the spin trio had faded into oblivion but Zaheer was still as gluttonous and unstoppable as ever. He scored 215 in the first Test in Lahore. It was his hundredth hundred in what was a truly glorious firstclass career. He followed this with 186 in the second Test in Karachi. He then scored 105 in a One-Day International at Lahore. When the two teams met again in the heavyweight division of cricket for the third Test in Faisalabad, the maestro essayed a spectacular innings of 168. As if he had had enough, he took a bit of a break after that – as far as heavy-scoring was concerned – as Miandad and Mudassar Nazar began to cash in and plunder runs off the hapless Indian attack.

Elegant, graceful and stylish, Zaheer simply relished spin bowling, but gave the impression of tending to be slightly vulnerable against genuine, hostile pace. But there were few better sights for connoisseurs than Zaheer on song, especially against spinners. Instead of making him suspect against the seaming ball, Zaheer’s alleged high backlift actually added to his poise and style at the wicket.

Just like V.V.S. Laxman, there was a certain aura about Zaheer the batsman which was both loved and loathed by his opponents. That he was a big innings player was evident from the very beginning of his international career. If anything, he made a huge double hundred, 274, in only his second Test, against a star-studded England at Edgbaston in 1971.

The innings heralded the arrival of a new run machine in world cricket and opened floodgates of offers for Zaheer from many English counties. The Pakistani accepted Gloucestershire’s and remained loyal to it right to the end of his career, during which he played many a stirring, monumental innings, not just in England, in all sorts of cricket. In 1974, he hit another Test double century, 240, at The Oval, in England.

It may not be out of place to mention some of Zaheer’s phenomenal achievements. Just like his hundredth hundred, his fiftieth century also came in Test cricket – 101 against Australia at Adelaide in 1976-77. (he made 85 & 90 in the next Test in Melbourne.) On as many as eight occasions he scored two separate hundreds in a match – a world record.

In 1976, appearing for Gloucestershire, he twice scored a century and a double century in the same match without being dismissed. The Pakistani repeated the feat in 1977, becoming the first cricketer to make a double hundred and a century in the same match three times. He performed the feat once more, in 1981, while remaining not out in both the innings against Somerset. In two English seasons Zaheer was the leading runmaker with the highest average. In 1976, he scored 2,554 runs at an average of 75.11 with the help of 11 centuries. In 1981, he made 2,306 (including a thousand runs in June alone) at 88.09, almost 20 ahead of the next best, Miandad, and notched up 10 hundreds. Of his 108 first-class hundreds, 12 were scored in Tests. Among these 12, four were double centuries and another four exceeded 150. Strangely, the same Zaheer, who had the measures of Indian bowlers on the Pakistan soil in his two gorging series, came a cropper on his visits to this country in 1979-80 and 1983-84 (he led the side in that boring series) respectively.

What Indians saw was only a shadow of the vintage Zaheer, who had devastated our spinners and speedsters alike in Pakistan. In 1979-80, he could muster only 157 runs at 19.62 and that also in 5 Tests. And on five occasions he was consumed by medium-pacer Kapil Dev. Instead of right- handed Zaheer, it was left-handed Wasim Raja whom the Indians found hard to dislodge in the series. Similarly, in the four-Test home series against the mighty West Indies in 1980-81, he managed only 57 runs at 14.25 in three Tests after having missed the first. Against the formidable pace attack spearheaded by Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft and Sylvester Clarke, the experienced Zaheer presented a pathetic picture. So much so, in one Test a Croft bouncer put a two-inch dent in his helmet.

Imran Khan wrote in his autobiography that Zaheer was in a “terrible state” against Marshall and Croft in the second Test, “actually backing away” from fast bowling. “I knew that this was the beginning of the end of Zaheer’s reputation,” stated the former Pakistan captain in no uncertain terms. It was quite unlike Zaheer, who was always a picture of confidence and dominance when batting against spinners. This was not the first time that Zaheer had struggled against outstanding pace bowling. He had a tough time on the Caribbean in 1976-77, too, and the only saving grace was a solitary good knock on a relatively comfortable pitch at Georgetown in Guyana. More than the express speed, Zaheer’s big problem was the short, rising delivery, a fact endorsed by Dennis Lillee. Zaheer’s poor record against brutal pace could also be seen or imagined from the fact that he scored no centuries against the West Indies and made only two versus Australia.

Why, he often seemed to have trouble against seamers, too, on pitches conducive to swing bowling. Against New Zealand in 1972-73, he just could not get going, and all he managed was a paltry 35 runs in five innings. But there was no denying Zaheer’s ruthlessness at the crease when armed with the willow. And also his insatiable hunger for runs and massive scores. At his best he made batting look the easiest thing in the world; even if he did so more against spinners. After all, how many batsmen, other than many from the subcontinent, have mastered the spin bowling?

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