In a League of His Own
By Jaffer Bilgrami
Hanif Mohammad, who died in Karachi on Thursday after battling with cancer for years, was rated in his heyday as one of the greatest batsmen in the world. Millions of his countrymen and followers of the game across the globe are in deep mourning for a cricket icon who symbolised classical technique and formidable defence.
The original holder of the title ‘Little Master’ before it was also bestowed on Sunil Gavaskar and SachinTendulkar, the two Indian batsmen of subsequent generations, Hanif was born in Dec 1934 in Junagadh, India. He was the third son of Ameer Begum, a regional badminton champion of pre-partition days.
Hanif moved to Pakistan with his family after independence and grew up in Karachi. In domestic cricket he first represented Bahawalpur, later playing for the Public Works Department, Karachi, and finally Pakistan International Airlines. In the national side, his role as a sheet anchor of his team’s batting is the stuff of cricket folklore.
Hanif didn’t depend on natural ability alone; he combined it with a sharp cricketing intellect to write many historic chapters in the annals of Pakistan cricket.
Right-hander Hanif was known for his astonishing powers of concentration, tenacity and endurance. He was intuitive as well as mechanical in his approach — a trait often described as a deadly combination that can frustrate any bowler in the world. All through his cricketing career, he proved himself to be a batsman who was the perfect judge of a ball and one who would never lift the ball heavenwards as a result of an erratic stroke. His strokes were straight out of the coaching manual and at the same time pleasing to watch.
Initially groomed and trained by Master Abdul Aziz at Karachi’s Sindh Madressah, his talents were immediately recognised.
No coaching needed: Former Surrey paceman Alf Gover, who ran a coaching facility in London where Hanif was sent, was amazed by his technique and declared that the boy had at his disposal all the strokes that were in any textbook; hence no coaching was required.
Hanif’s mental strength and grit were most famously in evidence when he played the longest innings in the history of Test cricket — 16 hours and 10 minutes against the mighty West Indies at Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1958. The marathon innings rescued Pakistan from the jaws of an ignominious defeat to a respectable draw.
It was an ideal stage for Hanif Mohammad to display his batting genius and unflappable temperament. And he did just that. His monumental innings of 337 was not only a match-saving knock but also a study in fearlessness and determination.
Another record-setting knock came the very next year when Hanif scored 499 at the Karachi Parsi Institute ground in a first class fixture. The momentousness of the innings can be gauged from the fact that the Little Master’s name came to be bracketed with that of the legendary Don Bradman, who had 452 to his credit, before Brian Lara surpassed it with 501 not out 35 years later.
Hanif’s Test debut came at Feroz Shah Kotla Ground, New Delhi, in Oct 1952. The match was also Pakistan’s first. He played under the captainship of A. H. Kardar, FazalMehmood and JavedBurki, before leading Pakistan himself. In the 55 tests that he played from 1952 to 1969, he averaged 43:98 with 12 hundreds to his credit.
Without any doubt, Hanif was an idol of the post-partition generation, and in some cases a boyhood hero for many lovers of the game.
Unfortunately, like many of his contemporaries Hanif did not get the limelight he deserved since there was very limited cricket activity during the 1950s and 60s; his feats remained confined to print and radio commentaries.
Black-and-white clips of television recordings stored in archives may still provide some consolation to those eager to see Hanif Mohammad in action in his peak. He was a sportsman who transformed the game of cricket into the nation’s pride. Countless cricketers arrived on the national scene in different eras and left impressive records, but Hanif left an indelible mark in the annals of Pakistan cricket. He was more than a batsman; he was the personification of a complete and accurate cricketer.
After taking his bow from cricket, Hanif served PIA by managing its sports wing and continued his contribution to Pakistan in another way — by scouting raw talent and polishing it into gems. Pakistan Television was another organisation that availed the services of the legend and used his knowledge about the intricacies of the game in its transmissions.
Outside the cricketing world, there is an episode that speaks volumes about the legend that he was. Radio journalist Hamid Jalal, a nephew of master storyteller Saadat Hasan Manto, wrote in one of his pieces that his uncle had very few unfulfilled desires before he left for his final abode.
His one desire was to witness his beloved cricketer in action. Manto’s cricketing knowledge may not be a yardstick, but in the passing of Hanif Mohammad, the cricketing world has lost a complete cricketer. - Dawn