Vantage point

Friday, October 12, 2007

Farewall Inzy

Over the past few years, many of the players I grew up watching and loved, have retired. Wasim Akram, still my favourite paceman of all time. Shane Warne, the king of spin who will always be special because of his showmanship. Allan Donald, the tearaway phenomenon who personified South Africa's return. And of course Steve Waugh, who defined mental strength and leadership. Yet today is the first time that a retirement is prompting me to write a fawning and mushy blog post. That is how much I have loved watching Inzimam on the cricket field. And it will always be my regret that I never watched him live in action.

Growing up in India, especially in the 80s and 90s, you had no choice but to hate Pakistani cricketers. They were arrogant, they were mean, and even though they were great cricketers, like Imran and Miandad, their anti-India zeal always showed. Even respect for those greats was a grudging respect. Inzy came and changed it all, at least for me, and I suspect for many of my contemporary cricket fans. I have already written once before how Inzimam is primarily responsible for making the Indo-Pak rivalry healthier. Today I want to write about some things I love about this literal and figurative giant who never quite got his due in world cricket.

Everyone thinks of Sachin, even at the age of 34, as a kid. In Sachin's case, it is more a case of nostalgia, and while his eagerness to play the game is still intact, it isn't completely accurate. Inzy however, till his last day, played like he must have as a pre-teen on the dusty Multan playgrounds. From his ability to step up the pace of his game in a split second, to his decision to forfeit the match at the oval, to his irritation at being run out, to his rare but adorable banter, everything is endearing.

Dean Jones once talked about how Brad Williams, the one-season-wonder of Australian cricket was sledging Inzimam. Now normally, saner individuals know better than to tangle with the somnambulent giant. However, Williams, firing in deliveries at almost 150 kph, thought he was better than the rest. He bowled a few quick ones and gave Inzy some lip. Inzy apparently responded by thrashing his bowling and then said to Williams "You are a bad bowler. You bowl off-spin." Call me biased, but that remains my favourite counter-sledging story, even better than Viv Richards' "You know what it looks like. Go fetch it."

His off field controversies, like running after an Indian fan in Toronto with a bat in his hand for calling him "aloo", or the famous Oval walk-off that started Hairgate, further underline his innocent demeanor.

While all this peripherals of course add to the Inzy magic, what made him so special was his batting. In terms of solidity combined with destructiveness, only Lara surpassed him. He went from stody defence to quick-footed offence in a matter of seconds. Whenever Inzy danced down the track, you knew that it was definitely clearing the ropes. True, he was a shaky starter, and once he got his eye in, he took control of the game without giving you any chances for a long time. But the special moments were when he came out to bat, with Pakistan in trouble, in a blistering counter-attacking mode. Few remember that though Razzaq and Akmal saved the 2005 Mohali test, which eventually helped Pakistan level the series, it was Inzy's blistering half century than took the initiative away from India.

Going further back, I remember THE innings that made me his fan for life. His breathtaking century in the Lord's test of 1996. It was a first day pitch, with Cork and Mullay bowling well. Though Saeed Anwar made a half century, everyone else fell quickly. Inzy's counter-attack amazing, entertaining and full of some unbelievable strokes. When he got out, Pakistan was on 250-something and he had scored almost 150 of them. That century, combined with a relatively circumspect half century in the second innings, was instrumental in making sure that the quality bowlers in his teams have runs to play with.

Every few months, Inzy had the knack of coming up with something special. It is sad that there will be no more magic forthcoming from the big man. Even his last innings was, in the vein of several greats before him, extremely anti-climactic. I have embedded a youtube video of the innings below. You might say there's nothing special about scoring 3 off 2 balls. And yet this small innings typifies so much that made him special. A straight batted sweetly timed drive down the ground. And then, just 3 runs short of becoming the highest Pakistani run-getter of all time, our man charges down the track, acting on his impulse and gets stumped. Almost anyone else, mindful of the record, would have been cautious until getting to the mark. After all, the test was already a sure-shot draw.

Like I said before, when Inzy charges down the track, you know for sure the ball is going for six. That his final dismissal, so close to the record, was charging down the track, makes his exit even more poignant. And even more endearing.