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June 2018

zaheer
12th June 2018

Dorset had   Cerne Abbas, Hampshire had Itchen Abbas. Gloucestershire had the best  Abbas of all. Zaheer Abbas. Alastair Hignell was an admiring team-mate.

A man called Zed ….my team-mate.

He sees it like a football and slaps it around like a squash-ball. You see it like a squash ball and slap it  around like a medicine ball. He’s homing in  on his second century of the match. You’ve just escaped your second duck. What do you say when, at  a between overs conference, the best batsman in the world seeks your help?

You say yes. Whatever the question. Even if it is “Higgy, can you speak Urdu?” - and you can’t. Your first  thought  is  “ 60 million people speak it around the globe. They seem to find it easy enough”. Your second is “I’ve lived in Germany, been on rugby tours to France, Italy and Japan, and can say “hallo”, “goodbye” and “two more beers, please” in 4 different languages. In comparison to most other county cricketers , I’m a polyglot. How difficult can it be?”

Then you realise that Zed means here and now. Tentatively you suggest that you don’t expect to be entirely fluent by the time the  bowler began his run-up in approximately thirty seconds. You are relieved that Zed  only wants you to understand one word. ‘Shalo’. You’re told it means “run’.

Which is a bit superfluous really, considering that your role in a partnership between the best batsman in the world at the peak of his form and a player not far off the opposite on both counts is to do just that run. On the sixth ball of every over. The fifth if you’re lucky.

Everybody on the ground knows this already. Your pads, shirt and trousers are                     streaked green from diving desperately at the crease with ever-decreasing margins of safety. Your elbows are bruised and your knees hurt. Never fear, Zed has come up with a cunning plan.

Another one. the first had been simple enough. “This over, Higgy, when I shout “No” I mean “Yes”!” You could see the logic. ‘And , when you shout”Yes”?” you ask. He rolls his eyes in exasperation, but you feel it’s important to be absolutely clear. “When I shout “Yes”, he patiently explains “I mean “Yes!”.

That plan rumbled, we’d moved swiftly on to hand signals. Zed would ostentatiously raise his arm when a fielder had the temerity to intercept one of his boundary-bound shots. A tiny flicker of the fingers , meant only for you, would indicate that he wanted to run anyway.

The opposition caught on quick, but Zed was ever-resourceful. “This over, Higgy, you look at my eyes.” Given that he was wearing spectacles and  had a perspex visor attached to his helmet this had posed more problems than expected. Which was why Zed had decided that we communicate in Urdu.

You watch four deliveries with a certain amount of complacency. For the fifth, you’re on your marks. So are the fielders. A brilliant stop. Absolutely no chance of a single. Last ball of the over, real pressure. Another magnificent shot, another brilliant stop. No chance, but…Zed has spotted a slight fumble. “Shalo…Juld-eeeee….” he screams and runs. Rocked back on my heels, you’ve no chance but, if one of us has to go…You set off for the other end and dive more in hope than expectation. A poor throw, a wicket-keeper fumble. Somehow, you’re still in…and burning with curiosity.

“Tell me, Zed, “ you venture, as you rub away at another streak of green  and notice that the scab on your elbow has opened, ”what does shalo juldee mean ?”. Zed has the grace to look faintly apologetic.”Oh that,” he says, “that means run like f——!”

Strangely enough, you don’t mind. You know that you are in the company of cricketing genius. You may be biassed, but even in a County Championship  suffering from an embarrassment of Richards - Barry for Hampshire and Viv for Somerset were at  the same timeblazing their own meteoric paths - you can’t imagine a better batsman. Or a more unlikely looking one.

Bespectacled , studious and mild-mannered, Zed seemed more like a check-in clerk at Pakistan International Airways than the star player for its cricket team. Skinny, frail and allergic to strenuous exercise, he was a reluctant fielder and couldn’t see the point of taking more than two paces to deliver his apologetic off-spin. He hated the cold- but not as much as compatriot Sadiq who went out to field one icy afternoon in April wearing his pyjamas under his tracksuit under his cricket whites- and he disliked the daily grind of the county cricket circuit. But boy, could he bat!

When Zaheer was at the crease, the whole thing looked ridiculously simple.Upright and elegant, he was equally at ease off front foot or back, but such were his reflexes that he quite often switched from one to the other mid-shot. Stylish and graceful, he never seemed to hurry a stroke , or offer a false one. At the top of a back-lift with more twirls than a cheerleader’s baton, he seemed to pause for the fraction of a second before bringing the bat crashing down at the last moment to send the ball scorching away to the boundary. Despite the spectacles, he had the eyesight of an eagle. He also had the wrists of a squash-player. It may have looked effortless, and fluent and rhythmic and all the other adjectives that were showered on Zed’s batting, but, whenever Zaheer hit a ball, it stayed hit. And such was his feel for a gap that it rarely went straight to a fielder. Zed could play defensively but couldn’t see much point in doing so. Even when he seemed to be going along quietly , by his standards, it only took a glance at the scoreboard to note that the runs were still flowing freely.

Zaheer loved to bat. When he got to the crease, Zed entered a world of his own where all that mattered was the bat in his hands and the possibilities it offered. He never set out to dominate the opposition. All he wanted to do was bat- for as long as possible- and score runs- which to Z was one and the same thing. If, in the process records were broken, that was as it should be. If bowlers’ hearts were broken as well,that was collateral damage.

 They dubbed him the Asian Bradman and, like the Don, Zed dealt in big scores. Four of his 12 Test centuries were doubles , including the first one - a mammoth 9 hour 274 against England at Edgbaston in only his second test - as well as the one that made him the  first batsman from the sub-continent to hit a hundred hundreds. That was his second double century against India, the first coming at the end of a then world record of 583 runs in a 3-match series.

He also hit a second  double-century against England, 240 at the Oval on Pakistan’s 1974 tour. By then he had been capped by Gloucestershire, most of whose batting records looked unassailable in the hands of all-time greats WG Grace and Wally Hammond. But, while neither of those managed a double-century and a hundred in the same match, Zaheer managed it FOUR times. In all eight innings he was unbeaten. And county championship matches only lasted three days in the late 70s and early 80s. And there was a 100- over limit on each first innings. And he didn’t open the innings.  

But these were not just one-offs . In 1976, apart from the 230 not out and 104 not out against Kent and the 216 not out and 156 not out against Surrey,he hit 7 other  centuries and topped the national averages with 2,431 runs. In 1981, year of his 215 not out and 150 not out against Somerset, he didn’t bat in May, scored 1000 runs in June and 2,230 all season, and only saw his average drop below 100 in the last week of the campaign. In 360 matches for Gloucestershire he scored over 16000 runs at an average of 55.38.

As a team-mate for the best part ten years, I watched him score most of those runs and I was lucky enough to witness many of them from the other end.  I like to think  that by the end of the decade we were on a perfect wavelength. I knew better than to ask him for advice about how the wicket was playing or what particular bowlers were doing. “If I tell you” he said” you’ll only start worrying, and  you’ve got enough problems as it is!” 

It’s not that they broke the mould when they made Zed, just that he was uncopiable. As with all geniuses, he didn’t always know why he played certain shots. Sometimes he didn’t seem to know how he played them. From 22 yards away, I would notice that  as the bowler delivered , he would change his grip on the bat-handle….sometimes gripping lightly at the top to exaggerate the whip-crack of some of his strokes…sometimes grasping fiercely at the bottom of the blade  with his right hand to  increase the bludgeoning power. I would ask why he made this or that alteration. He couldn’t explain it. It was I suppose, the difference between bat as rapier and bat as sabre.

What never changed however was his love of batting and his single-minded concentration on it. He also had had an obsession with setting records which, as team-mates,we were only too happy to feed. While one of us would lavish praise on another great innings, some-one else would chip in with a “ of course, Wally…” or “mind you, when W.G….”. Zed’s jaw would set and we’d settle happily back to watch him re-write another page in the Gloucestershire record-book.

And sometimes we’d do our bit as well. After his double century at Canterbury, Z was closing in on a second innings hundred when a flurry of wickets and some  parsimonious bowling from Derek Underwood put not only that milestone but the chance of a Gloucestershire victory in doubt. I went out to bat with captain Tony Brown’s words ringing in my ears. “If you see one you like the look of Higgy, give it a belt..!” I looked at Deadly’s 7-2 off-side field  and realised that even if I possessed a cover-drive (or any kind of off-side game, come to that) I’d be unlikely to score on that side of the wicket. I mowed, I paddled, I hacked in increasingly ugly desperation. I connected once. Tony Brown and the guys in the dressing-room cheered.  I hacked again. They whooped. Zed came down the wicket. I thought he was going to congratulate me.  ‘From now on, HIiggy, you block.” I looked at the scoreboard, which now indicated that only if Zed scored 19 of the last 20 or so we needed for victory would he reach his hundred. ‘Trust me” he said. I blocked . The dressing-room groaned. Kent sensed an unlikely draw. Deadly turned the screw. I blocked. The number of remaining  deliveries dwindled. Zed manoeuvred the strike and then , as if shelling peas, threaded the ball through one off-side gap after another after another. Job done.

 And I also learnt that he really was as shy and as unassuming as he looked when he asked me to help him write letters to potential benefactors in his testimonial year. Knowing that he was as reluctant to turn out in benefit matches as he was to make personal appearances, I asked him how he proposed to secure some of their largesse. ‘Just say I am the best batsman in the world. That should be good enough”.

That was something about which his team-mates never had the slightest doubt. On his day - and there were so many of those - Zed was as unstoppable as he was insatiable. Sometimes we got the impression the opposition was bowling for run-outs - quite often mine. I usually went if not willingly , then philosophically. Only once did I venture a comment. After one complete mash-up of Yes-no, hand signal, wink and an anguished “Shalo juldee…!, I found myself at the same end as Zed. He was in. I was out. Again. I couldn’t resist a parting comment. ‘ Tell you what, Zed, from now on, why don’t we just  juldee this for a game of soldiers?”