The ‘Allah Factor’ comes to Pakistan’s rescue
There is a Bengali folk song by Abbasuddin Ahmed that goes ”Allah megh de paani de Chaya de re tui…” (Allah please give us clouds, rain and shelter..) that would have been on the lips of every Pakistani (after all it had only been two decades since Bengali had last been spoken in the country) when in the group stages at the 1992 World Cup, Pakistan was dismissed for 74 by a rampaging England. Their chances of making it further in this World Cup seemed bleak.
For Imran Khan the captain, who had gone into the tournament wanting to win the competition more than anything he had ever desired, this was the moment of truth.
On cue, the heavens opened and it rained at the Adelaide Oval with England breezing along at 24 for one. The match was called off and the teams had to share the points. At the end of the round-robin stage, this one point was to lift Pakistan above Australia and secured their passage into the semi-finals.
If you were a Pakistani fan (or even English and Aussie) this was about the time that your stuttering belief in the supernatural would start getting reinforced or rekindled, perhaps not in a benevolent maker, for that depended on where you hailed from, but in a higher power nevertheless.
But little did the world know that the impact of what the Pakistani team would soon be labeled that as the ‘Allah factor’ was yet to show its full hand.
The importance of being Imran
Remarkable as it may seem, Imran Khan started bowling only when he was 17. Coming from a family of remarkably gifted willow-men, he naturally set out to be a batsman and proved to be a very competent one, making his first-class debut on the strength of his artistry with the blade.
Then at the age of 25, over five sunny days in Sydney, coming into the Test series as a batting all-rounder, he was to take 12 for 165 against one of the most powerful Australian batting lineups and bowl Pakistan to their first Test victory on Australian soil.
Imran the bowler had announced his arrival in the only way he knew, with style, elan, and supremely fast bowling whose fury was only capped by the unplayable movement that accompanied it. Not surprisingly, Imran was to call it “the game of my life.”
Over the next eighteen years, Imran would become the bedrock on which the shaky erratic progress of Pakistani cricket would rest every time it lost its sense of proportion and direction. And this would be a frequent occurrence for Pakistan cricket, dazzlingly brilliant one day and woefully ordinary the next.
It has long been a matter of enduring conjecture for outsiders how a veritable assembly line of supremely talented cricketers, miraculously identified, almost picked off the streets and playing fields of Karachi, Lahore, and Faisalabad, seemingly without a strong system in place, was more often than not unable to operate as a team.
That is until Imran Khan molded them not merely into a team, but into the deadliest unit on a cricket field.
Pakistan cricket in 1992 as they arrived in Australia
Over the five years leading up to the 1992 World Cup, Pakistan had become a formidable ODI side under Imran. They had won five tournaments in a row in three years in Sharjah. At home, they had won five of their last seven bilateral ODI series since 1987. Towards the end of 1989, they had won the Nehru Cup in India, which featured every Test side other than New Zealand. They were the second-best side in the world (55 wins in 97 ODIs), behind only Australia, and no side had played more ODIs.
But Pakistan always struggled in Australia; they had lost 15 of their last 23 ODIs in Australia and New Zealand. Undoubtedly keeping this in mind, they arrived early to get used to the conditions. But arriving early was no guarantee for success, for this was Pakistan after all, and hence the inevitable twists in the tale.
Javed Miandad their best and most experienced batsman by far did not arrive with the team. Miandad was to later write in his autobiography that this was due to an ongoing dispute with Imran. This being Imran and Miandad, the lead actors of Pakistan cricket’s eternal love-hate story, it was probably true.
Eight successive innings in warm-up matches with scores below 200 were enough to send an SOS back home. And appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day 1992 Miandad arrived in Australia to renew his relationship with Imran Khan in the interests of the national team.
The twists, however, would continue as Waqar Younis withdrew from the tournament with two stress fractures of his back. Saleem Malik was in abysmal form, Izaj Ahmed had morphed from a match-defining brutal middle-order bat into a medium pace bowler who was to bowl more overs  than runs scored in the tournament , and Inzamam-ul-Haq the young prodigy was completely at sea on Aussie pitches.
To compound the problems, Mushtaq Ahmed’s bowling was less than stellar in the warm matches and Imran decided to drop his star spinner from the 14. Manager Intikhab Alan prevailed on him to keep Mushtaq as he was a good fielder and could add value anyway. The decision would prove crucial in the final analysis.
Imran himself had a shoulder problem and had to miss two of the first three games. He was at his wit’s end.
And then he made a speech.
The speech that changed everything
By the time Pakistan arrived in Perth for the match against Australia, the morale of the team was shattered. They had won only one of their first five matches, the form was non-existent, injuries were rampant, Miandad had volunteered out of the playing XI against South Africa because of a severe attack of gastritis after the loss to India and Akram had taken all of six wickets in five matches.
Imran’s case was curious. He had come into the tournament with the conviction that he could help Pakistan to the ultimate glory in limited-overs cricket.
Outside cricket, the focus of his life at this point was to finance and build his cancer hospital in Pakistan in memory of his mother. The hospital had become an all-pervading obsession with him. Imran knew that if Pakistan won the world cup, beyond the glory to self, team, and country, his cancer hospital dream was certain to become a reality. The money would not be a problem.
But at this stage, the form of his team, and his own injury was beginning to stress him to the level that he had virtually stopped communicating with the team. The youngsters were overawed and scared of him. He was still convinced his boys could do it, but his team was falling apart. He had to do something that would change the trajectory.
In Perth, before the game against Australia, Imran gathered the team around him. He was going to pull out all stops and try one final time to stir his team out of the rut. As he stood up to speak, he was wearing a white t-shirt with a tiger ready to pounce, imprinted on it.
He spoke to each player individually asking them to look deep inside himself and know that they were the best cricket players in the world. He looked at the doubting faces and asked each one if there was another player more talented than him. He then pointed to the image of the pouncing tiger on his t-shirt and asked them to fight like cornered tigers because there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered tiger.
And then, just as another fiery fast bowler Fred Spofforth, ironically an Australian one, had done almost a hundred years before him in a similar dressing room across the world in England, Imran told his team with unwavering conviction: “I know we will win it.”
The biggest impact of Imran’s speech was to be on the youngsters in the team who worshipped him. They were perhaps his real target because he knew it was the youth that was going to give Pakistan cricket the future it deserved.
Young fast bowler Aaqib Javed was to say later: “All I know is that after those 15 minutes, when the match began, the way I went into that ground, I haven’t had that feeling ever before and I never had it again after. I could feel that nobody could face me or stop me. I had three slips for much of the game because I just knew. I knew each and every ball was going to go exactly where I wanted it. Those 15 minutes… life changed.”
The Trajectory changes forever
Allan Border’s Australia, the world’s No. 1 side, never saw it coming. Aamir Sohail was caught off a no-ball before he had got off the mark and went on to top-score with 76, the only half-century in the match against Australia. Aaquib Javed bowled a superb opening spell alongside Akram that set up nicely a magnificent return to form on a fast Perth wicket for leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed. Mushtaq tore through Australia’s middle order triggering a collapse when eight wickets fell for 56 runs.
Pakistan won the match.
Imran was not done. He now made a crucial change in strategy. To give stability and a chance to the middle order to settle in, and looking to give them some runs to build the innings on, Imran decided to promote himself up the order and bat at No. 3. The impact was immediate.
Wasim Akram was to say later about the move: “The confidence he had as a batsman, as a decision-maker, as a captain – he came in at number three and it was a big decision. You imagine now, if somebody, as a captain makes a decision to bat at number three and if he doesn’t do well… what will happen? It was very brave of him to do that.”
Pakistan then took Sri Lanka and New Zealand in their stride. Neither of the two teams had a sterling record against Pakistan and had no answer to the new emotional high the Pakistanis were riding on.
Allan Border and his team, dejected by their showing at home, and starting at the humiliation, took out their frustration on the hapless West Indies in their last match, inflicting defeat and sending Pakistan into the semi-finals.
The first step to glory
Getting to the semi-finals is one thing and showing up to play the host nation with a partisan crowd is another, as Pakistan would find out when they faced New Zealand at Eden Park. To make matters worse, the bizarre shape of the ground where one side was 40 meters and the other side 80 meters flummoxed them while trying to plan the opponent’s demise.
Despite the recent successes, the occasion was beginning to get to the team. At the team meeting the night before the match, in an effort to finalize a bowling plan, Imran asked Rameez Raja to draw an accurate picture of the ground. Much to Imran’s amusement, he received a circle with the pitch in the middle. Then, in a move that was less humorous, Inzamam pleaded with Imran that to drop him citing his bad form and illness. Imran refused and told Mushtaq and Aaqib to knock sense into their friend’s head.
Inzamam played, and it would change Pakistan’s fortunes in the tournament.
Humorous as it may have been, Rameez Raja’s drawing skills would almost cost Pakistan the match as the bowlers were clueless against Martin Crowe’s magnificent assault of 91 in 83 balls. It was only his run out that would restrict New Zealand to 262 for 7, a daunting score to chase in a semi-final in 1992, and no less daunting today.
Finally, it would be Inzamam’s emergence into the league of big boys with a magnificent 37-ball 60 in the company of Javed Miandad that would propel Pakistan into their first-ever World Cup final against England.
Would the higher power once again come to Pakistan’s rescue or had He already done enough, and would Pakistan’s fortunes fade away at the final post?
But this was to be Pakistan’s time in the sun and they would not be denied.
The Day of Reckoning
The 25th day of March 1992 will forever be written in gold in the annals of Pakistan cricket. It didn’t, however, start off quite as Imran would have wished.
With the scoreboard reading 20, Aamer Sohail was back in the hut and Imran found himself facing up to Derek Pringle and Chris Lewis moving the ball around much as they would do at Old Trafford. But this was the day Imran had been waiting for and dreaming of, and he was not about to let go of his dream.
Imran would play a captain’s knock of 72 from 110 deliveries, leading from the front, stitching together a 139 partnership with Miandad. Young Inzamam, now brimming with confidence would then take over, assisted by Akram. Akram had made only 29 runs in 7 innings before this game but would say later that he had been feeling “very light all day like I could just fly, that sort of feeling”.
In the end, Pakistan would score 249 in the allotted 50-overs, a defendable total for the occasion.
Then on the field, Akram dismissed Botham. Except that he didn’t. Bowling over the wicket was giving cramps to Akram so he told Imran he was going to come round the wicket. “Then I bowled that ball to Botham which came back in and he still thinks that he didn’t nick it,” recalls Akram.
Then Aaqib, one of the poorest catchers in a team of indifferent permanent repository of catches, ran in from deep square leg, tumbling forward to his left to hold on with both hands, ball inches off the ground. He rolled over, stood up, and in disbelief, ran a little lap of honour by himself. Graham Gooch shook his head in disbelief before walking off.
Equally, in moments of great stress and joy, religious feelings often come to the fore. Once more the ‘Allah factor’ was playing in the minds of some on the field and the thousands in the MCG stands. They could not shake off the feeling that God was smiling on them.
Then Imran brought Akram back. He bowled two unplayable deliveries. A late swinging ball on an impossible length that Allan Lamb could do nothing but edge and the next ball that swung in late to Chris Lewis gave him no chance.
Pakistan were the World Champions of limited-overs cricket.
Osman Samiuddin writing in his book The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket would describe aptly what happened next and the impact:
“As Pakistan walked off the field for the presentations, an end was beginning. Unbeknown, this was not a harbinger for a golden age. Where India’s 1983 triumph opened the country’s eyes to one-day cricket, where Australia’s 1987 win began a renaissance, where Sri Lanka’s triumph in 1996 became their graduation to the big league, Pakistan’s win in 1992 heralded only the unraveling of their fragile unity and a cantankerous, ramshackle descent into chaos. It brought to a close a period where Pakistan were as good as they have ever been.”
Nonetheless, it was a high point in Pakistan’s cricket history, perhaps the peak as Samiuddin suggests, or perhaps a suggestion of what greater future glory the nation could aim at.
Imran got his hospital and more importantly crowned a brilliant career with an untouchable legacy that may someday well result in him occupying the highest office of the land.
But regardless of whether Imran ever leads the nation as he did its cricket team or not, his gift to his motherland will forever survive him.
Since that glorious day in Melbourne, every time a Pakistan cricket team faces adversity, the miracle of 1992 serves as a reminder of what is possible when effort, belief, and dreams combine with divine will to help a nation rise beyond the limits of mere imagination.