“When the country was torn apart by Partition, he emerged as his country’s unlikely hero. He toiled and sweated for his nation’s success and emerged as one of the finest batsmen from the country”.
Upon first observance, Pakistan’s legendary cricketer Hanif Mohammad appears calm – almost tranquil and monk-like, but that can be more due to his tenacious efforts with the bat at Bridgetown than it is due to his off-field persona and character. On January 23, 1958, as the Pakistan national team had been rocketed by centuries from Conrad Hunte, Everton Weekes and half centuries from Collie Smith and Garry Sobers that helped West Indies put on 579 runs on the board, not one individual would have cared to imagine the script would take a different route that had been expected.
Roy Gilchrist and Alf Valentine, along with Eric Atkinson ensured that Pakistan were all out for 106 and with a deficit of 473 staring down, with more than three days of play still in the kitty, a meek and an embarrassing surrender was what was on the cards from a team that had been playing Test cricket for only six years. But it is in these unforeseen circumstances that a hero emerges, and that day, on a foreign ground, aged 23, Hanif went on to play a knock that would be reminisced and commemorated for a long, long time.
Engulfed in a coat of concentration, the youngster failed to get distracted by the cheeky comments of the rival camp and ended the day unbeaten on 61. The task, however, was still a long way away from completion and even though three days of play still remained, glimmers of hope were still alive. The next day, he batted on and on and on, taking as much strike as he possibly could, while the West Indians waited and waited for the elusive wicket and that elusive scalp. Day 4 was seen through, with the addition of hundred more runs to Hanif’s personal score – the deficit down to 134.
However, the job was hardly over. Hanif, most of all knew that a dismissal could trigger a collapse, eventually resulting in an anticlimactic finish and he chugged along. Concentrating, eager and undeterred, he finished Day 5 on 270 and when he finally did end his vigil – having batted 970 minutes and nine sessions and 16 hours, he not only had 337 against his name, he also, unknowingly scripted his name amongst the record books for having played the longest Test innings – one that still stands tall. Pakistan, following-on, scored 657 for 8 declared to write a fairy-tale draw and if one must pinpoint a moment that changed the cricketing history of a country, Hanif’s monumental innings on the day could have easily been Pakistan’s initiation into the big, bad world of cricket.
That match pushed Hanif into superstardom and before he knew it, he was being called the first icon and the first cricketing superstar from Pakistan. Making his debut at 17 in 1952, Hanif played Pakistan’s first Test match against India and even though he was just over 5ft 6inches tall, his immaculate technique and defence had ensured that the cricketing circuits had shortlisted him as a legend and keeping his background in mind – his mother was a badminton champion and his father a club cricketer – he was expected to climb greater heights.
In 55 Tests that he played between 1952 and 1969, he scored 3915 runs at an average of 43.98. He captained the side for three years, from 1964 to 1967, with his batting average shooting up to 58.73 in the 11 Tests that he led. In 11 games, he scored four hundreds, including an unbeaten 187 and 203, against England in England and against New Zealand at home, respectively.
In the first-class level, he scored 55 hundreds, including his famed 499 against Bahawalpur in 1959 – a record that stood for almost 35 years, before Brian Lara surpassed it in 1994. Along with his batting genius, he was also an excellent cover fielder and also had the uncanny skill to bowl with both his right and left arm – often switching arms in the same over as well.
But more than his figures and his records, he was an individual who stood unabashed as the face of Pakistan cricket when the country was making its foray into the field. He took part in all of Pakistan’s 57 Tests at the beginning, excluding two.
A balanced player, Hanif preferred playing shots off the backfoot and his straight bat that was brought down in defence was a beautiful sight indeed. He was a perfect timer of the ball and when he was not in his “keep batting forever” moods, he was actually a great stroke-maker. His will and his determination lay masked behind his innocent and boyish looks and tales of how opponents failed to see through them remain part of folklore.
His panache for taking the field for long hours goes back to his first important match that he played in 1950 for Sind-Karachi, against Northern Muslims. Crawling to 158 in eight hours, he showed glimpses of his mettle and a year later, in his first-class debut against MCC in Lahore, he stood stuck on his crease for three hours and fifteen minutes for 26 runs. The same month, he patiently played four hours for his 64 and that it was achieved by a boy of 16 years, made it even more awe-inspiring. In 1952, the International Cricket Conference elected Pakistan to its council and since then, there was no looking back.
His list of steely knocks hardly seems to end. Against India in Bombay in the third Test, he made 96 in six hours. In 1954 at Lord’s, he scored 20 in 195 minutes. His first ton – a knock of 142 runs against India – was made in seven hours and 48 minutes but it was not until the tour of West Indies, with the epic 337 that established his legacy. On that tour, he finished with 628 runs and an average of 69.78 against one of the strongest attacks, which proved his worth.
He was in his peak from 1958 to 1962 – scoring 1857 Test runs at 64.03 but it was his captaincy stint – when Pakistan went unbeaten for three years, that pushed him further towards glory. His last Test hundred was the breezy 187 at Lord’s when he handled pace and bounce with equal ease as he handled spin and turn. On one hand, his knock showed the English crowd his true measure and on the other, it led to question marks over Hanif’s presence in the side – as his “slow-paced” innings’ that were once his forte were now leading to his downfall. Pakistan scored just 88 in 62 overs and the maverick lost captaincy soon after the series.
He played in 4 more Tests after that and even though he was unable to score a hundred in them, he left behind an unparalleled history. When the country was torn apart by Partition, he emerged as his country’s unlikely hero. He toiled and sweated for his nation’s success and emerged as one of the finest batsmen from the country. The original ‘Little Master’ died aged 81 but not before leaving behind a story that would never fail to inspire and motivate.