Zaheer Abbas: Man with the immortal cover drive

A young reporter meets his icon to discover the genius of the ‘Asian Bradman’ Zaheer Abbas.
Published September 13, 2015

A young reporter meets his icon to discover the genius of the ‘Asian Bradman’ Zaheer Abbas — one of Pakistan’s greatest batsmen and currently the president of the ICC.

The world calls him ‘Zed’ but in Pakistan he was always Zaheer Abbas, the man who’d routinely torment India into submission on the cricket field. But this was no ruthless vanquisher; those who watched him play understood Zaheer as an artist and his knocks as a thing of beauty. Those who witnessed his performances dubbed them “masterpieces of art” and “soulful music at its best.”

“If not for his devastating form, the Indian spin quartet of Srinivasan Venkataraghavan, Bhagwat Chand­rasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Bishen Singh Bedi may have stayed in the game a lot longer,” writes veteran sports journalist Qamar Ahmed about Zaheer Abbas. “It was Zaheer who destroyed them with his magnificent display of batsmanship, scoring over 500 runs in the three Test matches.”

In a career that spanned 1969-1985, Zaheer Abbas scored 12 international centuries — six of them versus India.

Ab itni hain ke yaad bhi nahi [There are so many of them that I don’t even remember],” laughs Abbas about his centuries.

Even in the twilight of his career, when India toured Pakistan in 1982-83, Zaheer was merciless: in the nine matches that he played in the series, he scored 806 runs at an average of 100.75, with 215 being his highest score.

Such was the extent of brutality he inflicted upon the Indian bowlers that Amul Butter — an Indian company best known for its creative advertisement campaigns — came up with hoardings which read: “Zaheer, Ab Bas [Zaheer now stop] … Have some Amul butter.”

My curiosity to explore ‘Zed’s’ life was born out of a simple question: why were Pakistani cricketers so popular on the county circuit in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s?

I was guilty of knowing very little about the man as I approached the 68-year-old for a possible interview. All I knew about Zaheer were a few lines of a sports channel’s cricket song: “Rumal aur ainak sajae khara wo Zaheer apna, junhi lagata hai chauka tou Ifti ke naghmon se, Chishty ke geeton se gunjain fazain [That’s our Zaheer, bespectacled and sporting a bandana, as soon as he hits a four, the atmosphere brims with the lyrics of Ifti and songs of Chishty].”

In pursuit of answers, I got in touch with the legend to set up an appointment. Twice, the interview was postponed due to his commitments with the International Cricket Council (ICC) — he is after all the president of the body. But just when all hopes of securing time with the batting great were lost, Zaheer messaged to come meet him at one of Karachi’s golf clubs.

“I signed for Gloucestershire in 1971, but got to play only seven matches in 1972. I began playing a full season of county cricket from 1973,” recalls the 68-year-old, adding that the county stint transformed his game.

Zaheer acknowledges the cheers as he reaches his hundred. (Photo by Patrick Eagar from Zed)
Zaheer acknowledges the cheers as he reaches his hundred. (Photo by Patrick Eagar from Zed)

“County cricket is very helpful. I always encourage young players, if they have a chance, to play county. It has so much exposure and so many matches that if you really want to learn and improve your game then there is no better place.

“In just one season I got to play 52 matches. Then there were one-dayers and today cricketers even get to play Twenty20s. Cricket never stops there. If you are not playing, you practice. If it is raining outside, you get to train indoors. It is a process of constant learning.”

Without a doubt, Zaheer left his mark on county cricket. David Foot, a cricket writer who collaborated in writing Zaheer’s autobiography, Zed, puts it aptly:

“Zed is a letter which has transformed and turned the alphabet in Karachi and Cheltenham on its head.

“It is the phonetic symbol for Zaheer Abbas, whose peaks of consummate artistry have often made him look like Pakistan’s greatest batsman and at the same time a fugitive from another cricketing era: a shy prince who shimmers in white silks.

“Yet as a prince he eschews the trappings of the palace. The grandeur and the innate nobility are encapsulated in the strokes he plays.”

“The day I began playing professional cricket, I had decided that I am not going to be a mediocre player. I wanted to make a name for myself and wouldn’t have settled for anything less,” he adds, with a hint of passion still visible in his eyes.

His records are testimony of that determination. Till date, he remains the only Asian batsman to have scored 100 first-class centuries. To put it into perspective, there have been just 25 batsmen to have scored a ton of first-class centuries since the first Test match was played in 1877. Only 25 players in almost 139 years of recorded international cricket.

At the top of that list is England’s Jack Hobbs with 197 first-class 100s. He is joined by 20 other English batsmen. The only four non-English to achieve the feat include Australia’s Don Bradman, West Indian great Vivian Richards, Pakistan’s Zaheer Abbas and Glenn Turner of New Zealand.

In 459 first-class matches, that included 768 innings, Zaheer scored 34,843 runs at an average of 51.54. Other than 108 hundreds, he also has 158 half-centuries to his credit.

In our opening conversation on the day of the interview, his close friends revealed that much like cricket, it is equally difficult to beat the great man at golf. As Zaheer relived county cricket’s glorious days, he narrated an interesting episode when he was once struggling with the bat.

“It was a long time ago, I was horribly out of form. In order to get back into groove, I challenged Gloucestershire’s bowlers to try and beat me in the nets. I put money on stake, as incentive, for the successful bowler, but it never cost me. I lost only a couple of pounds as nobody never really managed to get past me. But the challenge bought me some time on the pitch,” says Zaheer.

But how was he spotted by counties and how was the legend of Zaheer Abbas created?

Zaheer is congratulated by Bishen Singh Bedi when he gets to 200 against India. (Photo by Patrick Eagar from Zed)
Zaheer is congratulated by Bishen Singh Bedi when he gets to 200 against India. (Photo by Patrick Eagar from Zed)

“The 1971 tour of England,” replies Zaheer. This was Zaheer’s first tour with the Pakistan team, having made his debut in October, 1969 against New Zealand in Karachi’s National Stadium. After falling cheaply in both innings of his first Test, he was dropped for the rest of the series. He made a triumphant return to the team two years later.

In 1971, Pakistan was taking on England in their backyard. England in England have always been a tough proposition, but they were unaware yet of the presence of a 23-year-old young man from Karachi, who would stamp his authority on the cricketing field in just the second Test of his career.

In the first Test match of the series, played at Edgbaston, Zaheer came to bat at one-down as Pakistan batted first. His 274 in that innings was the highest by any visiting batsman playing in his first Test on English soil. After his Edgbaston heroics, Zaheer was offered a contract with Gloucestershire County Cricket Club, which turned the tide both for him and the county.

Pakistan ne mujhe sab kuch diya hai [Pakistan has given me everything]. It was after the 274 at Edgbaston that doors of World XI and English counties opened for me,” he says. Newer generations might not be familiar with his genius, but the great man says Pakistan made him the champion he was.

In a very short stint, Zaheer positioned himself as a permanent member of the team. After scoring 49 hundreds for Gloucestershire, it seemed like accumulating tons had become a part of Zaheer’s lifestyle. “Zed makes centuries every night in his sleep. He wakes thinking of centuries,” says Zaheer’s wife, Najma, in his autobiography.

When India toured Pakistan in 1978-79, Zaheer’s dominance had grown to such heights that in a recent interview, all-rounder Kapil Dev revealed that the Pakistani batsman had begun tormenting the Indian pacers even in their dreams.

But beyond a generation who remember Zaheer from his playing days, Zaheer’s legend has largely been consigned to the annals of history. The ones who have dared to dig deeper into the past have been fortunate enough to truly understand greatness of the bespectacled run-scoring machine.

He might have been born in Sialkot, but grew up and played cricket in Karachi. His style was copied by many who arrived after him to represent Pakistan, but not many could succeed. In terms of technique, he has left generations of players with a visual manual of surviving and succeeding in the most treacherous of batting conditions.

Woodcock, a celebrated cricket writer of The Times and the former editor of the Wisden Almanack, writes:

“The most ruthlessly mechanical of them must have been the legendary Sir Donald Bradman, the most enduring was Sir Jack Hobbs with 197 first-class centuries, the most calculating may well have been Geoffrey Boycott, but none of them could have played with more ease and elegance than Zaheer Abbas whose batting gave as much pleasure in England when he was with Gloucestershire, as it must have done in Pakistan.”

For those who truly love the game, Zaheer Abbas will never be forgotten. And for those who witnessed his magnificent drives on the back foot, he is immortal. | @umerbinajmal

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 13th, 2015

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