I didn’t really know Hanif Mohammad the cricketer. I hardly saw him play. The first-ever Test match in my life that I actually saw was the last one that he played. His retirement from Test cricket was not out of choice but due to the shenanigans of the powers that be of those days that ruled the cricketing roost.
Of course it was not possible not to know Hanif Mohammad or ‘Little Master’, as he was popularly known. Everyone who loved cricket, in Pakistan and abroad, knew why he was called that. But even those who had no association with the game knew him and still know about him.
He was the pride of this country. He not only put nascent Pakistan on the cricketing map, but he also brought recognition, respect and glory to it.
‘Legend’ is a title that is too easily bestowed these days, hence debatable. But you will not find anyone grudging Hanif this title. Such personalities are usually larger than life, and awe-inspiring. Their performances speak for themselves.
I am one of the tremendously lucky ones to have known Hanif Mohammed, the legend as well as the man, when I worked with him in editing his autobiography Playing for Pakistan.
Having had a close glimpse at the life of this towering cricketing personality, who had rubbed shoulders with kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, his humility, grace and gentle attitude were some of the qualities of his persona that stood out.
He was ‘Little Master’ and ‘Mr Hanif Mohammed’ to the cricketing world, ‘Daddy’ to not just Shoaib, Seema and Shahzeb, but to scores of their friends and playmates, ‘Hanif Uncle’ to many including my three children and ‘Hanif Bhai’ to so many of us cutting across the age barrier.
While the world of cricket knew his cricketer son, Shoaib Mohammad, who received coaching from the best there was, his friends and family have stories of how he doted on his other two as well. He was best friend to his wife Shamshad, and his friendships and loyalties spanned over half a century.
The nerves of steel that made him stonewall fiery and fearsome bowlers like Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist of the West Indies would turn into putty in the hands of his grandchildren. But then he also had unending reserves of patience.
When playing a friendly game of cricket with them at home, there was no way he would field whatever they sent his way. The diminutive opener whom the best of bowlers would find difficult to dislodge would just get bowled over by the half-pints demanding, and getting, his full attention.
Their wish would be his command and anything he had to do then would have to take a backseat. And my children were added to this coterie of little conspirators when I started working with him.
That period, spanning a little over one year, became a memorable and cherished one for me and my family. The weekends would be party time for them as I headed to his house, children and their maid in tow.
For me and Hanif Bhai, it meant long hours of listening to him narrate instances from his life, asking questions, probing for more interesting stuff, while hammering away at my laptop.
Sometimes it was just the two of us working. At other times we were joined by senior cricket writer Qamar Ahmed, who had actually laid the foundations of his autobiography. Also, very often we solicited the help of a walking encyclopedia of cricketing memories, Afzaal Ahmed, who helped with the fact-checking and photographic selection.
All this while he would make sure that the children were kept entertained and all of us were fed! Even after about 17 years since the book’s publication, there would always be a mug of coffee ready whenever he knew I would be visiting.
Weekdays brought along another type of workload. He would come over so that I could play the writer/editor role with him and ‘Hitler’ with my brats as they had school in the morning.
I will never forget the sight when, while straining to get a sentence right on my laptop, I turned around to see him spooning food into the mouth of my five-year-old who needed to be fed and put to bed. No one, absolutely no one, except my father, had done that of his own volition.
That memory has stayed with me.
But that is how he was. Despite being a star and a celebrity like no other, he was at heart a simple family man.
The way he spoke about his mother and the kind of influence she had on the upbringing of all the brothers — who lost their father when very young — was indicative of the deep love and respect he had for her.
He was very fond of his brothers, his face always breaking into a smile on seeing them, their wives and children. He was always concerned about their health and well being.
At his funeral, when Mushtaq, his younger brother repeatedly said in his slow deep voice that “he was a good brother,” the words held within their depth a feeling of affection and sadness on losing him.
His memory was crystal clear. Crosschecking the incidents he narrated and the matches he recalled for accuracy then was just an academic exercise. They all added up to the minutest detail.
Then there was that other side of his personality that never failed to amaze me. His astounding memory, his clarity of views, his cricketing intelligence, and knowledge of all aspects of sports that he brought into play when he oversaw sports as the general manager in PIA, his long-term and last employer.
Very few people know of his contribution to hockey, but he was instrumental in getting the astroturf laid at the Hockey Club of Pakistan stadium in Karachi.
His memory was crystal clear. Crosschecking the incidents he narrated and the matches he recalled for accuracy then was just an academic exercise. They all added up to the minutest detail. He didn’t let Afzaal rely on record books to check up facts. He took us to meet his friends and former playmates to chat with them to get more stories for the book.
Take a look: Hanif Mohammad — a genius of our time
There were stories about his kite-flying matches with neighbourhood friends, of his love for music — especially Noor Jehan and Lata Mangeshkar songs — of his childhood idols, of his prowess at barbecuing and grilling, and his penchant for carom.
His tale of how, after getting engaged to Shamshad, he had to redirect his fan mail, mostly from women, to his trusted photographer friend Farooq Usman’s office, was particularly amusing.
But there were sad stories too, of unfair treatment to himself, his brothers and son, due to endemic cricket politics. Yes, there was a tinge of bitterness along with sadness.
But while the writer in me thought they would make for a fantastic chapter, he would just ask me to gloss over them, saying “I don’t want to make them feel bad. This is a book. It will stay in it. Never mind, I will think of another interesting story.” Such was his grace and dignity.
My work with him on the book was the most enriching experience of my life. Not only was I meeting so many of my sporting heroes, I was getting a lesson in the history of Pakistan cricket by no less a person than the man who created and crafted it.
Now he himself has walked into the annals of history, with his head held high. As his younger son Shahzeb so aptly puts it, “He went out on his own terms, fighting and ducking bouncers till the very end.”
Battling cancer, braving surgery and grappling with chemotherapy with his customary grit and bravery, his lowest point was seeing his six-year-old grandson Ayan lose the battle with the disease.
The cool and calm Hanif Mohammad I had seen all through these years broke down and wept like a child, because this was more than he could bear.
But fight on he did, with the tremendous support offered by all his family members. Then, on August 11, he ducked a beamer when his heart stopped, only to then come back again after a few minutes. Then as someone so aptly said, “the Little Master got out to an unplayable delivery by his Master!”
Rest in peace, Hanif Bhai.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 21st, 2016