How Sarfraz Nawaz changed the face of Pakistan cricket

Sarfraz will always be best known as the inventor of reverse swing.
Published December 5, 2016

It’s the winter of 1978 and Pakistan and India head for an ODI decider in Sahiwal.

Pakistan posts 205 runs in 40 overs. In response , India cruises to 183/2. They require 23 runs in the last three overs, as Sarfraz Nawaz runs to bowl to a six-feet-tall Anshuman Gaekwad, who is batting on 78 runs.

The ball is short and goes high over Gaekwad’s head, and straight into Wasim Bari’s gloves. All eyes are on Pakistani umpires Javed Akhtar and Khizer Hayat, but they remain unmoved.

Sarfraz repeats the act on the following three deliveries. Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi is furious, and he waves to his batsmen to return to the pavilion.

This became the first ever ODI to be conceded. The next one took another 22 years, when England’s Alec Stewart cited pitch invasion and walked off Headingly, Leeds. Pakistan needed 4 runs off 61 balls to win that match.

Pakistan won the 1978 series against India 2-1 and Sahiwal never hosted another international game.

Pakistan's first cricketing ruffian

It is hard to imagine that the unruly enactment by Sarfraz was without the consent of his captain Mushtaq Muhammad, or the complicity of Pakistani umpires. Whatever the case, it was Sarfraz who volunteered to become Pakistan’s first cricketing ruffian.

In fact, he thrived on his bad boy image and basked in the glory of an outlaw, a reputation that would forever stick to him.

As a kid, Sarfraz never considered playing cricket. At 17, he joined his family business and was involved in the construction of the cricket ground wall at Lahore’s Government College.

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But the 1965 war broke out and the construction was halted. Sarfraz joined a group of boys playing cricket on that same facility — and the rest, as they say, is history.

He made his first-class debut in 1967 and was picked for a county stint, before making his international debut in 1969.

His predacious swing in the nets had impressed Roger Prideaux, a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) touring side and captain of Northamptonshire.

Sarfraz blossomed under Mushtaq Muhammad’s captaincy, as the latter was altering Pakistani cricket’s psyche in the mid-70s.

Breaking away from his predecessors by bringing an aggressive and combative style of play, Sarfraz was becoming the perfect spearhead of this new Pakistani outlook.

In 1975, during the pre-helmet era, when Australia’s Jeff Thomson hurled a bouncer at Sarfraz in a game at Northampton, Sarfraz shouted back, “There is a grave vacant in the local cemetery”.

When Thomson came out to bat, Sarfraz dismissed him off a bouncer. At the time, Mushtaq was Sarfraz’s teammate at Northants and soon to be his captain.

In 1976, Pakistan embarked on a historic, year-long twin tour of Australia and West Indies. Mushtaq had realised that to beat Australia down under, Pakistan had to play on an even keel. Sledging was as important as cricketing skills to counter the Aussies.

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Pakistan had been beaten and bruised throughout the tour as they went into the final Test at Sydney.

Dennis Lillee, in his book Menace, recalls that he faced a Pakistani side with “a much tougher attitude, more aggressive in every area.”

Lillee and Gilmour fired bouncers and verbal abuses at the Pakistani batsmen. One of Lillee’s deliveries struck Sarfraz hard in the ribcage. He threw away his bat, walked to the leg-umpire to complain to him in an x-rated rant.

When Pakistan came to bowl, it was payback time. Imran Khan and Sarfraz brought out their own symphony of sweet chin music.

Mushtaq placed 19-year-old Javed Miandad at silly point, where he kept repeating to the batsmen, “Now he will kill you”, as Sarfraz and Imran bowled. Miandad would then sing songs from Urdu films.

Lillee complained, and the umpire warned Mushtaq of excessive aggression, but Mushtaq gave it a cold shoulder.

Imran and Sarfraz shared 18 wickets in the game, as Pakistan recorded their first win on Australian soil.

Later that year, Mushtaq joined five other Pakistani players to play for Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC) in Australia.

Forays in politics, commentary

Sarfraz was the first to start the trend of multiple retirements in Pakistan cricket. He became an outspoken commentator and critic once he finally retired in 1984.

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He was a member of parliament under Ziaul Haq’s rule in 1985. He also served as vice chairman of the Punjab Sports Board under then chief minister Nawaz Sharif, who was also chairman of the board.

Later on, Sarfraz contested the election with a PPP ticket during Benazir Bhutto’s comeback trail in 1988. In 2011, he joined MQM.

He accused Asif Iqbal and Sunil Gavaskar of fixing matches in the 1980s.

He testified in the court of Justice Qayyum against almost all Pakistani cricketers of the late 1990s.

He claimed that the Pakistan cricket team threw the World Cup match against West Indies, resulting in the death of Bob Woolmer in Jamaica.

He also lodged an FIR with the police after being ambushed by armed goons in a park in Islamabad, allegedly for speaking against match-fixing.

He coached Pakistani fast bowlers at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore and Indian fast bowlers at a clinic in Delhi.

He married famous Pakistani film actor Rani while she was fighting terminal cancer. He was offered multiple films with her but he declined.

The inventor of reverse swing

But after all the glitter and glamour, power and politics, and smear and slander, it is his contribution to the art and skill of cricket that he will be remembered for.

Sarfraz will always be best known as the inventor of reverse swing.

Through trial and error, Sarfraz had figured if one side of a cricket ball was roughed up and the other side was kept newer, the deliveries were unplayable.

The greater the disparity in the condition between the two sides of the cork, the greater the disagreement of weight and speed they travel at, resulting in exaggerated movement as it cuts through the air.

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He shared this secret with his bowling partner and friend, Imran Khan.

Whether the duo initially understood the complete science behind it or not, did not matter. They knew they were changing the very art of fast bowling forever.

The art was kept a secret and passed down to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who arguably became the greatest exponents of this magical late swing. This was at a time when few knew about it and even fewer understood it.

Rewind to the summer of 1979 and Australia are 305-3, chasing a historic 381 in the fourth innings on the fifth afternoon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Sarfraz Nawaz takes all of the remaining seven Australian wickets for just one run. He takes nine wickets in the innings; only Graham Yallop escapes him as he is run out.

Pakistan won a Test match for the second time in Australia and Sarfraz was in the thick of it. He returned with his career best figures of 9/86.

In time, reverse swing would become an essential weapon in the arsenal of any good fast bowler. And it continues to do so.

Like England’s Prince Ranjitsinhji’s leg glance and Bernard Bosanquet’s googly, Sarfraz Nawaz’s legacy of the reverse swing will live on forever.

“I have no regrets in my cricketing career. I achieved a lot, and thanks to cricket I have lived a full, vibrant and colourful life,” says Sarfraz Nawaz.

Last Thursday, the Pakistani great turned 68.

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