When Mohammad Hafeez edged a thundering Boult to second slip in the first innings of the deciding Test in Abu Dhabi last week, something died.
Hafeez sees the ball fly into the safe hands of Tim Southee, but the umpires still check upstairs. It delays the inevitable but it gives more time to an overthinking man, to think, to reflect. Not about what has just happened, but what the immediate future holds.
Hafeez has never had it easy in Pakistan cricket ... at least that’s what he insists upon. In the land of comeback heroes, Hafeez is a gladiator. In his debut series in 2003, he averaged 43 with the bat with an unbeaten ton in just his second game. He was dropped for the next three years.
He came back in the English summer of 2006 with a wonderful 95 in his first outing. And then averaged 47 in the next eight innings.
And then he went on the dreaded South African safari.
South Africa to Pakistan is what India was to Ricky Ponting (batting average 26) and what Pakistan was to Dennis Lillee (bowling average 110), i.e. a graveyard of sorts.
In South Africa, Pakistan has only ever won two Test matches. It’s where Inzamamul Haq, Mohammad Yousuf, Misbahul Haq and Azhar Ali couldn’t reach three figures in 37 attempts, with a combined average of 27 runs an innings.
The pace and bounce in South Africa was too much for Hafeez to handle; it knocked him out of the Test squad for another three years between 2007 and 2010.
These were dark years after the great Inzamam had retired. This was when Yousuf, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, Shahid Afridi and Salman Butt played musical chairs with the Test captaincy; when the Sri Lankan team was attacked in Lahore; when Pakistan cricketers were jailed abroad; when Pakistan lost the Sydney Test; when Ijaz Butt was the PCB chairman. There is only so much wrong that can happen at a given time. Perhaps not in Pakistan cricket.
But it's 2010 and Misbah took over as the commander-in-chief and his good friend Hafeez made another comeback. They knew each other from Sargodha, from Faisalabad, from hours at the crease in the dusty domestic circuit. Finally, Hafeez had a captain who had his back.
Only this time, Hafeez, the eternal comeback kid, failed on his return to the side. He averaged 19 in his first 12 outings with just one half-century to his name. But Misbah did not drop him. Not for a single game.
Hafeez found the first purple patch of his Test career. He scored over a thousand runs at an average of a whopping 54. He spearheaded Misbah's batting unit that was building a fortress in the UAE — Pakistan’s home away from home.
And then Hafeez had to go on another South African safari.
He scored a paltry 43 in six innings, averaging seven an innings. On that infamous tour, he became to Dale Steyn what Mike Atherton was to Glenn McGrath (17 matches, 19 dismissals at 9.89 runs). What Daryll Cullinan was to Shane Warne (seven matches, four dismissals at 2.75 runs). Steyn’s bunny's relevant statline read: seven matches, eight dismissals at 8.75 runs. There was a clear chink in Hafeez’s armour, and Steyn had exposed it like nobody else had ever before.
Hafeez carried the bruises next door to Zimbabwe and there, too, he failed miserably. As expected, keyboard warriors crucified him, especially the unforgiving ones from his own land. In another time and place, Hafeez would have been axed. But not under Misbah’s watch.
After a miserable tour of the Southern Hemisphere in 2013, Team Misbah returned to the UAE to defend their frontier post.
Hafeez was back in business too; amassing over 1,200 runs at an average of 60. Pakistan remained unbeaten in the UAE in the seven-year spell of Misbah’s reign. Hafeez can look back at his Test career and be proud that he was an integral part of what statistically was the most successful Pakistani Test team ever, and the first and only one to have been crowned world number one in ICC Test rankings in 2016.
However, like all things, good or bad, Team Misbah’s time was over too. And so was Hafeez’s. Or so it seemed.
It was October 2018 and after more than two years out, Hafeez made yet another comeback to the five-day unit at the ripe age of 38.
In his comeback game, Hafeez slammed a pristine 126 of 208 deliveries against Australia in Dubai to put Pakistan in the driving seat in the first of the two-match Test series.
Three games and a retrospective digression later, Hafeez is standing at the crease and waiting for the umpires to confirm what he already knows. New Zealand are arguably the fairest of all fair teams. When a Kiwi claims a catch, it’s usually clean. Umpires confirm the soft signal given earlier and Hafeez has to take the long walk back.
It is perhaps the longest walk back in his elongated career. "Is this the end?" Hafeez must have thought as he neared the pavilion.
Pakistan is scheduled to play three Tests in South Africa in a few weeks; it’s the only Test assignment in the next 10 months in Pakistan’s calendar. By the end of that time, Hafeez will almost be knocking on the door of 40.
Hafeez entered the dressing room and announced his retirement shortly after. He decided to not even compete for the tour of South Africa, not that he was going to be picked anyway.
Was there a message by someone from the board, like it's done in other countries and like it should be? We might never know that.
Two days later, the team for South Africa is announced amidst a typically Pakistani Test match collapse.
Shan Masood returns to the side, thanks to his recent performances with the A side. But he has already played 24 Test innings and averages a meagre 23.54 runs. To top that, his first-class average is also a rather modest 33.85 runs. Is this the best Pakistan has to offer?
Do we miss Hafeez already? It’s South Africa, so surely not!
Hafeez averaged 46.89 runs in Asia (in 38 Tests), where he scored 3,001 runs, i.e. over 80% of all his runs and nine out of his 10 centuries. His career average as an opener is a shade under 38, with 3,531 runs to his name, third on the all-time Pakistan list, right behind the legendary Saeed Anwar (3,957 runs) and Mudassar Nazar (3,787 runs).
Hafeez also took 53 Test wickets at an average of 34.11 runs per wicket.
If your bowling and batting averages are just a few runs apart then, irrespective of the numbers, you are a good cricketer.
But Hafeez was more than just numbers. He played for Pakistan at a time when there were great street fighters and grinders. The likes of Mis-You and Azhar-Shafiq provided doggedness and grit, men who punched above their weight and were difficult to beat.
But amongst all this were Hafeez’s beautiful cover drives and his fabulous cuts and pulls. And that is what I would want to remember him by — if Steyn lets me. When the professor was on song, he was perhaps the prettiest among his local contemporaries.
In an interview just a few of weeks ago, Hafeez said, "I knew this comeback was going to be my last chance. My entire career has been such, I’ve spent it trying to change people’s opinion about me, and I am still doing the same. Whenever I leave the game, I want to do it with respect. I want to leave the game walking out of the ground. That was my motivation to make this comeback.
"Your end defines your career."
Meanwhile, on day five of the series decider against New Zealand, Hafeez gets one last chance. He has already gotten the guard of honour in the morning. He has received the closure that almost all outgoing Pakistani cricketers so desperately crave but very few are fortunate or sensible enough to receive — probably because they don't leave on their own terms.
However, Hafeez's is not exactly a fairy-tale ending either. He gets a peach of a delivery from Tim Southee in his final outing as his stumps are rattled. A dejected Hafeez makes his last walk back and raises his bat to empty stands.
It brought an end to a career that promised so much, delivered some, but when he did, did so with unmatched panache.