Mahmood is the only Pakistani cricketer to have won a place in Wisden on his first appearance on English soil (1954). -Dawn

Mr. Christopher M. Jenkins has published a book titled “The Top 100 Cricketers of All Time.” Regrettably two names were missing from that list: Fazal Mahmood and Hanif Mohammed – the two most perfect cricketers the game has produced. Their virtues for sanctity are solemnly engraved in their epic performances but above all, they were the technical archetype role models for the cricketing world.

In my opinion, Mahmood and Mohammed top the list of bowling and batting greats.

All champions are manufactured from the magic mantra of “talent, technique, temperament, and training,” with the base being technique - the method. The soundness of method cannot be stressed enough. The higher the level, the more ruthlessly will the slightest imperfection be exploited.

Mahmood and Hanif have been perfection itself in their fields of play. It is therefore all the more important we pay homage to the ones who had honed their techniques and skills in becoming role models for cricketing posterity.

Fazal Mahmood

Mahmood was an Adonis in flannels, with sparkling blue eyes. Benaud says in his book My spin on cricket, that he could not take his eyes off Mahmood’s face, the Pakistani being the handsomest man he had ever seen. Nature also endowed him with a six-foot-two-inch frame, long arms and legs, supple wrists, and beautiful long fingers.

Niggardly is not nature. In overflowing the cup, it also gifted him with supreme talent. Mahmood, from his teens, with fierce determination – dedicated his waking and sleeping to becoming the best exponent of the new ball in history.

A rhythmic run up and a perfect delivery action, left arm strictly at twelve-a-clock position, helped him achieve pin-point accuracy.

Armed with it, he added to his repertoire, mastering the in-swing, out-swing, and the beautiful swerve ball which served him so well throughout his career. But the coup d’grace, with which he felled so many giants, was the in swinging leg-cutter. To the right-handers it was the most difficult delivery, for on leaving the hand it would swing in, landing on the blind spot then darting to middle and off-stump. The batsmen, instinctively following the ball towards leg, exposing the stumps and creating an angle for the ball moving away from the bat. The result: bowled or edged to keeper or first slip.

To the left-handed breed the in-swinging leg-cutter (out-swing off-cutter) was even more lethal they being prone to leaving a gap while playing through the covers. In fact, Mahmood had claimed the wickets of Neil Harvey and Sir Garfield Sobers six times out of 10 on that delivery.

The leg-cut master Sir Alec Bedser bowled Sir Donald Bradman with this delivery in the fourth Test at Adelaide in the 1946-7 series. “Moreover Bradman also said the ball with which Alec dismissed him was the best he ever received.” (Alex Bannister “Cricket Heroes” p.19).

In Appendix 2 of “Art of Swing and Fast Bowling” of Mahmood’s book “Dusk to Dawn” (pp.213-220) he has given a highly technical description of the vast varieties he was able to bowl at command.

To add greater variety and make life more difficult for the batsmen, he improvised by using the unconventional use of the crease bowling an in-swinger from close to the stumps and an outs-winger from the return crease. Alf Gover categorically said it was “impossible.” Mahmood made the impossible possible reducing Gover to holding his head and asking “what metal was I made of” (“Dusk to Dawn” p.215-216).

It is no wonder that Mahmood was able to turn out tremendous performances some of which are listed below:

Mahmood is the only Pakistani cricketer to have won a place in Wisden on his first appearance on English soil (1954). He was the first Pakistani to be selected by Wisden in 1955.

Mahmood is the only pace bowler in the world who has taken 12 or more wickets against four countries he played against (against India at Lucknow, against England at the Oval, against Australia at Karachi and against the West Indies at Dacca), with New Zealand being the only country to have been left out. While Muttiah Murlitharan is the only spinner who has completed this haul against six different countries, he played Test cricket against nine countries as opposed to Mahmood, who played against only five.

Mahmood was the prime architect in all of Pakistan’s four victories between 1952 and 1958. He captured 12 or more wickets in a Test match which means he single-handedly won the matches for Pakistan.

In the third Test at Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica in 1958 where Sir Garfield made the world record score of 365, Mahmood bowled 85.2 overs. He was unchanged throughout the innings of a Test match which is a world record for a pace bowler. Mahmood’s figures were: 85.2-20-247-2. (Wisden book of test cricket 1877-1977) Khan Mohammed’s figures were: 54-5-259-0. West Indies had made 790 for 3.

Further proof of his phenomenal ability and stamina can be checked from the chart of Khan Mohammed and Mehmood Hussain who bowled with him in the Test matches.

Both Khan Mohammed and Mehmood Hussain in 40 Tests have fewer wickets, 122 against Mahmood’s 139. And extraordinarily he has bowled 9870 balls to their combined 9066 balls. It requires a giant to do the job of two men.

The statistics for bowling analysis are as follows:

 

Tests Balls Maidens Runs Wickets Average
Khan Mohammed 13 3169 152 1294 54 23.96
Mehmood Hussain 27 5897 230 2628 68 38.64
Fazal Mahmood 34 9870 548 3437 139 24.72
But surely Mahmood’s shinning hour was the Oval. Every blade emitting a faint fragrance which only the English grass can, a whiff enough to transform the thoroughbred into a snorter, desperate for action.

The field was set for the Armageddon, the duel between the best of England lions and the fledglings of the Test arena, Pakistan.

Victories have been won. Difficult matches have been extricated from the jaws of defeat. But the victory at the Oval is a victory above all victories. Everyone gave his best. They took on and defeated the might of England batting, perhaps the best since the war. This is what this victory meant. And all this owed to the main architect of this victory, the hero Mahmood, who with his brilliant 12-99 performed the miracle ever to be remembered. And in doing so he laid the foundations for the later successes of the Pakistan.

It is a pity digital technology was not available to record the intricate variations of line, length, swerve, cut delivered with such stunning accuracy. It would have been a visual lesson for posterity.

Mahmood, in his book “Dusk to Dawn”, has described some of the great deliveries and captured the magical moments of that fascinating Test match.

Alex Bannister said, “On matting Mahmood was often unplayable; on grass he could be equally devastating. To the casual observer he might have appeared harmless and just another bowler putting his arm over. But what a guile and consummate skill went into every ball.”

The prizing out of a frustrated Sir Len Hutton in both innings was for him the high point of the match (pp.44 & 45). His own description of planning executions and of exultation are worth reading (pp.44 & 45).

No less important was the dismissal of P.B.H. May from half a run up in the second innings. The finest number three England has produced, who conquered the furious attacks of the world described on (p.45). For England, the champion performer was the indomitable D.C.S. Compton, who managed a trice dropped brave 53 in the first innings. During this innings Mahmood discovered and exploited a patch on the wicket a great testimony to his deadly accuracy (“Prerequisites” p. 218).

It is no wonder that his 12-99 at the Oval was rated by an article in an English Newspapers in 2005 as the best ever seen on the ground.

Keith Miller has paid a great tribute to Mahmood in his letter dated: 26/10/98 in which he has rated Mahmood’s 13 for 114 against them at Karachi in 1956, as the best he has ever seen and “your performance was even better than J.M. Laker’s remarkable 19 wickets at the Old Trafford.”

Compton has also tremendous praise for him and says “Mahmood, simply unplayable in his day. My most difficult and memorable innings was at the Oval against him where I scored 53 in 1954.”

The incomparable Neil Harvey has also said, “Mahmood could make the ball talk on a matting wicket.”

But the tribute of all tributes was the great man himself Sir Alec Bedser as quoted, “If cricket was played as much in those days as now, Mahmood would have taken a thousand wickets.”

Mahmood had been selected for India’s Tour of Australia 1947-1948 but due to partition and his opting for Pakistan, he declined to go. The obituary of Mahmood in the London Times paid him the supreme compliment by saying that had Mahmood gone on that tour, Bradman would not have had the average that he did.

On Pakistan’s tour of England of 1962, Mahmood was taken to dinner by Sir Len Hutton during the Trent Bridge Test. Over coffee, Sir Hutton asked, “Mahmood, it has been eight years since the Oval Test in 1954. I have been thinking about what you did with the ball and I have not yet been able to understand. Would you tell me how you bowled that particular ball which got me out twice in the Oval Test?” Mahmood says “It was the greatest compliment I could have received as a player” (“Dusk to Dawn” p.95).

For Sir Len Hutton, the all time great opening batsman and the only Englishman to have held the world Test record of 364, to pay such a great tribute should be more than enough to place Mahmood at the top of the all-time ladder.

In my opinion, in an “All Time Great XI” – if the matches were played in England – the new ball would be shared by Mahmood and Wasim Akram.

The author served as manager of the Pakistan cricket team on its 2000-2001 tour of New Zealand.

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