Fazal: Fast... at heart
Fazal was not quick. He used to tell Imran Khan and others later in life that he used to bowl in the mid-to-late 80s (mph) - and higher if he was in the mood - but it’s just not true. One contemporary laughs at the idea that Fazal might ever have even touched 80mph but the most revealing measurement comes from Richie Benaud, who used his own leg-spin as comparison: during Fazal’s 13-wicket Test against Australia in Karachi in October 1956, Benaud thought Fazal was bowling “at a pace twice as I fast as I bowled, and he was cutting the ball more than I could spin it.”
So no, he wasn’t fast. But he was a fast bowler, and not just because on radio, where his aura was built, he could be as fast or slow as the mind wanted. He was a fast bowler because he really didn’t like his captain. He was a fast bowler because he believed he deserved to lead. He was a fast bowler because if he’d had the DRS at his disposal, he would’ve demanded a review unilaterally for every one of his appeals.
He was a fast bowler because Ava Gardner wanted to dance with him, Noor Jehan allegedly sang a song about his hair and the Queen did a double-take at his blue eyes and asked him where he was really from. He was a fast bowler because he chain-smoked. He was a fast bowler because he had great hair and made sure Brylcreem knew it. He was a fast bowler because, on board the SS Batory to England for the 1954 tour, he worked out during the day and was a big hunk of life and love on the dance floors at night. He was a fast bowler because he got film offers from both sides of the border. He was a fast bowler because he drove around Lahore in a nifty little white MG. He was a fast bowler because neither was he retiring and nor did he retire gracefully. He was a fast bowler because no Test was knowingly beyond his grasp.
Above all he was a fast bowler because without being at all fast, he strutted around like Jeff Thomson was Mark Ealham in front of him. One of the greatest effects of Imran’s leadership and bowling was that it turned bowlers thereafter into a super-confident, aggressive and attacking wicket-takers. In body they might not be quick, but in spirit, even your average neighbourhood medium-pacer is bowling every ball at 100mph.
Fazal pre-dated this, a straight up iconoclast. He bowled first to take wickets, always straight, always at the pads and stumps. Two-thirds of his 139 Test wickets were either bowled, leg-before or caught behind; nearly 45 per cent were bowled or leg-before. His signature ball, the one that made his name was the leg-cutter and in an even smaller, closed world than cricket is now, it became a bit of a thing. If you hadn’t been bowled or dismissed by Fazal’s leg-cutter, you hadn’t really earned your colours. In essence the ball was a fizzing, nippy leg-break, on its best days a dream delivery drifting and dipping towards the batsmen’s shins before breaking away late and sharp. It generally came from a wider grip of the seam than normal and a lower, rounder arm action.
The ball was a gift to the devotion of his father, Professor Ghulam Hussein, a principal at Lahore’s Islamia College with a deep love for the game. The professor had raised the first cricket team at the famous college and was an early figure in the great rivalries with Government College. “My father took me to these finals as a ‘good luck mascot’, exhorting me to become a bowler and one day beat Government College,” Fazal wrote in his autobiography. “He would place a tumbler on a small table at about stump height and ask me to hit the glass with the ball. He taught me to bowl the leg-cutter.”
Until the end of March 1959, Pakistan’s first golden age, Fazal was a giant; 114 wickets in just 24 Tests, close to 40 per cent of all wickets taken by Pakistani bowlers. To that add the 36 wickets he took in seven unofficial Tests played in the run-up to Pakistan’s first official Test. Few of those were freebies: 93 of his wickets were specialist batsmen. The men he dismissed most often? The cream of the age: Conrad Hunte, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Gary Sobers, Neil Harvey, Denis Compton thrice in four Tests, Sir Len Hutton twice in two Tests. All this leaves as little doubt to his greatness as he carried within himself, and it led Pakistan to wins in India, England, West Indies, against Australia and New Zealand in their first eight years; at least one against every country they played. No full member has had as promising a start and no one did more than Fazal, with 65 wickets in the seven wins he played in.
His feats are often downplayed by pointing to his reliance on matting wickets, under which it wasn’t unusual for the odd, strategically placed pebble to find its way. In a way this is as much a natural counter to his own unbearable bluster about his abilities (and bluster is a polite replacement for arrogance). And it is true he often found ways of missing turf-wicket matches and that at the Lahore Gymkhana - a rare turf wicket venue in the early years - he could be far less threatening. But this is churlish, because matting was a valid surface. And in the West Indies and England, he won Tests on turf.
It also takes away from his lesser-celebrated prowess as a stock bowler, capable of plugging up an end when the going wasn’t so bright. His stamina was as robust as that of a long-distance runner, the result of a regime as strict as it was simple: from his school days, every day, he would skip rope and go for a ten-mile jog from 430 am, no matter the weather. Imran and his charges would later also learn the same, straightforward truth of running that Fazal had done. They bore extraordinary results. Through England in 1954, he bowled a staggering 677 overs. In Jamaica in 1958, as Sobers made his 365, Fazal took on the load of two men. Mahmood Hussain pulled up with an injury in his very first over so Fazal wheeled down 85.2 overs; only four bowlers have ever bowled more in an innings and all of them were spinners. In his last two Tests in England in 1962, broadened mid-riff now accompanying him, he bowled 63, 60 and 49 overs in three innings. He bowled 45 overs on one day - one day! - of the fourth Test, bowling for all but half an hour of England’s seven-and-a-half hour innings.
And so to end, let’s rephrase that opening question and ask ourselves how Fazal could not have been the start of something to which the natural end could only be Shoaib Akhtar? In one way, Shoaib is the absolute distillation of the idea of the quintessential Pakistani fast bower, the end point of a line with an upward gradient which began with Fazal: faster, more nakhras, more drama, more aggression, badder, more destructive on and off the field than every fast bowler who has gone before. But in another way, if you account for the times they operated in, it’s almost as if, with Shoaib, Pakistani fast bowling did not evolve so much as found its way back - full circle back - to Fazal, where it all began.
Osman Samiuddin is a sports writer with The National and editor of The Nightwatchman. This is the second part of a series on the fast bowlers of Pakistan. Read the first part, on why Pakistanis bowl fast, here
(Pic: From Dusk to Dawn - Autobiography of a Pakistan Cricket Legend/ Courtesy Oxford University Press)
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