“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” celebrity Mark Twain had famously cabled following the publication of his obituary in the United States.
For a while today it seemed that the report of exaggeration was being extended to one of Pakistan’s greatest cricketers, Hanif Mohammad. In the morning he was pronounced dead, yet later in the afternoon his son Shoaib, former Test cricketer himself, said that he had been wrongly briefed by the doctors and that his father was very much alive and was on ventilator.
Alas that proved to be short-lived and later in the evening the 81-year-old Mohammad who was battling lung cancer for the past few years was officially declared dead in a hospital in Karachi.
Hanif was the original ‘little master’, a sobriquet he earned for the unflappable technique and temperament which saved the day many a time for Pakistan. The epic 337 he made in the second innings in the Barbados Test against West Indies in 1957-58 was the stuff legends are made of. Pakistan asked to follow on, 473 runs behind on the third afternoon of the six-day Test, battled out a glorious draw thanks to Hanif opening the batting and grafting it out stubbornly for over 16 hours (970 minutes to be precise).
A year later he made 499 in a first class match. Tragically the scoreboard had erroneously stated that he was batting on 496 upon which he undertook a suicidal run in an effort to retain strike and was run out. The enormity of the mistake struck only later and the opportunity to notch up a stupendous landmark was lost.
During the course of that innings Hanif surpassed Don Bradman’s erstwhile world record first class individual score of 452 but both the English and Australian media were disparaging of his effort. They tried to trivialize it stating that it had been played on a coir matting pitch, that playing hours in Pakistan was only five hours a day as against the six in England and that the opponents name (Bahawalpur) was unpronounceable!
But the tiny 5 feet 6 inches Hanif eventually ensured that he commanded respect from every quarters. He almost made a century in each innings against Australia and thwarted England’s victory march both in England and Pakistan to show that he was a batsman par excellence.
Hanif was born in Junagadh, India, on December 21, 1934 and was second among five cricketing brothers. His father was a good club level cricketer while his mother was a badminton and table tennis champion in India. Besides Hanif, three other brothers, Wazir, Mustaq and Sadiq played Test cricket while Raees was a first class cricketer and was once 12th man in a Test. Hanif’s son Shoaib too played Tests for Pakistan.
Following partition the family moved to Karachi where his father honed the cricketing skills of the children. He’d shave the fur off one side of tennis balls to make them swing appreciably on the concrete in front of the house. Later, cork balls were used to simulate steep bounce. Hanif was encouraged to keep his head down and the top hand elbow pointing straight up at all times .
He obviously learned his lessons well for he almost never hit a ball in the air. His monumental patience and technique made him a batsman of outstanding calibre.
The first time I went to Pakistan on a cricket assignment was in the 1990s. By then I had seen and interacted with Pakistani players, administrators and media in India, England and Sharjah. Mustaq, former skipper and Hanif’s younger brother was coach or manager of the team for a while. The Pakistani media and players even then held Hanif to be a better batsman than their other great cricketing son, Javed Miandad.
They held that Hanif’s technique was better and that he wore his pride and determination on his sleeve, just like Miandad. Additionally the tiny Hanif played during an era when helmets and good protective gear were absent. They thus elevated him to a higher pedestal.
Hanif’s defensive mindset and unwillingness to take risks as a batsman manifested in his captaincy too. It drew criticism but then considering that Pakistan was not a great cricketing nation in the 1950s and 60s, Hanif was more concerned that his team would not lose.
The Pakistani ‘little master’ played 55 Tests and scored 12 hundreds and 15 50s in his aggregate of 3915. This included his debut against India at New Delhi in 1952-53. Pakistan lost that Test by an innings even as Hanif top-scored with 51 for them.
Hanif could bowl with either arm and also kept wickets. He was born with nerves of steel and they stood him in good stead right through his career. But more than all his accomplishments, Pakistan will be eternally grateful to a cricketer who won for their team the grudging respect of the cricketing world.
Even mocking English media who scoffed at his world record batting stint at the crease as, “the total hours that he has been barracked or slow handclapped around the world may well come close to constituting another kind of record” were forced to admit that in him they encountered an immovable force. No victory was assured as long as he was at the crease. In his passing away Pakistan and world cricket has lost a true legend.