A complete batsman

Inzamam-ul-haq waves to the crowd after receiving the life time achievement award from the Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Dr. Nasim Ashraf (left) at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.-AP Inzamam-ul-haq waves to the crowd after receiving the life time achievement award from the Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Dr. Nasim Ashraf (left) at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.

Inzamam-ul-Haq was a compulsive strokemaker. He was adept at playing the pull and the hook shot. Essentially, he was an entertainer with the willow, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Inzamam-ul-Haq was the most enviable young cricketer when he arrived on the international stage. India’s Sachin Tendulkar had already captured the imagination of the cricketing world, while Inzamam, a strapping strokeplayer from Multan, was making news with his attractive brand of batting.

The impact he made on the 1992 World Cup was a defining moment for Pakistan cricket and a vindication of its policy of throwing young talent into the deep end. Pakistan was rewarded handsomely, as Inzamam’s blazing performance in the last two matches of the tournament enabled Imran Khan and his men lift the World Cup on a glorious night at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Imran Khan was effusive in his evaluation of Inzamam — aged 19 then — hailing him as the most gifted cricketer in the world. It was just the beginning that Inzamam would have prayed for as he strove to make his mark in world cricket.

At the end of his illustrious career, Inzamam may have reasons to feel elated with his achievements, but there is no doubt that the Pakistani never did complete justice to his cricket. To be picked to play for his country at the age of 19 was a huge honour, and Inzamam rose to inspire a generation that has come to back itself strongly.

He was strongly built. The bowlers felt the impact once he settled down. He was not athletic, struggling when the occasion demanded swift running between wickets; but it did not hamper his progress. He was run out 40 times, but remained one of the most feared batsmen in limited overs cricket.

Former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja was a big influence on Inzamam, even though Imran is widely regarded as his mentor. During difficult times, Inzamam would always seek Rameez’s guidance and it reflected in the manner in which he accumulated his runs.

Inzamam, like Rameez, never shed his positive approach. “You could not set a field to Inzamam once he got his eye in,” Rameez would say. And it was precisely for this quality that many bowlers held Inzamam in high esteem.

In the run-up to the 1992 World Cup, Inzamam came up with two imperious knocks to give early indications of his awesome potential to dominate the attack. Sri Lanka was at the receiving end as he slammed 101 and 117 in successive innings in 40-over contests. That was the platform on which he built his career.

Inzamam was never ruffled by pace; he dismissed the fast bowlers with contempt, just as Vivian Richards had done before him. India’s great spinner Anil Kumble was right when he observed that Inzamam was not at his best against the slow bowlers in the early part of his innings.

His footwork was not the best in business, but his huge stride enabled him to meet the ball with compelling force. Fielders dreaded putting their hands to his shots. The ferocity and the power behind Inzamam’s strokes were in sharp contrast to the character of the man. He was simple, unassuming, soft, and caring when it came to dealing with youngsters.

One remarkable quality of Inzamam was his self-belief. His batting was the strong point of Pakistan cricket for more than a decade even though his success outside the sub-continent was not commensurate with his ability. In eight Tests in Australia, Inzamam aggregated 494 runs, with just one century. This was not the Inzamam known to the cricketing world. He relished fast bowlers and loved it when the ball came on to the bat. A compulsive strokemaker, he was adept at playing the pull and the hook. Essentially, he was an entertainer with the willow.

Inzamam’s range of expression at the crease was unmatched in contemporary cricket. The best of deliveries were swatted with disdain, while his tight defence meant the bowlers had to toil to earn his wicket. When Inzamam strode to the middle, he resembled a warrior who was sure of his battle plans.

It is difficult to recall moments when a bowler evoked a hurried response from Inzamam, for he could pick the line of the ball early. Very few batsmen could get into position to play a shot as quickly as Inzamam, and the Pakistani clearly knew where his strength lay — in dominating the bowlers, regardless of the conditions.

It was rather unfortunate that Inzamam failed to surpass Javed Miandad’s record of 8832 runs in Tests. He missed it by three runs, paying the price for hurrying to get there (he was stumped by Mark Boucher in his final innings in international cricket). Inzamam’s response was typically humble. “I wanted to break the record, but Javed bhai was a much better player than me.”

Note: Included above is Inzamam's captaincy recod for Asia XI in 3 ODIs(won 1, lost 1, NR 1-COMPILED BY MOHANDAS MENON

In 120 Tests, Inzamam scored 25 centuries. But then statistics will never portray the grace that he brought to batting. The drive in front of the wicket, the ferocious pull shot and the rasping cut symbolised his batting style.

He scored when the situation demanded. Seventeen of his Test centuries came in winning causes. If Kumble rated Inzamam among his all-time top five batsmen he bowled to, the genial Indian had his reasons. Inzamam was never under pressure while making his runs, and the greater the expectations, the better he emerged. The faster the bowlers came at him, the harder he hit them.

The innings that he played at his home ground in 2003 ranks as a shining example of Inzamam’s mental strength. The opposition was Bangladesh, the lowest ranked Test-playing nation, but the challenge was monumental.

Pakistan, chasing 261 for victory, was closer to defeat when the seventh wicket fell at 164. Shabbir Ahmed joined Inzamam, but was dismissed at 205. The target was still distant.

Umar Gul then was run out at 257 with Pakistan needing four more runs. It was then that the master batsman produced a scorching flick to the boundary.

It was, by any yardstick, one of the finest match-winning knocks, as Inzamam made an unbeaten 138. The last three Pakistan batsmen contributed just 19 of the 98 runs that came after the fall of the seventh wicket.

There were many other knocks that underlined Inzamam’s class. The triple century in Lahore against New Zealand, for instance, was a gem. So was the 60 against New Zealand in the 1992 World Cup semifinal in Auckland.

For most captains, his was the wicket that counted, and Inzamam knew this too well. He simply shut himself off from the world and focussed on his batting. Barring the ‘aloo’ incident in Toronto during a one-day match against India, Inzamam rarely allowed the banter from stands to unsettle him. He was known to play with dignity and was not the kind given to sledging.

Inzamam was a terror on placid pitches in limited overs cricket, hitting even the fastest of bowlers through the line.

A lethal combination of timing and power gave him the reputation of a butcher in one-day cricket, as he plundered runs at a hectic pace. “My most trusted match-winner,” was how Imran Khan once described Inzamam. He remained one right through his career, playing big innings on big occasions. As Rameez once observed, Inzamam was a complete batsman.

“Right time to go,” was how Inzamam said of his retirement from international cricket. His fans, however, would disagree. Even at 37, the mild-mannered Inzamam has more to offer, one thought.