Consistency was his forte

HE still had a lot of cricket left in him. And that shall remain Saeed Anwar's greatest regret — having to bow out when he was better than most around.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Saeed Anwar obliges autograph hunters. "A retirement forced on me," was how Anwar described it after deciding to quit the game. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

HE still had a lot of cricket left in him. And that shall remain Saeed Anwar's greatest regret — having to bow out when he was better than most around. He had weathered many a storm in his career but this one swept him away. It was Pakistan's loss as one of its finest batsmen announced his retirement. "A retirement forced on me," was how Anwar described the unfortunate development.

The image of a lean and hungry batsman, striding out briskly to the middle, and getting down to business in no time shall remain etched forever. He possessed a rare quality, of slamming the first ball he faced as if it was the 100th delivery he had encountered. Anwar was a delight for his captain and spectators and a nightmare for bowlers of all kinds.

In assessing Anwar's contribution to Pakistan cricket, many factors would come into focus. The fact that he held his own in an era of immense competition speaks for the man's potential. An attacking and hard-hitting batsman, he never compromised on his style and approach and was rated high by his opponents. Cricket, to Anwar, was a means to express his love for his countrymen. He was fiercely patriotic and nothing irked him more than a defeat.

Meeting Anwar was a pleasant experience always, for he could discuss subjects other than cricket. He would never hesitate to give credit to an Indian performer, his praise genuine and coming from the heart. He was one of the few Pakistani cricketers who struck a fine rapport with the Indians. But Anwar was unsparing on the field, treating the Indian bowlers with disdain. He would unleash a scorching drive and then smile at the slip cordon, just to drive home the point that his commitment to his job was total.

Just imagine, Anwar was not a natural opener. The role was thrust upon him by a very demanding set of selectors who revelled in putting this graceful left-hander to all kinds of challenges. But Anwar never flinched. He, in fact, enjoyed such challenges. "It brings the best out of me," he remarked. The more the pressure on him from within his camp, the more his opponents suffered.

Anwar was a very successful middle-order batsman until transforming himself into an opener. That he was exceptionally talented was known to all but his ability to raise his game at crucial stages was a quality that placed Anwar in a very special category. To watch him in action was a thrilling experience.

Let me share an anecdote, which should give the readers an insight into the man's determination to excel. In Delhi, touring with the Pakistan team in 1997, he told The Sportstar in an interview that his ambition was to hit a double century in one-day internationals. A very lofty ambition indeed but Anwar always set very high standards for himself. And three days later, at Madras, he almost achieved the feat, falling short by a mere six runs. That knock of 194 remains the highest individual score in one-day internationals for all teams and also reminds his fans that Anwar was indeed a champion batsman. He got out attempting a big hit and he rues the shot to this day. "One of my greatest regrets," he maintains.

That day he tore the Indian attack apart. It was frightening, conceded one of the Indian bowlers, as Anwar belted every ball — good and bad. The crowd watched in awe as the left-hander feasted on his favourite attack. The Indian bowlers, as they were clobbered mercilessly, were clueless. Strokes of all hue embellished the Chepauk canvas and the spectators witnessed an all-time great act by a batsman who always believed that cricket was best played in an attacking mould.

"I hate defending a ball. There are countless avenues to explore on the field," he had once said at Sharjah, his favourite cricket venue. No wonder Anwar could pick gaps at will. Yes, he could place the ball between fielders at will. His tremendous eye and footwork gave him enough time to decide on the course of the shot he had in mind. He was incredibly devastating on the Sharjah pitch where bowlers dreaded the very thought of having to bowl to Anwar.

Anwar figured in 51 matches at Sharjah. He slammed seven centuries and 11 half-centuries for an average of 45.37. Four of his centuries came against Sri Lanka and one each off England, West Indies and New Zealand. Strangely he could not hit a century in 11 appearances against India there. Anwar relished batting against the Indians but that century at Sharjah eluded him.

Anwar sweeps Sunil Joshi to the fence during the Independence Cup match against India at the Chepauk Stadium in Madras in 1997. That memorable knock of 194 remains the highest by any batsman in ODIs till date. — Pic. N. BALAJI-

Anwar's best one-day score was made against India. So was his best Test score — an unbeaten 188 in an epic Test at Calcutta in '98-99. That he carried the bat was not as important in his opinion as the fact that his knock shaped Pakistan's innings and gave the bowlers the inspiration to fire out the opposition in front of an unruly crowd. This was the match when spectators were evicted in order to manage a peaceful conduct. India lost, giving Anwar some fond memories to live with.

"I could've played for two more years," said a disappointed Anwar when announcing his retirement. Given his form and fitness, he certainly would have lasted another two seasons. His innings of 101 against India at Centurion in the last World Cup was a gem, a typically aggressive performance. It was Anwar's innings, which gave Pakistan some chance before Sachin Tendulkar produced a sensational knock. The innings by Anwar only reconfirmed his argument that he had more to offer to Pakistan cricket. His last one-day innings was an unconquered 48 against Zimbabwe in the World Cup, once again a typical effort, which put things in the right perspective.

The flowing beard may have given Anwar a new look, a new image, that of a devout Muslim, but his attitude towards cricket remained unaffected. According to his mates, his approach towards life may have undergone a big change after the death of his daughter, but Anwar remained a source of inspiration to the team.

Anwar's has been a long journey, beginning in 1988-89 at Perth. His one-day debut was eminently forgettable. As was his Test debut against the West Indies at Faisalabad in 1990-91. Anwar bagged a `pair' and suddenly he seemed to have lost faith in himself. The road was bumpy no doubt and he had to wait for two more years before earning a Test recall.

It was an eventful tour to New Zealand, one that was to decide his future in the game. Anwar was on a severe test. His first two visits were worth just 16 and seven. There was talk of excluding him when the left-hander chose the toughest stage to help him establish his credentials. The conditions were hostile, windy and the pitch, lively and seaming. Now or never, Anwar told himself as he prepared for the biggest challenge he had faced until then. His response was a majestic 169. It was the turning point of his career and Anwar went from strength to strength, growing in stature as a batsman.

His aggregate of 4052 in 55 Tests and 8823 in 247 ODIs puts Anwar among the greatest cricketers from Pakistan. Former skipper Rameez Raja rated Anwar "great" even as the left-hander, at 35, a complete batsman, made way for younger faces, much against popular belief in his country. Hailing from Karachi, he had charted his way past a horde of challenges. But this time Anwar failed to rise.

Anwar was one of his kind. Among the Pakistanis, he was a very progressive cricketer, never known to show dissent on the field. He had the quality to appreciate his opponents and also to criticise himself. "You have to be honest to yourself," is Anwar's philosophy. He played his cricket most honestly and that was Anwar's greatest quality.

When discussing India, he makes it a point to say a few good things. "We've always had good relations with the Indian cricketers off the field. Of course, things get hot on the field because we give our best against each other. But as players we hold nothing against the Indians and I've always enjoyed playing against them. It feels great when you win against India. I've never had any problems with the Indian cricketers."

A Computer Engineer by profession, Anwar was an integral part of a Pakistan team, which distinguished itself with some sterling performances away from home. The dynamic Anwar combined skills with power to establish himself after an inconsistent start to his international career. On his day, he could win the match on his own and that's precisely why he was rated by many as the best one-day batsman in contemporary cricket. He had the talent to swing the match in a matter of a few deliveries. Bowlers point out his art of hitting boundaries at crucial stages to ease the pressure on his partner. And Anwar could actually play any stroke in the book, again a quality that made him such a dangerous batsman to bowl to.

By compelling Anwar to quit, the Pakistani selectors have brought the curtains down on an illustrious career. It will take some time for them to find a replacement for this stylish opener whose forte was his consistency. The game has seen few big-match players and Anwar's contribution shall remain one of the highpoints of Pakistan cricket.

Anwar may have stopped playing but his association with the game shall continue in his desire to become a coach. If only he could help Pakistan prepare an attacking and committed cricketer like he was. The soft-spoken Anwar, for those who understand the value of elegant batsmanship, shall always evoke fond memories of a cricketer who served the game with great spirit and distinction.