IN CONTROL

A leader who believes in setting examples, Inzamam-ul-Haq has guided Pakistan through difficult stages. And surprisingly, he has done so on his terms, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY

INNATELY he is a batsman who, at times, is sympathetic to the bowlers' woes. Why else would he otherwise run himself, or his partner, out with the opposition at his mercy? Inzamam-ul-Haq, his portly appearance notwithstanding, is one of the finest examples of a cricketer merrily involved in what comes to him naturally — entertaining the audience with his brand of batting of pristine quality.

An anecdote on his `legendary' running between the wickets would give an insight into his character even in times of distress. Having taken off for a sharp single, Inzamam slipped and landed heavily on his bottom. The non-striker, Wasim Akram, had little time to change his course and when Inzamam looked up, he saw his partner staring down in anger.

"Aap yahan kya kar rahe ho? (What are you doing here?)," Inzamam asked innocently. Akram is reported to have remarked, "tehelne aya hoon (come for a stroll)." The laughter that followed, with the Indian fielders too joining in, brought instant relief to everyone on the field in a tense situation.

An affable person, who values traditions and friendship, Inzamam is a delight on the cricket field. When holding a bat, he can be a wonderfully skilled and entertaining player. His contribution to Pakistan cricket has to be weighed against the conditions in the last decade that dictated the changes in the game at all levels.

Technical impoverishment is unknown to Inzamam, a master innovator. Pitch, weather, opposition hold no threat to this gifted batsman. His style is alluring with strokes of vintage value decorating his presence at the crease. When he arrived on the scene, Imran Khan, with a canny quality to spot talent, had predicted a "great future" for Inzamam. In fact, Imran has reasons to believe that Inzamam may not have really lived up to his expectations, for 24 Test centuries and 10 one-day hundreds do not quite do justice to his run-making potential.

Inzamam, with the most ferocious pull shot in the game today, is a dynamo at the crease and a decisive influence on the overall strength of Pakistan cricket. A leader who believes in setting examples, he has guided the team through difficult stages, and surprisingly, contrary to his image, has done so on his terms.

In demanding a team of his choice and a leash on certain players, Inzamam, in his quiet yet effective manner, conveyed a message that left nothing to imagination as far as his approach was concerned. For a star of his magnitude, Inzamam has remained refreshingly modest, a characteristic that his critics have come to accept as his forte.

"Never seen a man as unflustered as Inzamam. Nothing can perturb him. Sledging has no impact on his concentration. After Javed (Miandad) I would rate him the best batsman from Pakistan. In international cricket, I think he is the only batsman who does not lose his cool," observed Navjot Singh Sidhu, who has watched the Pakistani giant from close quarters in many an intense battle.

As a batsman, Inzamam is peerless. A great finisher, he is dreaded by bowlers all over. The fact that he never loses his cool is a quality that helps him overcome the challenges in a most professional manner.

Few in contemporary cricket can build an innings like Inzamam. He is a rare breed of batsmen who can hit through the line with consistency and contempt. Few batsmen can judge the length of the ball and get into absolutely perfect position to play a shot as quickly as Inzamam. His heavy appearance is a fa�ade, for bowlers around the world have come to respect his nimble footwork during the many demolitions he has carried out with his heavy bat, pacing the innings craftily, laying the opposition to rest with an enviable range of strokes.

Ajay Jadeja has followed Inzamam's fortunes from the time they played each other in the under-19 tournaments. The former India Test batsman made some interesting observations about his old adversary. "Inzamam has grown amazingly in stature as a batsman. His overall cricket has been an example for the young generation. I remember he had all the shots even when he was playing under-19 but he has learnt to play the shots according to the situation. Just as Sachin (Tendulkar). I would rate Inzy as a great batsman. He can destroy an attack but just see his superb shot selection. He plays certain shots on certain tours, and not certain sessions. He picks his days judiciously to experiment."

Inzamam revels in using the conditions to his advantage. Unless a bowler uses nagging line and length, it can be tough to contain this versatile batsman. Most bowlers adopt a restrictive line against Inzamam, knowing well his ability to read the attack. Only the moving ball causes initial discomfort to this batsman who, many bowlers confess, can be the toughest to dismiss.

Inzamam's most effective tool in his evolvement as a destructive batsman is his tendency to adapt quickly. Batting is all about adjustment and here he is quick to understand the needs of the situation. He has so much more time than the rest to judge a ball and the weight of his body ensures that he packs tremendous power into his shots. Fielders are known to avoid sticking a hand out to stop his drives.

Since Inzamam is able to understand his batting so well, it is natural for him to understand the intricacies of captaincy too. Given the state of Pakistan cricket, it is most appropriate that Inzamam is at the helm. Veterans across the border consider him the ideal man to lead the team. Internal squabbles have always undermined the Pakistan team's achievements and Inzamam, in his tenure, has managed to control the players most admirably. Not a great leader but he has proved a good captain with a vision that has stood the test of time.

Inzamam certainly cannot be compared with Imran, but in his own way he has earned the respect of his players and today commands total support. His differences with Shoaib Akhtar came close to splitting the team but Inzamam performed well to silence his detractors and also convince the selectors that none was greater than the game. Akhtar was quick to admit his follies and even rectify them to be able to serve the team to the best of his abilities. Bob Woolmer as coach of the Pakistan team has also helped Inzamam grow as a captain.

Cricketers like Inzamam are unique. Not for him arduous sessions in the gym. He would not spend much time on the massage table either but a stint on the cycle is welcome for this burly stroke-player from Multan. He is not averse to indulging in food fantasies even though his critics have often slammed him for his sluggishness on the field. But then Inzamam would not be half the cricketer he is without his massive build.

Sidhu has a sound advice for Inzamam. "Please don't try to lose weight. You lose weight, you lose balance too, and then your batting. Remember what happened in the 2003 World Cup." Inzamam lost some weight, but also his place in the team. The last World Cup was the most difficult period for Inzamam when loss of confidence left him shattered. True to his calibre, he came out of that slump quickly to establish himself among the top five batsmen in contemporary cricket.

Amazingly cool, Inzamam, with an experience of 13 international seasons behind him, has a calming influence in the dressing room. His mates are known to relax and perform better under his guidance. He has often been accused of throwing away his wicket but then what can be lethargy to some could be lazy elegance to the others.

A bat-wielding Inzamam charging at a spectator during a one-day match in Toronto, no doubt, was a very poor advertisement for the game. But then he has come a long way from that dark moment, carrying the team on his shoulders, setting examples with his exemplary behaviour. In the process, he has also instilled tremendous discipline among his mates, who have backed the skipper to the hilt.

Inzamam's recent form against England does not augur well for India. He scored match-winning centuries and became the second Pakistani to cross 8000 runs after Miandad. He would, no doubt, be under pressure to win against India at home after having lost the previous series in 2004.

You cannot get Inzy out cheaply by testing him with either speed or spin. The best way is to set him up, encourage him to attempt a risky single and then strike.

Poor running between the wickets is the only flaw that even his sublime batting has failed to camouflage, right from the time he brought classy batting out of the closets in Pakistan.