The batting bulwark of Pakistan

Inzamam-ul-Haq’s ability to perform when it mattered compensated for his lax attitude towards fitness; he was one player who consistently rescued his side from the brink of collapse, write Nirmal Shekar & Vijay Parthasarathy.

Although some cricket historians might hesitate to place him in the pantheon of all-time great batsmen, Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq retires with his reputation secure: as one of the outstanding batsmen of his time, someone who might not look out of place in the company of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting.

The genial, burly Inzamam combined the virtues of some of these stalwarts — audacious strokeplay, a fine temperament and fierce loyalty to the team’s cause — and established himself in the late 1990s as the batting bulwark of his side, a worthy middle-order replacement for the pugnacious Javed Miandad.

Tall and possessed of a lumbering gait, Inzamam’s sluggishness in the outfield and his disastrous running between wickets provoked much mirth, even if, in his defence, he was a fine catcher in the slips. He bore these jokes good-naturedly for the most part even as he dealt with on-field adversity with the inner calm of a Zen master, displaying an old-fashioned brand of equanimity.

Inzy’s ability to perform when it mattered compensated for his lax attitude towards fitness; he was one player who consistently rescued his side from the brink of collapse. A destructive batsman in both forms of the game, with a Test average a fraction short of 50 and a one-day average a shade under 40, Inzamam was especially noted for his pull against the quicks and his dominance over spin bowling.

The Multan maestro’s balance — crucial, given his large physical size — was his greatest strength. The ability to pick the ball early and play the ball late contributed significantly to the air of nonchalant elegance.

Few modern batsmen may have picked their moments as well as Inzamam. In a distinguished career, he compiled 25 Test centuries, a record for Pakistan, and all the more impressive for their match-defining character. For, 17 of those came in matches that Pakistan won.

His 83 fifties constituted a One-Day International record until Tendulkar surpassed that number in the Future Cup series against Australia. Perhaps he did not quite make the same impact in ODIs as in Tests because Inzy batted well down the order unlike the Indian genius.

Yet, there is no question that he was, arguably, the greatest ever match-winner among all Pakistani batsmen. And he did it his way — elegant, unhurried, composing rather than merely playing innings after innings of sublime majesty.

While there have been many such gems in Inzy’s long career, it would be hard to forget the innings he played in the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore two years ago with Pakistan 1-0 down in the series and facing the threat of losing a second straight series to India in a short time.

In marched Inzy with Pakistan two down for seven in what was his 100th Test appearance. Things did not look good for the visiting team with Lakshmipathy Balaji picking up a wicket with the first ball he bowled and Irfan Pathan grabbing one in his very second over.

In the event, Inzy conjured up an innings that should rate among the best witnessed at that stadium. Perhaps the finest played on that stage was by Sunil Gavaskar in his last Test innings against Imran Khan’s side in 1987. Caught in a snake-pit from which his team-mates departed in considerable hurry — like all sane men would — the Mumbai maestro bobbed and weaved and cut and drove his way to a magnificent 96 which capsulised the very essence of Gavaskar as a technically flawless batsman.

Inzamam is a different breed. He made batting look easy. Just when you thought he needed to get into the trenches and do battle, Inzy seemed to have fantasy rather than fight on his mind as he played an innings (184) of transcendental brilliance to set up Pakistan’s victory.

Later that day, as shadows lengthened on the field, a TV cameraman chose to focus on a short, squat man in the VIP enclosure in the stadium in Bangalore. It was quite fitting that Gundappa Viswanath chose to watch Inzy’s majestic innings.

Neither man would have achieved much with a tennis racquet or a hockey stick in hand. Nor, for that matter, would Inzy or Vishy have been signed up by jeans manufacturers to advertise their product. A six-pack is what neither possessed.

Thankfully, cricket is a game that makes room for all types. Batting is an art that does not demand Shah Rukh Khan’s waistline. And the ones that do boast of a washboard tummy may never be able to elevate batsmanship to the level that Vishy and Inzy took it to.

As a captain, Inzamam’s finest hour came in 2005 as Pakistan took apart an English side that had just regained the Ashes.

His own form during that series was majestic, and his captaincy won him critical acclaim.

Even in his most difficult hour — when Pakistan became the first team to forfeit a Test match, at The Oval — it was not Inzy’s moral fibre that was in question as much as his decision-making ability.

A protege of Imran Khan, Inzamam was the last active member of Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup-winning side, and had played a stellar role in that success: his electrifying knocks in the final stages of that tournament set him apart as one of the talents of his generation.

Through the following 15 years, the giant Pakistani, when on song, provided the sort of watching pleasure that only a handful in his era might have been able to offer.

A happy family man, Inzy may not miss the game. But fans everywhere will certainly miss the gentle giant who was an adornment to the sport.