Leg-spin was considered to be an extremely difficult art to master, as was reflected in the dour and serious nature of its practitioners, till the late 1970s. Charlie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly, Subhash Gupte, Richie Benaud and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar were bowlers who had earned reputation for being match-winners on account of their ability to run through batting line-ups of opposing sides. There was excitement in the air whenever the captain threw the ball to them and they seldom disappointed the crowds who had come to see them in action. But they all belonged to the ilk who preferred to let the ball do the talk as despite the beauty of the craft they purveyed, all of them projected the image of being staid and quiet individuals, without any flair for publicity or showmanship.
Abdul Qadir of Pakistan was the first great leg-spinner to break out of this mould. He came into international cricket when observers were writing the epitaph of classical leg-spin bowling. There were not too many bowlers of this type to be seen in first class cricket, let alone at the international level. Fast bowlers were winning Test matches and sides which did not have quality pacers in its ranks did not stand a chance of making it good outside the home conditions. Spin bowling, in general, appeared to be on the decline and, in this scenario, it was almost impossible to fantasise about the revival of leg-spin, admittedly the most difficult art to master.
It was against this backdrop that Qadir made his bow into Test cricket in December, 1977, when he turned out for Pakistan against England at Lahore. His prodigious talent was evident to all those who saw him in action and in the very next Test match he bagged the headlines by scalping 6/44. He picked up another five-wicket haul in the third Test, thus announcing his arrival at the highest level in style.
Cricketing activities of the Imperial Cricket Conference (forerunner of present day International Cricket Council), during the period between 1977 and 1979, were overshadowed by the World Series Cricket launched by Kerry Packer, to which Pakistan had lost their top players. This development had worked in favour of Qadir as it allowed him to get an early breakthrough into the national side. However, this left Pakistan a weak side that was drubbed by England in the summer of 1978, when the former toured the Old Blighty. A shoulder injury, that was to keep Qadir away from the game for a considerable period of time, reared its head during this tour and there was apprehension that his career might be cut short on this score.
Though he toured India as a member of the Pakistani side led by Asif Iqbal in 1979-80, he could not create much of an impact. He featured in the first three Tests and was dropped from the playing eleven after that. The fact that he was not very effective in the third Test at Mumbai, which the hosts won with the Indian spinners doing the star turn, worked against him. He went into cricketing oblivion after that and was to resurface only two years later.
Back with a bang
Qadir staged a remarkable return to Test cricket in 1982 as part of the side led by Imran Khan that created history by becoming the first sub continent side to win a Test at Lord's. Imran was impressed by Qadir’s bowling and approach to the game and backed him to the hilt. The fact that both of them were from Lahore also would have helped in cementing this relationship. It was Imran who suggested Qadir grow a goatee before the start of this tour, to amplify his mystery factor. This proved to be a brilliant move as this facial appearance, together with his unique bowling action, gave Qadir the appearance of a magician, who baffled and befuddled England batsmen no end.
During the 1980s, Qadir kept the flag of leg-spin bowling flying high. He was at his best against England, the West Indies and Australia as he picked wickets by the dozen. During the best part of that decade, Pakistan fancied themselves as the only team capable of giving the West Indies, who lorded over all the other sides, a run for their money in Test cricket. Imran was so confident that he could tame the Windies at home that he took the unprecedented step of having neutral umpires from India to officiate in the last couple of Tests of the three-match series, just to prove that Pakistan’s performance was not coloured by allegations of umpiring bias. Qadir was a vital cog in the wheel of the Pakistani bowling machine during this period, often bamboozling opponents with his deadly spells, when he would be unplayable. He picked up 6/16 runs against a West Indies team that had in their ranks legendary batsmen such as Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Richie Richardson, to dismiss them for a paltry score of 53 in the first Test at Faisalabad. The exciting series ended 1-1.
It was England who were at the receiving end of Qadir’s genius as a bowler. In 1987, when Pakistan toured England, he missed the first Test but came back strongly to pick up 10 wickets in the last match of the series. He followed this up with 30 wickets in three Tests when England returned the visit later during the course of the same year. His figures of 9/56 against England at Lahore in December, 1987, remain the best by a Pakistan bowler in Test cricket.
Heroics with the bat
The 1987 World Cup showed Qadir’s skills as a doughty lower order batsman also. In the match against the West Indies, Pakistan needed 14 runs off the last over bowled by Courtney Walsh, with Qadir at the crease in the company of last man Saleem Jaffer. This was also the famous match in which Walsh decided not to run out Jaffer for backing up too far at the non-striker's end. In those days when finishing a match was not a skilled technique, Qadir held his nerve and hit the required runs to carry his side to the last four stage. The memory of Qadir celebrating wildly after hitting the winning run would remain etched in the memory of all those who witnessed it.
Qadir’s Achilles heel was India, against whom his performances never rose beyond the mediocre. He toured the country in 1979-80 and 1986-87, but could not work his magic on the Indian batsmen. He appeared so ordinary that he was dropped for the last Test of the 1986-87 series, which was played at Bangalore on a rank turner. It would have rankled him considerably to sit on the sidelines and watch Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim bowl Pakistan to a famous series win at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. The Indian fans would not have forgotten the assault launched on his bowling by a 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar during an exhibition match when India visited Pakistan in 1989. A marauding Tendulkar waded into Qadir showing scant regard for his fame and reputation and hit him for four sixes in an over.
After his retirement from the game, Qadir set up a cricket academy at Lahore, where he supported and trained talented youngsters. His stints as chief selector and commentator ended in controversy and he realised that it was best for him to him to focus on what he knew best, which was leg-spin bowling.
One of a kind
Qadir was different from other great leg-spinners in that he had a bowling action that saw his hands and legs going in all directions in the delivery stride. But he had in his repertoire all the weapons that purveyors of this art possessed. He could turn his leg breaks by a mile, had a set of wicked googlies and a deadly flipper, all of which he used to good effect. Besides this, he had the most important requirement for a leg-spinner, which was a large heart. He never shied away from a battle on the field and did not lose heart over being hit for runs as he was confident that he would have the last laugh. And laugh he did on most occasions, except when battling the Indian batsmen.
To the followers of the game, Qadir’s greatest contribution was in keeping alive the art of leg-spin bowling when it was facing threat of extinction and in adding colour and charm to this glorious form of cricketing art. He was in many ways a predecessor of Shane Warne as he brought allure and appeal by his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies besides his indubitable skill and prowess over his craft.
Qadir’s sudden and unexpected demise at the relatively young age of 63 has robbed the game of one of its most charismatic and colourful characters. The messages of grief and condolences that have flown in from across the globe stand testimony to the recognition he won for being one of the principal practitioners of leg-spin. Cricket world would certainly be poorer by his absence.
Rest in peace, Abdul Qadir.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)