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Fazal Mahmood — the original protagonist in Pakistan’s fast-bowling history

With his arrival, Pakistan’s penchant of producing quality fast-bowlers began

PHOTO COURTESY: Oxford University Press (Pakistan)

Since its inception, Pakistan cricket has remained largely clouded by uncertainty; well except for one specific aspect: Pakistan’s bowling aptitude.

Every great phenomenon has a starting point and with the arrival of Fazal Mahmood, Pakistan’s penchant for producing quality fast-bowlers began.

Mahmood was selected to play for India on their first-ever visit to Australia in 1947-48, but partition denied him the chance of playing against the Australian great Sir Donald Bradman. That must have been a devastating feeling but the future had greater things in store for the fast-bowler. 

When Pakistan cricket was in its infancy, it was easy to carve out a dystopian future for the side but Mahmood was one of the few players of that era who ensured that the Pakistan ship sailed as smoothly as possible through rough waters.  

Fazal brought whoops of delight to a country which was still finding its feet after partition. At a time when it was easy to expect Pakistan to be a lost ball in the weeds, the pacer had enough quality in his repertoire to puncture the aura of their highly regarded opponents.

In his pomp, Mahmood could coax magic out of deliveries with his lethal leg-cutters. Batsmen were left bamboozled when balls were pitched on the leg stump and ended up clipping the off stump. Those who witnessed it live, felt it was easier to believe that some supernatural force was at work.

His expertise at bowling leg-cutters led to comparisons with Sir Alec Bedser — who is considered the best exponent of the delivery. The former England bowler also developed a liking for Mahmood’s bowling prowess, stating: “If cricket were played as much in those days as now, Fazal would have taken a thousand wickets.”

His ability to persistently bowl an impeccable line and length had a lot to do with his upbringing. His father made him go through rigorous drills during his young days as a cricketer which included bowling at a coin placed in line with the off-stump. Mahmood had to hit the coin to pocket it — which he did so at an overwhelming rate — but in the larger perspective, these were the building blocks for his irresistible bowling spells of the future.

Mahmood’s 6-40 in an unofficial Test against MCC tourists in 1951-52 paved Pakistan’s path to being granted Test status.

When Pakistan outclassed India by an innings at Lucknow in October 1952 to register their first-ever win over their arch-rivals in Test cricket, Mahmood was the chief destroyer with the ball. He picked up five wickets in the first innings and seven in the second to end up with 12 wickets in the match.

His match figures of 12-94 against India at Lucknow still remain the best by a Pakistani bowler away from home.

Mahmood was in the thick of things once again on Pakistan’s first official away tour to England in 1954. In the lead up to the fourth and final Test at the Oval, Pakistan were down 1-0 in the series and the team’s miserable display on the field can be gauged by the nation's High Commissioner’s description of  Kardar's men — who was the captain of the side — as ‘rabbits’.

But just when Pakistan stared into the abyss, Mahmood was there to take the match by the scruff of the neck.

His sublime bowling earned Pakistan a valuable series-levelling win against the home side at The Oval. Bearing in mind that at one stage England were just 59 runs away from victory with eight wickets in hand, Mahmood’s six-wicket haul in the second innings ensured that Pakistan tasted victory on English soil for the first time.

Speaking about the match, Mahmood said: "Even though we were bowled out for 133, I did not think for a second we would lose."  Such was his confidence!

The world knew little about Mahmood before the tour but he returned home as the uncrowned prince of England on basis of his magisterial performance.

In the year following the Oval win, in 1955, Mahmood was named as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year. This was also the same year when he became the first Pakistan cricketer to appear in the advertisement for a commercial brand but by now you can easily imagine that there is a lot more to Mahmood that just being the first poster boy of Pakistan cricket.

But that was not the end of Mahmood’s illustrious bowling achievements, he came up with another match winning performance against Australia in 1956 — which secured Pakistan’s first-ever triumph over the Kangaroos in Test cricket. His 13 for 114 in Karachi was pivotal in registering a comprehensive victory by nine wickets. 

With Mahmood as the bowling spearhead, Pakistan established themselves as a side capable of overpowering any opposition in their early days as a Test playing nation.

In 24 Tests from October 1952 to March 1959 the fast bowler bagged 114 wickets at 22.54 each, ensuring that Pakistan were no pushovers despite being newbies in world cricket.

In his prime, Mahmood was an absolute nightmare for the batsman. His impact was such that batsman quickly found themselves trapped in a cul-de-sac due to his artistry with the ball.

92 out of a total of 139 career wickets were of batsmen who played in the top and middle-order (positions one-six) for opposing teams, which sheds light on the fact that his figures were not padded up by picking up lower-order wickets.

Mahmood dismissed Australian Neil Harvey — who was the highest run scorer during the playing days of the Pakistani fast bowler — five times in six innings. Even the likes of Len Hutton and the legendary Sir Garfield Sobers — who scored heavily against every cricket playing nation — were faced with a tough battle when facing up to Mahmood.

Once in an interview, he made his bowling philosophy look so simple which makes us wonder whether he was actually sarcastically mocking the clueless batsmen who faced him.

"I would challenge the batsman before getting him out," said the fast bowler with a proud smile in his interview with Rediff.com. "People used to bet on it whenever I bowled. I would vary the angle of my in-swingers by using the crease and then bowl an out-swinger from the return crease."

One criteria of gauging the effectiveness of a bowler is by looking at how he fared during the victories of his side and Mahmood’s performances were standout in this regard as he was instrumental to many Pakistan victories during his time.

Interestingly, during the span of time Mahmood played cricket, his bowling average was the lowest in matches won which speaks volumes about the quality he possessed.

Bowling average in matches won (at least five matches played for qualification)

      Player

Span

Mat

Inns

Wkts

Avg

Econ

5wI

10WM

FazalMahmood (PAK)

1952-1959

7

13

65

10.69

1.91

9

4

JC Laker (ENG)

1953-1958

13

26

78

11.52

1.55

6

2

FH Tyson (ENG)

1954-1959

8

15

49

12.12

2.15

3

1

LF Kline (AUS)

1957-1960

8

13

30

13.40

1.67

1

0

GAR Lock (ENG)

1953-1962

16

31

88

13.57

1.76

8

3

PJ Loader (ENG)

1957-1958

6

12

18

14.33

1.63

1

0

NAT Adcock (SA)

1953-1962

9

17

41

15.87

1.88

2

0

R Appleyard (ENG)

1954-1955

7

14

28

16.10

2.10

1

0

S Ramadhin (WI)

1953-1959

13

16

44

16.25

1.71

3

0

AK Davidson (AUS)

1957-1961

8

30

80

16.86

1.87

5

0

Summarised figures

 

Matches

Wickets

Average

5WI

Won

7

65

10.69

9

Lost

9

21

62.14

1

Drawn

18

53

27.05

3

He captained Pakistan in ten Tests against West Indies, Australia and India from 1958-59 until 1960-61, after Kardar had vacated the post.

When Mahmood was handed over the captaincy duties, he was nearing the autumn of his career and his bowling was losing its usual zip. He was blamed for favouring certain players and divisions grew within the side. This ultimately led to him being stripped off captaincy and also being dropped from the side — after all five Tests with India (in 1960-61) ended in a draw. During his tenure, Pakistan won two while also losing as many Test matches.

Fazal made one final comeback in the side during Pakistan’s tour of England in 1962. He was originally not picked for the tour but Pakistan team management flew him over, after the third Test, when they were left with few options due to an injury-racked squad. Despite knowing that he was way past his prime, Mahmood was up for the task once again.

“I had some strenuous net practice before leaving and again at Lord’s,” Mahmood told Brian Chapman of the Daily Mirror before the start of the fourth Test. “Can I work the track again? Well, I can only do my best.”

Unfortunately when he returned to the fray, Mahmood was a shadow of his former self. There was no fairytale ending to Mahmood’s career as he was able to pick up just five wickets at an average of 66 and strike rate of 136 in the final two Test matches of the tour.

He was no longer able to command the narrative with the ball in hand and his lethal bowling expertise seemed lost in the mist of time. But, on the back of his great achievements, that mattered little as he had already cemented his place as the original protagonist in the long list of great Pakistani fast bowlers.