The Greatest Leg-Spinner of Them All?Martin Chandler |
Abdul Qadir was born in Lahore, capital of the Punjab and Pakistan’s second city in 1955, so he is just a few years older than me although, in the context of the second decade of the 21st century, we are as near to the same age as makes no difference.
My father worked for a major insurance company. My mother, in the manner of the times, stayed at home and looked after myself and my brother. We certainly weren’t wealthy, but I don’t recall ever being refused any reasonable request I made of my parents, and I certainly had all the kit I needed to pursue my burning desire, sadly unfulfilled, of being a half-decent cricketer.
Qadir of course became a very good cricketer indeed, and had he had my chances I can’t help but wonder whether he might have been even better. His father was a mullah, a learned man of Islam, who earned 120 rupees a month. What that means in real terms I do not know, but the fact that the family could not always afford bread suggests a considerable degree of poverty. At an age when my one concern in the mornings was working out how to maximise my time in bed before getting up to catch the school bus Qadir was getting up at 4am to travel to a market to buy vegetables that he would then take home to sell to neighbours before going to school. After school, depending on the time of year, I would look to get involved in a game of football or cricket for an hour or so before my evening meal, and very possibly the same again afterwards. Qadir on the other hand had more work to do, just to keep his family fed. Yet despite all that he still found time to play the game, even though for some time he had to play whilst wearing his shalma kameez. After he was finally able to buy his first flannels he felt the need to keep their existence from his family secret for fear he might be considered extravagant.
In his earliest days Qadir was a fast bowler and batsman. He eventually stopped bowling fast, finding in the nets that, albeit for different reasons, wrist spin could be equally frightening for batsmen. Perhaps that is why one of the most common observations made about him is that he never lost a pace bowlers hostility. As time wore on he also slipped down the batting order, although he always remained capable of playing a useful cameo. Twice he reached three figures, once in only his second First Class match, and then again a decade later, from number ten in the order, on tour in India.
At a time when leg spin was right out of fashion, everywhere but on the sub-continent, Pakistan had been playing Intikhab Alam as a specialist, albeit one who could score useful runs, for more than 15 years. Although Mushtaq Mohammad made his Test debut as a batsman at the same time as Intikhab he eventually became a true all-rounder and a fine leg-spinner. So in the 1960s and early 1970s Pakistan generally fielded two leggies, and another batsman, the late Wasim Raja, while not in the same league as the other two, was a servicable third choice who ended up with more than 50 Test wickets.
Intikhab retired from international cricket at the close of the 1976/77 season and, with Mushtaq signing up for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, Qadir was in the right place at the right time when England arrived in Pakistan for the 1977/78 series. His Test debut was a travesty of a game in which Mudassar Nazar recorded what remains the slowest Test century ever scored, and was followed by an even more tedious response from England. Qadir’s and that series’ second Test was, thankfully, very different and Qadir established the mastery over England that he seldom lost his grip on. The visitors got to 123-1 before Qadir changed ends and, cleverly exploiting the rough created by the follow through of Bob Willis, immediately castled Brian Rose with a similar delivery to that with which Shane Warne announced himself to England 15 years later. By the time England had slipped to 157-9 Qadir had 6-67 but, sadly for Pakistan, Geoffrey Boycott held firm in both innings, Wasim Bari timed his declaration badly, and England comfortably batted out the last day.
For some time it seemed that that performance might be a flash in the pan. Qadir came to England in 1979 but the cold and wet first half of that summer did not suit him and, troubled by a shoulder injury as well, he got nowhere near the Test side. He did play in India in Pakistan’s next series, but failed dismally, and although he was a little more effective at home against West Indies the following winter by 1981/82 he was not in the squad that went to Australia, nor was he selected for the home series against Sri Lanka. When Imran Khan bumped into Qadir at the Lahore nets late in the domestic season he confided in the Pakistan captain that he was considering leaving the game altogether.
Imran’s view was that Qadir was a significantly better bowler than either Intikhab or Mushtaq, and he knew from his years in England that both of them had troubled the majority of English batsmen, so he fought his corner in the selection meetings and got his way. This time Qadir saw the second half of a warm English summer and against the counties he was devastating, taking his wickets at around 16 runs each. He was less effective in the three Tests, his ten wickets costing 40 runs apiece, but the crowds loved him and, without him, Pakistan wouldn’t have won the second Test, their first Test victory in England since their first series, way back in 1954.
What was it that so charmed the English crowds and so baffled the country’s batsmen? The mere fact that Qadir was a wrist spinner was part of it, but he was a particularly fascinating one too. His run-up was spellbinding. He would walk back to his mark, well wide of the wicket, and pause momentarily. Then he took a half step back before beginning an angled walk in, at the same time spinning the ball from right hand to left. Somewhere in those four steps the ball found its way back into his right hand, and then four more paces, this time bouncing strides, took him up to the wicket and the ball was delivered. In fact so much did that approach remind me of a high jumper that it always seemed to me that it suggested that the end result would be a Fosbury flop rather than a leg break or a googly.
And there was a huge amount of speculation about exactly what Qadir did bowl. Every pundit, most of whom had very little experience of leg spin, wrote knowledgably in newspapers and magazines. There was a consensus that he bowled the usual deliveries, leg break, googly, flipper and top-spinner, but while it was agreed there was another one commentators weren’t too sure what to call it. Some described a googly that looked as if it was going to be a top-spinner, and others a top-spinner disguised as a googly. Others still noted a googly where Qadir’s shoulder dipped, the classic giveaway, and just as they got used to that, another googly where the change of action was imperceptible. Should a batsman looked at Qadir’s hand for the clue? Should he watch the revolutions on the ball? Or should he just play it on length? Different people tried different combinations but none seemed entirely sure. There were only two batsmen all summer who seemed to play him with real confidence those being firstly, to no-one’s surprise, Vivian Richards, and secondly, rather more unexpectedly, Hampshire’s Mark Nicholas.
There were some in Pakistan who, just on the basis of what appeared to be a modest record in the 1982 Tests, took the view that Qadir still wasn’t good enough, but the doubters were silenced during the 3-0 victory that Pakistan enjoyed over the visiting Australians in 1982/83 when he took 22 wickets at 25.54. After that he was a certain starter under Imran, although he was always much more effective at home than abroad.
After Imran retired, following the 1987 tour of England, Qadir’s relationship with his immediate successor, Javed Miandad, was less solid, and Miandad had a tendency to prefer the orthodox left arm spin of Iqbal Qasim if only one spinner was to play. That said Qadir’s best ever series came under Miandad’s captaincy when, in the three Tests of the 1987/88 series against England, he took 30 wickets at 14.54. This was the setting for the infamous spat between England skipper Mike Gatting and umpire Shakoor Rana, and England were deeply unhappy about the umpiring throughout. Qadir was one of the most vociferous appellants in the game, and he did get as many as eleven lbw decisions in his favour. That number of successful appeals does suggest England had some cause for concern, but that does not alter the fact that the English batsmen could not read Qadir, and he also bowled eight of them, so he was undoubtedly aiming for the stumps.
There will always be mutterings about the quality of the home umpires that Qadir came up against, and his distinctly lop-sided howe/away record* will be brought in to question as a consequence. There is likely to be some merit in that, although in fairness to Qadir it should be pointed out as well that as far as he was concerned he generally got a poor deal from the away umpires who, like the batsmen, had no idea where the ball was going to go so gave the man at the crease the benefit of the doubt. So there were frustrations along the way for Qadir not helped by the strident appeals that created an impression of petulance, and to add to that twice there were problems on tour.
In 1984/85 in New Zealand Qadir was sent home, the reason given being that he had not been trying in the field in a match against Wellington, and had then refused to apologise. Imran was not on that tour, and had he been it seems highly improbable the circumstances would have arisen, but his view was that the real reason behind the management taking the decision that they did was Qadir’s poor form (his two wickets in the first two Tests had cost hin 212 runs). The second occasion was in Bridgetown in 1988 when Qadir assaulted a spectator who had been baiting him throughout a day when he felt strongly the umpires had been against him. He was not sent home that time, but the PCB did have to pay some compensation to the spectator concerned.
Those two incidents apart there were other examples of Qadir being none too easy to handle. His very public criticism of team management during the 1990/91 home series against New Zealand was one. Others included a failure to attend a National Camp in 1984 that cost him a Test cap, and his refusal to tour India twelve months previously when the PCB had declined his request for a loan to enable him to build a house. But these episodes were far outweighed in the eyes of the vast majority of Pakistan’s cricket fans by more positive attributes. His performances against England were always very special, as was his contribution to the series Pakistan fought out with the then still mighty West Indians in 1986/87. In the first Test the crowd at the Iqbal Stadium in Faisalabad were on the edge of their seats as, after setting off towards a target of 240, Qadir’s 6-16 was the major factor in the remarkable collapse to 53 all out of one of the strongest batting line-ups that the game has seen. West Indies, as great champions do, recovered to win the next Test and the decider was drawn. Had Qadir not chosen to play despite a fractured little finger in his left hand, and then gone on to bowl 75 overs and take seven wickets, it certainly would not have been.
It was to be more than five years after he made his Test debut that Qadir first appeared in an ODI, during the 1983 World Cup in England. Spinners generally, and wrist spinners in particular, were not considered in those days to be important components of ODI teams, but Qadir was a revelation. He won the match award twice and conceded his runs at less than four an over. Only in the two matches against England, ironically enough, did he look relatively ineffective. He went on to play in more than 100 ODIs and while his economy rate did end up over four, it was only fractionally so.
It is now more than 20 years since Qadir bowled in international cricket and he therefore has his place in history – but how good a leg spinner was he? In terms of wickets taken his total of 236 has been exceeded by Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Anil Kumble, Richie Benaud and Shane Warne, all at a better average than Qadir’s 32.80. Other leading exponents of the art who can undercut the cost of his wickets are Fergie Gupte, Clarrie Grimmett, Tiger O’Reilly and Stuart MacGill. It is probably fair to say that he suffered more than others, particularly the Australians, from poor support in the field, and he played on a number occasions when carrying injuries. His complaints about away umpires probably have some merit too, although cynics will doubtless suggest that is at least offset by the reception that he got from his own.
Alan Lamb, a fine player of fast bowling but not therefore, as some suggest, a poor player of spin, spoke for most of his generation when he wrote; In my time Abdul Qadir was the best. He mesmerised batsmen and I reckon I was doing well if I read 40% of his deliveries. He had so many variations, including two googlies, and he was easily the most aggressive spinner I played against. His successor in the Pakistan side, Mushtaq Ahmed, said of his mentor He was my role model when I started playing cricket …. I really admired his enthusiasm and tried to copy every aspect of his action and his game.
But the real issue is how does he rate against Shane Warne? One top-class international batsman wrote Qadir was so good, I think he was even better than Shane Warne. I have never played against Warne but have observed him closely. There is no doubt he is one of the game’s great leg-spin bowlers, but unlike Qadir, he has had the advantage of bowling against relatively weak opposition. The batsman in question is Javed Miandad, so hardly independent, but then as noted by no means Qadir’s greatest admirer.
Richie Benaud rated Qadir highly, mentioning particularly that he never for an instant stopped attacking the batsman, but he did consider him as inferior to Warne and O’Reilly. There is however one man, untainted by nationalistic considerations and who, unusually given that the two men’s careers did not overlap, saw a great deal of both Qadir and Warne from the perfect position, and that is Barnsley’s favourite son, former international umpire Harold “Dickie” Bird, whose considered opinion, expressed in 1997 about the best spinner he had seen was Maybe he (Qadir) did not turn the ball as much as Warne, and maybe he was not quite so devastating on a turner as Underwood, but he finally got my vote because his variation was unmatchable, always with an impeccable line and length, and masterly control. Warnie of course continued to torment batsmen the world over for a decade after those words were written, and we might find that in Dickie’s forthcoming 80th birthday autobiography that he now takes a different view, but his words are food for thought nonetheless.