October 16, 2007

Farewell, Inzi and thanks for the memories

By H Natarajan

I have had the privilege of meeting Inzamam-ul-Haq a few times, away from the madding crowd, in the quiet ambience of his hotel room. And on every occasion I left the room with the feeling of having met a simple, soft-spoken and tranquil man with no apparent starry traits.

That was in the privacy of his temporary abode. Even in front of the all-pervasive television cameras, one cannot recall him growling like Andre Nel or Sreesanth or be irritatingly cheeky like Javed Miandad or Tony Greig. Yet, quite staggeringly, Inzi has been in the midst of some of the biggest controversies in the game.

The first big mess was in 1997 when he was so infuriated by a taunting spectator that he barged into the crowd with a bat in hand to teach his tormentor a lesson. That show of temper got him in trouble with the police.

More recently, he got into an even bigger mess when leading in a Test against England. He was accused of ball tampering – a charge that was subsequently cleared - by umpire Darrell Hair. That led to Pakistan infamously forfeiting the match in protest – an act unprecedented in Test history for which Inzi copped a four-ODI ban “for bringing the game into disrepute”.

Inzamam was still holding the reins when Pakistan made an ignominious first round exit from the World Cup, following which came the news of coach Bob Woolmer’s death in mysterious and suspicious circumstances. Inzamam’s cup of misery was overflowing. Given that Pakistanis – like Indians – are emotional in the extremes, it came as no surprise to find a three-man commission set up by the Pakistan Cricket Board blaming Inzamam for the team’s surprise first-round exit. After taking statements from players, former players and officials, the panel lampooned Inzi by dubbing him as a "dictator".

Whatever may be the findings of the panel and opinions of individuals, the fact remains that Inzamam remained in the hot seat the longest since Imran Khan – widely acknowledged as Pakistan’s best captain ever and one of the best in the game’s history. Pakistan cricket has a tainted history of getting embroiled by petty politics, parochialism and fierce infighting within the team. Captains have led their team out on the field knowing fully well that there are men following him with knives behind their backs, so to say. It’s a tribute to Inzamam that he survived that long as a leader.

Whatever carping critics may say, stats speak in his favour. Inzamam shaped the Pakistan side into a powerful unit and took it 2nd place in the ICC Test Rankings and 3rd place in the ICC ODI Rankings before he met his Waterloo in the World Cup.

But even the virulent of Inzamam’s detractors cannot ever deny that he has been one of the greatest batsmen in contemporary cricket. Imran Khan hailed him as the best batsmen in the world against pace while Sanjay Manjrekar rated him as the finest to combat pressure.

To the uninitiated, he may seem a misfit at the crease – like a sumo on salsa floor. But behind the seemingly indolent mass lies a brilliant athlete. Anybody who has seen him step out on light feet to hoist high and long for sixes will testify that the slouthful looks are misleading and deceptive. Like Arjuna Ranatunga, he may seem a minimalist in movement, but like the Sri Lankan Inzamam was not a misfit in a format otherwise restricted to the young and fit.

Inzamam served notice of his huge talent in the 1992 World Cup with a match-winning 60 from only 37 balls against New Zealand in the semis. It’s an innings that is still remembered by those who were privileged to see. But the greatest innings of his international career was his innings of 329 - the second-highest Test score by a Pakistani - against New Zealand in Lahore in 2001-02. It’s not easy to carry so much excess baggage and last long enough to score such a monumental knock. But Inzamam proved that he is equal to the most grueling physical demands with that one innings. If there is further confirmation needed one needs to look at his longevity – 498 appearances spanning 16 long years. And with a 50-plus average in Tests and almost 40 in ODIs, he has been a top performer. Most importantly, he has been a match-winner with 17 of his 25 Test hundreds powering Pakistan to victory.

If there is anything that he would regret about in his retirement, it could be that he could not recapture that early magic in World Cup matches and the fact that he did not do justice to his talent as an accomplished player of pace against teams with quality fast bowlers like Australia and South Africa. His averaged just 23 in World Cups and failed to score a single hundred. And in Tests, he managed a total of just one century when playing against Australia and South Africa at averages that were far from flattering. That will certainly take away some gloss when compared to contemporary batting greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting.

For the cynics, Inzi may be “aloo”, but for me he is a “baloo” (bear) - a six feet, three-inch lovable teddy bear who brought so much joy with his brilliant batting.

Farewell, Inzi.

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