He was the one to lead Pakistan to Kerry Packer’s circus; he was behind the country’s maiden ‘away’ series win; he was influential in making the team ‘tough’ as well as serving the game after retirement. The name, Asif Iqbal Rizvi, came to my mind after Pakistan’s recent defeat in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi – the country urgently needs a player of his calibre.
Asif Iqbal remained the man of crisis for years, long before Javed Miandad dethroned him. The tour to Australia in 1976-77 was the prime example, when a courageous display of batting by Asif helped Pakistan match the Aussies. In the first Test at Adelaide, he took the score from 298/6 to 466, adding 81 runs for the last wicket. The contribution of the debutant Iqbal Qasim was 4, while Asif remained unbeaten on 152. In pursuit of 285, the home team abandoned the chase at 261/6, turning a certain victory into a draw. In the final Test, he scored 120, crafting useful partnerships with Miandad and debutant Haroon Rasheed, in a score of 360. Pakistan won the Test largely due to Imran Khan’s 12 wickets, but it would not have been possible without Asif.
The 70s cannot even be imagined without Asif Iqbal. In the early days of internet in Pakistan, I ‘met’ my maternal uncle from India after 15 years. Someone who was brought up in the 70s, he had, and still has, enviable knowledge of movies and sports. A discussion on cricket, via e-mails, came up and he admitted: “We wished we had an Asif in India, during the 70s.” My work brought me to ‘the Asif’ himself, 20 years later, and an interview took me further back in time.
It was in January 1961, when a 17-year old Asif took six wickets in a side match against visiting Pakistan. Asif lost his father before his first birthday, but it was his maternal uncle’s guidance that made him an excellent cricketer. His uncle, Ghulam Ahmed, was a Test cricketer and went on to captain India as well.
Asif migrated to Pakistan later that year. It was Eaglets tour to England in 1963 which saw him rise as an all-rounder. Tough situations usually got the best out of him. He got six wickets against Cambridge University, five against Kent and also smashed an unbeaten 74, which helped his side acquire victory. He collected 19 wickets on that tour.
He got lucky and was selected for the upcoming Test series against Australia. It was in Karachi, in October 53 years ago, when he made his debut with five others.
It was in 1967, again in England, when Asif mesmerized everyone with his skills. On phone from England, Asif recalled his first Test century at the Oval.
“It was the 3rd and final Test, we were heading towards a heavy defeat and the score was 65/8. The crowd was there due to a Bank Holiday. There was talk of an exhibition match in case of early finish. I got furious and decided to have a go.”
With Intikhab Alam, he put on a record 190 runs, top scoring with 146. The match was lost, but an innings defeat was averted. Of course, the crowd was enthralled till the end. Most of his centuries were scored when the team needed it. His favourite scoring grounds, apart from England, were in Australia and New Zealand.
Along with Hanif Muhammad, he was named ‘Cricketer of the Year’ by Wisden in 1968. He chose English county Kent over others, when he was offered to represent them as an overseas player. He played for them till 1982, helping them win the Championship after 57 years.
He was Intikhab’s deputy when Pakistan won their maiden ‘away’ series in 1972/73. It was the 2nd Test at Dunedin where Asif (175) put on 350 runs for the 4th wicket with Mushtaq Muhammad (201), helping his side win by an innings against New Zealand. Asif captained Pakistan in both Prudential World Cups, but West Indies were stronger and luckier than Pakistan on both occasions.
The 11 Tests played between October 1976 and April 1977 had ingredients of a thriller. There were ‘pay issues’ between board and players, rise of the greatest, clash of the fastest, and a match saving innings with a retirement. Asif Iqbal was connected to each of them. He was leading the players against the BCCP, which was not raising the Test match allowances; was at the other end when Miandad scored his century on debut; and scored three hundreds against the best quickies on Earth; two in Australia in his usual ‘rescue-mode’ and one in the fifth Test against West Indies which was his last Test, for some time.
“I decided to quit before Jamaica Test, as I had been approached by Tony Greig to join the World Series cricket. I put forward a condition, that the only thing that could bring me back would be a series between India and Pakistan, which was last held in 1961.” Asif went on to play 9 Tests against India.
India visited Pakistan in 1978/79, nearly after 23 years. Asif smashed a hundred in his comeback Test. In the second Test, he helped in chasing 126 runs in the final session, which became Pakistan’s first win at home. In the final Test at Karachi, he was promoted to open the innings with Majid Khan, when Pakistan needed 164 runs in over 100 minutes. Ironically, both players made their debut as ‘opening bowlers’ at the same ground, fifteen years earlier. Later, Asif and Javed, with innovative running and excellent placement of the ball, put on 97 runs in 9 overs.
When Pakistan paid a return visit next year, the results were reversed. “India, no doubt, played better than us, Imran’s injury proved crucial and our batsmen failed to perform this time around,” Asif reminisced about his only ‘Test’ tour as in-charge.
Just before the final Test, Asif led Pakistan against South Zone at Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium, Hyderabad Deccan. This was the same stadium where 19 years ago, he faced Pakistan as one of the members of the South Zone team, taking six wickets.
The final Test at Calcutta (now Kolkata) ended in a draw. Cruising well in pursuit of 265 on the fifth day, Asif got run-out in the last Test innings of his career. The dismissal put the brakes on the chase and the visitors had to settle for a draw.
“Going to India for my last Test was emotional, that too when I was given a standing ovation by the crowd. On my return, I was asked by Air Marshal (Retd.) Nur Khan, the new Cricket Board chief, to rethink about retirement. He even offered me a farewell, but I declined.”
Asif scored 3,575 Test runs at an average of 38.85, with 11 hundreds and 12 fifties.
He soon excelled as an administrator and was influential in setting up cricket in the United Arab Emirates. It started when a businessman from Sharjah, Abdul Rehman Bukhatir, wanted to financially help ‘Little Master’ Hanif Mohammad. He met Asif in London for this purpose and Cricketers’ Benefit Funds Series came into being.
3rd April 1981; a benefit match for Hanif Mohammad and Asif Iqbal was organized at the newly constructed Sharjah Stadium. Miandad XI took on Gavaskar XI, in front of 8,000 people, on a Friday. The beneficiaries were presented cheques of $50,000 each. CBFS went to reward a lot of cricketers, initially from the subcontinent, and later from around the world.
Pakistan will be playing their next Test in Dubai. Asif Iqbal was the one who brought cricket to the desert years ago. Pakistan have never lost a series in UAE, it’s about time that one of the players does an ‘Asif Iqbal’, and keep the team’s unbeaten run intact.