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Imtiaz Ahmed © Getty Images

Imtiaz Ahmed, born January 5, 1928, passed away on the last day of 2016, a mere 4 days before his 89th birthday. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of one of the architects of Pakistan cricket’s success story in the 1950s.

Brabourne Stadium, 1951.

Les Ames’s Commonwealth XI was on a five-month tour of the Indian subcontinent. The match, their last of the tour, featured several big names, like Frank Worrell, Sonny Ramadhin, Derek Shackleton, Harold Gimblett, Laurie Fishlock, Bruce Dooland, and Ames himself.

The match, against an Indian Prime Minister’s XI, was their last of the tour. A strong bowling attack including Fazal Mahmood, Khan Mohammad, Shute Banerjee, and CS Nayudu toiled hard in the sticky heat of Bombay. Fishlock and Ames scored hundreds, three others got fifties, and Ames declared on 505 for 5 on the second morning.

Imtiaz Ahmed, then 23, had kept wickets tirelessly. He now walked out with captain Vijay Merchant. They added 53 before Imtiaz fell for 28. The team collapsed to 173. Ames asked them to bat again. And Imtiaz walked out again.

Defeat seemed inevitable, more so after Merchant was unfit. Banerjee opened instead. And Imtiaz batted. And batted. And batted. And batted…

Banerjee helped him add 60. Out came Rusi Modi, a batsman no less in stature than the Vijays of the 1940s, Merchant and Hazare. Imtiaz added 139 with him, and another 61 with the swashbuckling Mushtaq Ali. Stanley Jayasinghe, the Sri Lankan prodigy, played a breezy cameo, but there was still work to be done.

Imtiaz batted on. He had kept wickets for the entire Day One. When he took the big gloves off on Day Two, he had to pick up the bat. He fell in the second afternoon, but was back in a couple of hours, and had batted till stumps. And throughout Day Three. And he walked out again on Day Four, a youngster called Vijay Manjrekar in tow, for they had barely saved the innings defeat.

Imtiaz added 188 with Manjrekar before being hit on his face by Ray Dovey. He was 263 at this stage. The tourists, happy to see Imtiaz back, struck soon: Manjrekar was bowled by Dovey. And Imtiaz walked out again, much to their dismay.

The hosts lost two more wickets. A lead of 169 was still not safe, for the tourists had the firepower to chase it down. Merchant walked out at this stage to hold one end up as Imtiaz continued to play his shots. Merchant declared the innings closed as soon as Imtiaz reached his triple-hundred, in eight hours.

The tourists needed 213. Down went Imtiaz on his haunches as Khan Mohammad ran in. He kept through the 33-over innings as the match petered out to a draw.

Ames, well past his prime, had let Ken Grieves keep wickets in the match. However, it was only fitting that Ames, the first outstanding batsman among wicketkeepers, witnessed the arrival of Imtiaz on the big scene.

Fulcrum of the 50s

That was not the first time Imtiaz had shone when pushed to limelight. A regular feature for Northern India in Ranji Trophy, Imtiaz was picked to play for North Zone against the Australian Services XI. He was a mere 17.

The attack consisted of Keith Miller and Cec Pepper. North Zone were reeling at 106 for 6 when Imtiaz joined Abdul Hafeez Kardar, then 20; Kardar would later become Imtiaz’s first Test captain. The partnership amounted to 268, Kardar smashing 173 and Imtiaz an unbeaten 138.

The family moved to Pakistan after Partition, where Imtiaz played on till the mid-1960s. His 10,393 runs at 37.38 were numbers much, much ahead of his times, for he played his cricket in an era when wicketkeepers were not expected to score big. The 180 matches also gave him 404 dismissals.

41 of these matches were Tests. In fact, Imtiaz played the first 39 Tests in Pakistan history, leading them 4 times. In these, Imtiaz scored 2,079 runs at 29.28 in addition to 93 dismissals. While keeping wickets his 2,010 runs came at 30.45.

At the time of his retirement only Godfrey Evans, Ames (obviously), and John Waite had scored more among Test wicketkeepers; and with a 1,000-run cut-off, only Ames averaged more (albeit a staggering 43.40). Of Pakistan wicketkeepers, even to this date, only Kamran Akmal and Moin Khan have scored more, though Sarfraz Ahmed is closing in.

Such was the stature of Imtiaz, a man whose name is seldom taken in the same breath as Kardar, Fazal, and Hanif — the three Pakistan legends of the era — despite being no less a contributor than triumvirate.

Genial yet fiercely proud, Imtiaz hit the ball extremely hard. He loved opening batting. Unfortunately, a packed Pakistan top-order meant that he languished in the middle-, or even lower-middle order.

Imtiaz was a natural. His skills were honed in club cricket in Lahore, where strokeplay was encouraged. His wicketkeeping, more sound than spectacular, was mostly self-coached, and perfected as he kept wickets to both Fazal and Khan Mohammad in Islamia College.

He went to Alf Gover’s school in 1950, where he was mentored by Herbert Strudwick, and never looked back.

Many slices of history

Despite having a torrid start to his Test career (his first 4 innings included 3 ducks), young Imtiaz eased into Kardar’s team. The first major innings came in his fifth Test, at Calcutta: from 128 for 1 Pakistan collapsed to 257, but Imtiaz counterattacked, smashing 57.

He was a part of Pakistan’s first Test, at Delhi; of their first victory, at Lucknow; and their first win against England, at The Oval. In the last of these Tests Imtiaz walked out at 10 for 3 and smashed 4 fours in a quick 23. In an almost identical scenario, he stonewalled his way to a 77-minute 12 in the second innings. If the numbers do not sound impressive, I should mention here Pakistan’s third-innings total of 164 was the highest in the Test.

Fazal, of course, was the hero: he wrecked England with 6 for 53 and 6 for 46. However, 7 of Fazal’s 12 wickets were caught-behind. The crown jewel of the lot was the famous catch of Len Hutton in England’s first innings: Imtiaz kept his eye on the ball as it soared high over the slips; he ran behind the cordon, dived full-length, and pulled off a stunner that would have been exceptional in any era.

He scored his first Test hundred when he batted at No. 8 for the only time in his career. There was nothing new about the situation. New Zealand had got 341. Pakistan were 111 for 6. Imtiaz walked out and added 308 with Waqar Hasan (189), the first triple-hundred stand for Pakistan for any wicket. Imtiaz eventually fell for 209.

In the previous Test, during Pakistan’s first win over New Zealand, he had scored 64. The double-hundred resulted in another win. He would later feature in Pakistan’s first win over Australia as well as the first three wins against West Indies.

And when Hanif scored his famous 337, perhaps the greatest rearguard act of the 20th century, Imtiaz scored a brisk 91 and helped add 152 for the opening stand. At Sabina Park he took on Roy Gilchrist with ease, hitting 122 at the top. Then he kept wickets for over 200 overs as Garry Sobers (365*) and Conrad Hunte (260) took West Indies to 790 for 3. He conceded a mere 2 byes.

When West Indies came to Pakistan, Imtiaz batted with panache, hooking a fiery Wes Hall without fear, hooking him for four fours off consecutive balls. His astonishing shots left an impression on Majid Khan, arguably the most attractive strokeplayer Pakistan have produced.

Majid would later narrate his memories of watching Imtiaz bat in the nets. He would call him “the finest strokeplayer I have seen”, drawing comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag.

Majid was not the only one to be influenced by Imtiaz. Wasim Bari, later an outstanding wicketkeeper, would tell Oborne: “Imtiaz Ahmed was my role model … ‘Caught Imtiaz bowled Fazal’ became a cliché. I always thought if I played for Pakistan it would be as a wicketkeeper.”

As during his 209, at Sabina Park, too, he scored a second-innings duck, and became the first to follow a hundred with a duck in the same Test twice.

Four years after he quit, Imtiaz Ahmed was honoured with the Pride of Performance Award. He became a renowned coach, and worked as a Pakistan selector for 13 years, heading the panel from 1976 to 1978.