Saeed Anwar: The destroyer from Pakistan with silken grace

Saeed Anwar © Getty Images

Saeed Anwar, born September 6, 1968, was one of the greatest opening batsmen produced by Pakistan, who could destroy bowlers with silken grace. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the career of the southpaw who held the record for the highest score in One Day Internationals for 13 years.

Fruits of revolution

Iran, 1977. The oil boom had already created a huge chasm between the rich and the poor. The growing discontent was fanned by the Shah’s family flaunting their immense wealth while extreme austerity measures were being imposed all around to fight inflation.

Additionally, when son Mostafa died of a heart attack, Ayatollah Khomeini was back in the limelight, with the number of his supporters growing to several thousands. The revolution was imminent and serious trouble was already brewing in the country. It was not the best time to be one of the tens of thousands of skilled foreign workers in the country.

Hence, an engineer who had moved to Tehran from his native Karachi decided to leave the land for good.He migrated again, this time to Saudi Arabia. More importantly for the cricketing world, his nine-year-old son was sent back to Karachi and started living there with his grandparents. Had it not been for the Iranian conflict, Saeed Anwar would have grown up without knowing much about the noble game, kicking footballs in the cricket-agnostic Iran.

Fine-tuned in the garage

It was not that he was not initiated into cricket, though. According to Anwar himself, his father had been a gifted club cricketer in the brief moments he could get away from his job. Anwar senior had once straight-driven a ball that had cleared almost two grounds. The explosive power of Anwar’s strokes that would terrorise bowlers around the world might have been derived from his genes.

Also, during the days that he grew up, Pakistan boasted two of the world’s leading sporting heroes in the form of Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan. Anwar’s ball sense, hitting ability and reflexes were honed by a daily dose of squash. There were serious games of table-tennis as well.

Cricket too entered his routine and batting was practised in the garage of his Karachi home. His brother, Javed Anwar, was born in the same year of Saeed’s return to Karachi. Hence, although he later became an Under-19 cricketer for Pakistan, he was not old enough to bowl to his older brother as he developed his strokes. The role of bowling was taken up by a friend who lived nearby and was a month younger than Anwar. Often this friend used a tennis ball covered with tape, and the confined quarters of the garage necessitated the balls being released from a distance of fourteen yards after run-up. This training stood in excellent stead as Anwar faced faster bowlers in later life.

It is not that Anwar only batted during those garage sessions. He took turns to send down left-arm spinners, developing enough tweaking skills to start club cricket for Malir Gymkhana as a bowler. And his friend turned out to be a pretty useful cricketer himself, but his roles did not include bowling at all. Rashid Latif was a fine wicketkeeper and a decent batsman who played 37 Tests for Pakistan.

Two sixes and two fours

It was after progressing to NED University in Karachi from the Malir Cantonment College that Anwar played for Malir Gymkhana for the first time, as a spinner and a No 9 batsman. However, with each match his obvious ability pushed him up the order. The balls came straight and quick on the matting laid on cement wickets, and left-handed Anwar struck the balls hard and frequently. By the time he had graduated in computer systems engineering, he had progressed to the middle order and was thinking seriously of making a career out of cricket. But for the sport, he would probably have joined his many classmates who travelled to United States for their Masters degrees. But Anwar chose cricket over networking and systems analysis.

It was in late 1988 that Anwar got his break. Having already played two seasons of First-Class cricket without spectacular success, it was perhaps the last year that he had given himself to pursue serious success in the sporting world. The opening match was for North West Frontier Province Governor’s XI against the visiting Australians. Anwar walked in at No 5, with the score on 75 for three in response to 472, and nonchalantly flayed a Craig McDermott led attack for 127 from 156 balls.

This was followed by a brief but very important innings in the Wills Cup in late 1988, in which he represented United Bank Limited. The run up to the final was ordinary, and his team, captained by Sikander Bakht and including Inzamam-ul-Haq, faced a strong Pakistan International Airlines in the title-round. The opponents were led by Shoaib Mohammad and boasted cricketers like Rizwan-uz-Zaman, Aamer Malik, Asif Mujtaba, Anil Dalpat and the star attraction Wasim Akram.

PIA batted first and were all out for 228 in their 45 overs. Anwar came in at the fall of the third wicket, which incidentally was one of the innumerable Inzamam run-outs. The score was 138 and the asking rate was steep and soon it climbed over12 runs an over. To make matters worse, running in with the ball was Akram.

And in that televised match, the nation saw the young left-handed batsman launch the phenomenally fast and skilled Akram for two straight sixes and follow it up with two more boundaries. He scored just 36 that day, and the match ended in a tie — UBL declared winners because of losing less wickets. But, Saeed Anwar’s stroke making ability became known all over the country.

Perhaps it was opportune that during his cameo doing duties in the commentary box was the renowned Iftikhar Ahmed. It is rumoured that the respected broadcaster spoke highly of the talented youngster to his good friend Imran Khan. Anwar was soon under the direct mentorship of the Pakistan captain.

ODI debut

Not long after that, he had made it into the Pakistan side that toured Australia and New Zealand later that season. He played a few tour matches and, on the first day of 1989, made his debut in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) against the West Indies in Perth. He batted at one drop and was dismissed by Malcolm Marshall for three. After two more ordinary matches, tried out as opener in both, he was sent home because Pakistan needed an opening batsman for the tour.

He forced his way back into reckoning with 221 against Multan and 117 not out against Lahore City for Karachi Whites just before the historic Indian tour of 1989. He was chosen for the ODIs against the Indians and was soon in Australia once again, playing in a three-nation tournament. Soon, he scored his first hundred against Sri Lanka at Adelaide with some scintillating hitting, adding 202 with Rameez Raja for the first wicket. He was still considered a makeshift opener, and Wisden noted, “Anwar, normally a middle-order batsman, hit six sixes and eight fours in his 126 (99 balls).” However, after this knock, he seldom batted anywhere but at the very top. And by the time the home season started in 1990, he was a seasoned one-day opener, hitting 101 at Lahore against New Zealand.

Saeed Anwar: The destroyer from Pakistan with silken grace

After a difficult induction into Test cricket, it was in the summer of 1996 in England that Anwar demonstrated that he was a class act in every sense © Getty Images

The long way to a Test spot

His big scores in ODIs and First-Class cricket opened the doors of the Test world as well, but once again his induction was a disaster. Opening the innings at Faisalabad against West Indies, he lasted five balls against Curtly Ambrose in the first innings and three against Bishop in the second.  It would be three years before he would play a Test again and open his account in the longer version of the game.

The Faisalabad Test was also the only one he managed to play under his mentor Imran Khan. In the curious 55-Test career, he would play under as many as eight captains, apart from leading seven Tests himself. In ODIs, he led in 11 matches and played under 10 other skippers. It was a generation of great Pakistan cricketers going hand in hand with the most uncouth political plots hatched around the selection tables.
Loss of form and a mystery illness prevented Anwar from taking part in Pakistan’s World Cup triumph at Australia in 1992. Indeed, from December 1990 to February 1993, he played only five ODIs, failing to reach double figures even once. But, he returned roaring back into the side with 55 and 110 against Sri Lanka in successive games in Sharjah. He never looked back as a limited-overs cricketer.

However, the ODI batsman label had by now been firmly attached to his name. It required something special to stake his claim on bigger things. Anwar chose to do this through the platform provided to him. He returned to Sharjah in late October, 1993, and hammered three hundreds in four days — 107 against Sri Lanka on October 30, followed by 131 against West Indies on November 1, and 111 against Sri Lanka on November 2.

Test recognition came in the same season, when he walked out to open with Aamer Sohail in Auckland in February 1994. His comeback Test produced a 15-ball 16 and a struggling seven in a five-wicket win. However, in the second Test at Wellington, he scored 169 runs full of potential and panache. “It was the most thrilling time of my life. I was really happy to have proved all those people wrong,” he said later.
A quick 69 came in the final Test at Christchurch. And when the team travelled to Sri Lanka in August, he hit 94 and 136 at P Saravanamattu Statdium in another Pakistan win. Both the innings were patient, restrained affairs, and underlined his worth as a Test batsman.

The great phase

It was in the summer of 1996 in England that Anwar demonstrated that he was a class act in every sense, with the ability to adapt, adjust and thereby outmanoeuvre opponents. He started with 74 and 88 in the first Test at Lord’s. The Englishmen thought hard and started bowling wide of the off-stump, crowding the gully area with fielders. On an uneven Headingley pitch, he fell to the ploy. But, in the third and final Test at The Oval, he moved his front foot and head across, his wrists shifted with the ball, extending further if it angled away, and ball after ball were dispatched to the square boundary. He batted six and a quarter hours for 176 before Akram and Mushtaq Ahmed bowled Pakistan to a huge win.

In the ODI series that followed, Anwar effortlessly pierced the 6-3 field and scored 57, 33 and 61, all in quick time. The first innings was the very best of the lot, his timing ethereal even on a slow Old Trafford wicket where Sohail struggled his way to a painstaking 47.

The tour was more commendable because it had come in the wake of a second mystery illness — no one quite sure whether malaria or typhoid — that struck him immediately after the personally successful World Cup campaign in the subcontinent. Anwar was helped by his marriage to cousin Lubna immediately after the World Cup. His wife, a doctor, nursed him through the period of sickness.

When Pakistan returned home to take on New Zealand, Akram suffered a shoulder injury and missed the series. Anwar was appointed the captain for the first time in his career. Once again, his initiation was disastrous, with scores of eight and a duck in a 44-run defeat. However, in the next Test at Rawalpindi he struck 149 in an innings win.

The years 1996 and 1997 perhaps saw the best of Saeed Anwar the ODI master. Back to back centuries came against New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Sharjah, within two days of each other. And the crescendo of tall scores was reached on a blistering hot day at Chennai in May, 1997.Battling against cramps and aided by a runner from the 18th over, Anwar plundered the Indian bowling to score 194, beating the 13-year-old world record 189 score of Viv Richards, and minting a new feat which would stand for another 13 years before being overtaken by Sachin Tendulkar.

In the Test scene, however, he had a disastrous series against South Africa at home as captain and batsman. The Proteas won the first Test and held on to the lead, and Anwar struggled to score 40 at 8.00.

With the reins passing on to his opening partner Sohail, Anwar returned to runs and scored a superb 118 against Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers at Durban in a tense 29-run win against South Africa. He did not always have the best time with the bat in the Rainbow Nation, but this century should count as one of his most satisfying. Two more centuries followed back home against Australia. By the time Pakistan visited India in 1998-99 after a gap of a dozen years, he was acknowledged as one of the best opening batsmen of the world.

Saeed Anwar: The destroyer from Pakistan with silken grace

Saeed Anwar developed into one of the most dangerous ODI batsmen in the world © Getty Images

Carrying his bat

Before embarking on the tour, Anwar proclaimed his wish of scoring a triple hundred in Tests. But, some high quality pace bowling with the new ball restricted him to 24, seven, one and 69 in the four innings of a squared series. Especially Venkatesh Prasad troubled him a lot with his deceptive swing and cut.

When the first Test of the inaugural Asian Test Championships was held on a grassy track of Eden Gardens, Prasad got him for a duck in the fourth over as Pakistan slumped to 26 for six. They recovered to 185, and some express pace from Shoaib Akhtar restricted the Indian lead to just 38. Anwar came out to play his final innings of the tour with the match poised on a knife’s edge. It was probably the best he ever batted in his life. Javagal Srinath produced one of the best performances by a pace bowler in India, capturing 8 for 86, skittling the last 7 wickets for 54. Only four batsmen reached double figures. Anwar carried his bat, batting seven-and-a-half hours for an unbeaten 188, his highest Test score, made out of a total of 316, with 23 boundaries and a six. Pakistan won by 46 runs.

There were other hundreds to follow, a high-class 119 at Brisbane against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in 1999, a 123 against Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan at Galle in 2000. There was a topsy-turvy World Cup 1999, with a string of ordinary scores followed by hundreds against Zimbabwe in the Super Six stage and another against New Zealand in the semi-final.Yet, the Eden hundred in Tests and the Chennai effort in ODIs remain the most memorable.

Final days

His final stint as captain ended in another couple of defeats against Sri Lanka at home. Following this he failed miserably as a batsman in England during the summer of 2001.

There was a hundred in Multan against Bangladesh in the second edition of the Asian Test Championships. On the final afternoon of that victorious Test, Anwar tearfully announced that his three-year-old daughter Bismah had passed away. It changed his life forever. The devastation could be countered only by seeking solace in religion. Anwar delved deep into the deepest teachings of Islam.

He never played another Test match after missing the final of the Asian Test Championships due to an injured hand. He also missed most of 2002 after breaking his wrist in Sharjah. By then, he had turned up in the stadium at Sharjah with a long, thick beard of a Muslim cleric. He had even been stopped by security guards who had failed to recognise the man who had scored over 2,000 runs in that ground.

By then, he was more into religious activities and although his fitness and skills remained at the highest peak, Anwar had discovered other important facets of this life and whatever lay beyond. He delivered sermons in mosques, and analysed life with Tablighi Jamaat. He read the Quran, which had been shelved all these years in favour of the life of Don Bradman.

The 2003 World Cup was Anwar’s last international assignment. He once again finished on the top of the list of run getters for Pakistan. He hit a masterly 101 at Centurion against the arch-rivals India, but Pakistan lost the match to Tendulkar’s superlative 98. Anwar played just one more match, the last World Cup encounter against Zimbabwe which was rained off. He announced his retirement in August 2003 after he had been dropped for a forthcoming ODI tournament in Sharjah.

Final analysis

Anwar finished with 4,052 runs in 55 Tests at 45.52 with 11 hundreds. In ODIs he amassed 8,824 from 247 matches at 39.21 with 20 centuries. He will forever be remembered as one of the greatest Pakistan openers alongside Hanif Mohammad and, perhaps equally importantly, the most pleasing to watch since Majid Khan.

Apart from his vocation of spreading the word of religion, Anwar has voiced his willingness to act as the batting consultant for the Pakistan cricket. In 2010 he was offered the role of chief selector but he declined.

At the crease, Anwar was a joy to behold, with exquisite timing and free flowing strokes. The bat would swing fully from back-lift to follow-through, resulting in movements eloquent with visual poetry. His wrists could propel the ball between closely placed fielders, threading them with élan and perfection.

The drives square of the wicket and flicks off his pads were a pure delight, mostly executed with the sublime gift of hand-eye coordination. Strokes would often be made away from the body, but simmering talent counterbalanced the associated risk. Against the spinner, he would get down to the pitch of the ball on nimble twinkle-toes and proceed to work or strike it away according to his fancies. Throughout all this, his manner would remain serene and his grace silken.

And in the one day game, many a bowler dreaded the flick off the hip,played with a dismissive whip of the wrist, which often landed well beyond the square-leg or mid-wicket fence.

Yet, for all his batting talent, he was hardly the natural sportsman. Apart from the gift of stroke-play, he could struggle in the rest of his roles. Never brilliant in the field, he sometimes had to be hidden in obscure corners. The crown of captaincy sat rather uncomfortably on his head. He was meant to bat, and people who flocked to the grounds to watch him do so agreed wholeheartedly.

To the opposition bowlers he could be demoralising, to the fans of his opponents he brought about a feeling of helpless acceptance. When Saeed Anwar was in full flow, it was not unusual for the most partisan of supporters to suddenly undergo a complete transformation. The very ones who sat rooting for the fielding side would suddenly abandon all hope, sit back and soak in the simple pleasure of watching artistry in its act of destruction.

In Photos: Cricketing career of Saeed Anwar

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at