Fazal Mahmood: Predecessor to Imran Khan, Wasim Akram in the great line of Pakistan pacer
Fazal Mahmood leading the Pakistan team into the pavilion after helping his team beat England in the Oval Test in August 1954 © Getty Images

By Navneet Mundhra

Fazal Mahmood, the first great fast bowler from Pakistan, was a man of myriad hues. On the field, he tormented the best of batsmen of his generation with his deadly leg-cutters and nagging accuracy; off the field, he was the veritable debonair, the poster boy of Brylcreem, known for his amicable demeanour and razor-sharp wisecracks. He was the first superstar of Pakistan cricket and was instrumental in Pakistan’s phenomenal success in 1950s, their first decade of international cricket. Mahmood was the chief architect of Pakistan’s first Test victories over India, England, Australia and West Indies.

Fazal started his first-class career at the age of 17, representing Northern India. His first first-class match was against the Southern Punjab. His talents soon earned him laurels and he was considered for the India’s tour to England in 1946-47. Fazal was selected in Indian squad to tour Australia in 1947-48, but he declined the offer keeping in mind the imminent origin of Pakistan.

Fazal sliced through the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) side touring Pakistan in 1951-52, taking six wickets in the first innings of the third unofficial Test at Karachi. Pakistan won the match by four wickets. It was this victory against the MCC side was instrumental in Pakistan getting Test status.

When Pakistan visited India in 1952-53 for their first-ever Test series, they were thrashed by an innings and 70 runs in the first Test at Delhi. But, Fazal displayed his genius in the second Test and snaffled 12 scalps for 94 runs as Pakistan romped home by an innings and 43 runs, their first Test victory ever.

Fazal’s finest hour came against England in the fourth and final Test of the series at the Oval in 1954-55. Rain saved Pakistan in the first Test at Lord’s and third Test at Manchester, Old Trafford, but were routed in the second Test at Nottingham, Trent Bridge by an innings and 129 runs. The English press was derisive of Pakistan’s performance. The tide turned in Pakistan’s favour at The Oval. After being dismissed for 133 in their first innings, Pakistan skittled England out for 130 runs. Fazal snared six wickets for 53 runs, including the prized wickets of Len Hutton and Denis Compton, who thumped 278 against them in the second Test. In their second innings, Pakistan were 82 for eight at one stage, but Wazir Mohammad and Zulfiqar Ahmed added 58 runs for the ninth wicket as Pakistan finished with 164 runs.

England was coasting at one stage -109 for two, chasing 168 runs. But Peter May’s dismissal triggered a stunning collapse. Fazal made the most of the conducive atmosphere and wreaked havoc. England were bowled out for 143 runs and Pakistan won by 24 runs. Fazal ended up with match-figures of 12 for 99. The next day, a famous English daily gave the headline, ‘England Fazalled out’.

Imtiaz Ahmed, Pakistan’s wicket-keeper in the Oval Test, rates his catch of Hutton in the second innings off Fazal as the best catch he had taken. He said, it was a challenge to keep wickets against Fazal as he would move the ball at devilish proportions. Hutton said he could never understand in his life what Fazal did that day. Fazal’s sparkling performance in the English Summer earned him the honour of first Pakistani cricketer to be selected among the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1955. In 16 first-class matches he played during the 1954-55 English Summer, he snapped up 77 wickets at the bowling average of 17.53, and his 20 Test wickets in four Test matches were more than double the next best for Pakistan.


‘Alec Bedser of Pakistan’

He was christened by the English media as ‘The Alec Bedser of Pakistan’ as he bore striking resemblance with the great England fast bowlers in terms of bowling style and finesse. Both were the finest exponents of leg-cutter, and were equipped with the unflagging stamina to bowl long spells. It was believed that their leg-cutters spun more than the leg-spin of the tweakers. The great Australian leg-spinner, Richie Benaud, once said, Fazal’s leg-cutters spun more than his leg-spinners.

When Australia visited Pakistan for the one-off Test in 1956-57, Pakistan pummelled them by nine wickets at National Stadium, Karachi. It was the first encounter in Test matches between Pakistan and Australia, and Fazal made it memorable one for Pakistan by his scintillating show. He captured the match figures of 13-114 demolishing Australia for 80 and 187 runs respectively in their first and second innings. The great Australian all-rounder, Keith Miller, said that this was the best bowling performance he had ever witnessed in Test matches and rated his heroics over Jim Laker’s 19-wicket exploits at Old Trafford in 1956, while Neil Harvey claimed that Fazal makes the ball talk on a matting wicket. Wisden said, “In the Test match, Fazal was absolutely unplayable.”

Fazal also orchestrated Pakistan’s first triumphant in Test matches over West Indies. Having lost the three Test matches out of first four on the Caribbean tour of 1957-58, Pakistan cricket’s reputation seemed to be tumbling, but in the fifth and final Test of the series at Port-of-Spain, Fazal ‘spun’ his magic once again and bamboozled the West Indian batsmen with his subtle variations in his pace and length. He picked up six wickets in West Indies’ first innings and added two more in the second innings, as Pakistan stormed to the victory by an innings and one run.

Next year, when West Indies visited Pakistan, Fazal was made captain for the first time. He celebrated the occasion with aplomb and ran through the West Indies side in the first and second Test matches played at Karachi and Dacca respectively. He racked up seven wickets in the first Test, ripping out Sir Garry Sobers in both the innings. Pakistan cantered home by 10 wickets. In the next Test, he went a notch higher, and knocked out 12 West Indian batsmen for 100 runs. Pakistan scooped another victory by 41 runs. West Indies won the third Test, but Pakistan had already captured the series. Fazal notched up 21 wickets in three-Test series at an astonishing average of 15.85.

From October 1952 to March 1959, Fazal devoured 125 scalps in 26 Test matches at 22.54 each. However, after 1959, his career began to nosedive. He was stripped of captaincy after the stodgy five-Test series against India in 1960-61 which ended in a draw as neither of the both teams managed to win any Test match of the series.

The work-load of being the spearhead of the bowling attack of his team for almost a decade began to take its toll on Fazal’s bowling. He lost the zip and sting due to excessive bowling over a long period of time. He was initially not picked up in the Pakistan’s squad for the tour of England in 1961-62 but was recalled between the series after Mahmood Hussain and Mohammad Farooq were injured. He was past his prime by then, and unfortunately, could not conjure up the magic which he did in 1953-54. Pakistan was hauled 4-0 in five-Test series. That ended Fazal’s career.


Fazal’s greatness beyond cold stats

Fazal grabbed 139 wickets in 34 Test matches at an average of 24.70 with 13 five-wicket hauls and four ten-wicket hauls. He holds the distinction of being the first Pakistani bowler to capture 100 Test wickets, a feat he attained in his 22nd Test. His careers statistics are eminently impressive, but his greatness cannot be captured by just statistics. What adds glitter and glory to Fazal’s statistics is the fact that he was the first match-winner from Pakistan and he won a string of Test matches for Pakistan, often single-handedly, when they were striving to carve out a niche for themselves in the international cricket. Unlike India, their neighbour and arch-rival, it didn’t take too long for Pakistan to attain their first Test. Within first few years since they played their first Test match, they beat all the major Test playing nations like England, Australia and West Indies in addition to their triumphant over India and New Zealand. And Fazal shone radiantly in all those famed and illustrious victories which have, now, become the part of Pakistan’s cricket folklores.

Also, he inspired the generations of youngsters in Pakistan to take up fast bowling. He was the first great fast bowler to come out of Pakistan and became a cult figure. Fast bowling was seen as a way to fame. No wonder, Pakistan produced some of the greatest fast bowlers in the Test history, from Imran Khan to Waqar Younis, in the years to come following his foot-steps. Shoaib Akhtar, rightly, described him as the doyen and torch-bearer of fast bowling in Pakistan.

Fazal was also a traffic policeman and later in his life became a Deputy Superintendent and Deputy Inspector General in 1976. The discipline and determination of a policeman was evident in his bowling. He wasn’t an express pace bowler, like Frank Tyson and Roy Gilchrist; instead, he relied on unwavering accuracy, and lethal swing and seam, pegging away to bowl avalanche of overs, in his heyday, without the flicker of fatigue.

He was a genial and affable man in the personal life, and never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his ripping sense of humour. When, once, asked about Karachi’s traffic, he responded, “Managing Karachi’s traffic is like trying to bowl out Len Hutton without any stump in the ground.”

Had he been alive, he would have celebrated his 85th birthday today. Fazal left for the heavenly abode on May 30, 2005, but his glorious career continues to exhort the youngsters of Pakistan, and the rich legacy of fast bowling he left, is carried, now, by the Umar Gul and Co. with unmistakable pride and honour.

(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)