The final moment: Hanif Mohammad runs Jim McConnon out to create history
The final moment: Hanif Mohammad runs Jim McConnon out to create history © Getty Images

August 17, 1954. On their first visit to England, the young Pakistan team clinched a fantastic victory at The Oval and squared the series against one of the strongest England sides of all time. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the match that saw Fazal Mahmood perform one of the greatest fast bowling feats in history.

On their first attempt

It took the West Indians 22 years, the South Africans 28, the Indians 39 and the New Zealanders a whopping 55. When the men from the Caribbean ultimately won their first Test in England, the seething waves of West Indian delight rushed through the ground and immortal calypsos were born. The Indians still celebrate the day at The Oval in 1971 when England’s home rule came to an end. Even the Australians, who had started off in Test cricket on almost equal footing, had to tarry till their second official Test tour to win their first Test, and it gave birth to the lore of The Ashes.

In contrast, Pakistan managed to beat England in their very first series in the Old Country, in their very fourth Test in the land. And in the process they shared the series during the summer of 1954.

Not many really predicted this outrageous outcome. The England team of the day was one of the strongest ever. Led by the unparalleled Len Hutton, their batting was powered, apart from the skipper, by Denis Compton, Tom Graveney and Peter May. And in the bowling department, there were more match-winning men than teams can boast in decades. Only Brian Statham and Johnny Wardle played in all four Tests, while giants with the leather showed up briefly, toppling wickets and going away with five-fors. Bob Appleyard played only at Lord’s and captured seven, Frank Tyson only at The Oval and took five, Alec Bedser played the second and the third Tests and went away with 10, Jim Laker hardly got to bowl, but finished the first Test with figures of 22-12-17-1 and 10.5-2-22-1. Roy Tattersall also bowled in just one Test. Trevor Bailey turned out in three Tests mainly as a batsman.

The England side of the 1950s had enough riches to shuffle around the very best in business.

To be fair, England treated the series as a series of experiments. Hutton himself played only two Tests, with the Reverend David Sheppard taking over in the other two, mainly because some steadfast and ridiculous traditionalists not yet comfortable with a professional captain. And to be honest, but for rain in Manchester, the tourists would have gone into The Oval with the series already lost. But the elements had their say, and buoyed by the stroke of fortune, the miracle was achieved in the fourth and final Test.

Of voices and verdicts

If we are very precise, only one man voiced that the young team could win a Test on the tour. That was the wise Alf Gover, the old Surrey and England bowler. Other than that, the side was written off by all and sundry, starting with MA Ispahani, the High Commissioner of Pakistan. “What do you expect from these people who need to be taught table manners?” he had asked, proceeding to call the team rabbits. Captain Abdul Hafeez Kardar indeed had to instruct his men in the art of holding the knife and the fork.

Even someone as amiable as Vijay Merchant, the Indian batting great, voiced that the goal of Pakistan should be to draw ten and win four or five matches with the counties. As for the English public, many of them were not even aware that a country named Pakistan existed. An official from the Pakistan High Commission accompanied the team during the tour, his job simply to educate the British about the new fledgling nation. READ: Fazal Mahmood engineers Pakistan’s first-ever Test win

Oh yes, there were a few positive reviews as well. CLR James was in the country and when he saw the team put on 374 for 8 against Worcestershire on their first day of cricket on the tour, he predicted great things to come. But then, James was rather prone to romantic exaggeration in favour of long-subjugated people, wherein he traced socio-political fantasies etched in the recesses of his fertile mind far from the cricketing greens.

Pakistan did well enough in the first few matches, beating Worcestershire and Oxford University while holding their own in draws against Sussex, Hampshire and a strong MCC. But the Test matches were completely different stories.

They waited in the pavilion of Lord’s for three-and-a-half days as rain poured incessantly. Soon after that Statham and Wardle got going, and bundled them out for 87 on the morning of the final day. As the England batsmen tried to go for quick runs to force a defeat in the few hours that remained, the Pakistan bowlers did strike back. The hosts declared at 117 for 9, and Bailey struck in the first over to raise hopes of an unlikely victory. But young Hanif Mohammad batted almost two-and-a-half hours to score 39 and enforce a draw.

Weather, however, did not come to the rescue at Trent Bridge. After Appleyard’s opening spell in Test cricket saw him capture 4 for 6, Pakistan withered away for 157. In response, Compton scored his career-best 278, putting the bowling to sword with his flashing willow. The defeat was by an innings and comprehensive, aided by a rain affected wicket when Pakistan batted a second time.

At Old Trafford, the rain toyed with the side. On the one hand it saved them the blushes of another humiliating defeat. But, it also saw them collapsing to 90 after an England total of 359 for 8. Following on they reached 25 for 4 when it came down in torrents and the match had to be abandoned. Thus, humiliation was aplenty even without defeat. It led Neville Cardus to write, “In my opinion, a mistake was made by those authorities who decided that the time was now ripe for Test matches between Pakistan and England. To say the plain truth, the Pakistan team would scarcely hold its own in the county cricket championship against Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex or Northamptonshire, not even in a fine summer.”

Of course it was Cardus, and thus there was scant respect for facts. Pakistan had indeed followed on and lost to Yorkshire, the bowling of Brian Close and Wardle proving way too much for them even without the presence of Fred Trueman. But they had beaten Nottinghamshire on that very tour, after forcing them to follow-on; they had held their own against Northamptonshire in a draw. And even though they had not played Middlesex, they had beaten Lancashire and drawn against Glamorgan, and had the better of a drawn encounter against Derbyshire — both Glamorgan and Derbyshire had finished above Middlesex in the County Championships that year. All these had taken place well before Cardus penned his scathing words. He had been too busy to notice.

He should have restricted himself to his own domain — of romantic fantasies tinged with cricket. Because at The Oval, the Pakistanis were about to create history.

The unpromising start

The background was hardly ideal as Pakistan went into the fourth Test. They were roasted over their performance by the press, the captaincy severely criticised. There were rumours of rifts inside the team, with Kardar and Fazal falling out quite often. In short, it was a prototype on which most Pakistan teams of the future have been based.

Before the game, Fazal was grimly determined. He wanted to ‘fight for the honour of my country and the nation, even though I had to put my life in danger for it.’ He put pressure on Kardar to declare that Pakistan would win the Test even before the match started.

Rain on the previous night and early in the morning had kept the teams waiting in the pavilion. After a long delay, Hutton, back for the fourth Test, walked out to toss with Kardar. England had not really fielded their strongest team. Bedser and Bailey were omitted, while two debutants, Tyson and Peter Loader, took their places. Laker was also not given a match at his home ground, with Jim McConnon being tried out. But even then, Hutton, Reggie Simpson, May, Compton, Graveney, Godfrey Evans, Wardle, Statham, Tyson … all would go down as great, great names.

Kardar won the toss and elected to bat. And the events that followed hardly indicated that the wheel of the series was about to turn.

Statham dismissed Hanif with the final ball of his first over. In his melodramatic Urdu biography Fazal Mahmood aur cricket, the Pakistan spearhead described the moment in stirring words: “This was the biggest blow for the Pakistan team. It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck my heart and for a moment our balcony was frozen into silence.”

Tyson took a couple of overs to lace his furious pace with line and length, and soon bowled Alimuddin and Maqsood Ahmed off successive deliveries. A while later, Loader knocked back the stumps of Waqar Hasan and Pakistan were 25 for 4, the story of humiliation going through an embarrassing encore.

A brief recovery commenced after tea with Kardar and stumper Imtiaz Ahmed at the crease, but Tyson got one to rear and got Imtiaz caught behind the wicket. At the same score, 51, Wazir Mohammad was run out and Fazal snicked one from Loader.

Shujauddin Butt, the left-arm spinner who batted with considerable poise, proceeded to get behind the ball and play the longest knock of the innings. Kardar took the score along to 77 when Statham got his edge. It gave Evans his 131st catch, taking him past the world record of Bert Oldfield.

It was some resilient batting by the lower order, Shujauddin, Zulfiqar Ahmed and Mahmood Hussain, that enabled Pakistan to reach 133. The day ended with the English openers just starting out on their reply.

Fazal Mahmood — hero of the Test
Fazal Mahmood — hero of the Test © Getty Images

Fazal strikes back

The time was ripe for the elements to step in again. Slightly biased in favour of Pakistan all through the Tests, the weather did not disappoint here either. A spectacular cloudburst occurred just before the start of play. It lasted just ten minutes but left the great ground under water. One would see a similar sight in 1968, but on that occasion it would be possible to restart the game for 75 breath-taking minutes. Here, the entire day was lost.

When England resumed their innings on the third morning, it was near-impossible to bat. The ball rose awkwardly, both from Fazal and Mahmood Hussain. The tourists were perhaps buoyed by the seventh anniversary of their Independence Day.

Hussain got Simpson early. Hutton edged Fazal through the slips for four, and, finding it difficult, creamed him through extra cover. But in the next Fazal over, he misjudged the movement and was caught behind while trying to turn an away going delivery to the leg. This delivery had been added to Fazal’s repertoire through the painstaking sessions at Alf Gover’s indoor school in the previous year.

After Hutton, Fazal added May, Compton and Graveney to his list of victims which ultimately amounted to 6. Of them only Compton stayed over two hours, being dropped twice, before falling for 53. The rest tried to hit their ways out of trouble. Fazal kept going on and on, unchanged for 30 overs. His figures at the end, 6 for 53, would have been even better if the Pakistanis had been better at holding their catches.

Hussain too bowled extremely well, and picked up the remaining four in 21.3 overs. After the England innings, Pakistan actually led by a slim margin of 3.

Play-acting to the rescue

By now, the pitch had dried and the spinners were licking their lips. Wardle put it to superb use. One shudders to think what Laker would have done on such a wicket at The Oval. However, McConnon could not quite exploit the conditions.

Hanif pulls Statham with panache
Hanif pulls Statham with panache © Getty Images

Pakistan opened the second innings with Shujauddin, his calm poise of the first innings earning him this extraordinary promotion. He remained stroke-less and run-less, rooted to the crease, while Hanif stroked four boundaries in the interim. Wardle got Hanif off an edge, and all the 19 runs till then had come off his bat. By close of play, the left-armer had also got Shujauddin, McConnon accounted for Maqsood and Waqar had fallen prey to nervous running. Pakistan ended at 63 for 4, the match poised on the edge of a knife.

When the teams returned after the day of rest, Imtiaz was immediately removed by Tyson. There followed a tense period of play. Kardar blocked his end up, rendered ultra-defensive by the situation. Alimuddin prodded nervously, spending 28 minutes at the crease without scoring a run. The tension was weighing down every cricketer and spectator alike, even as the scoreboard remained near-stationery, registering only the passing over. After an hour’s battle, Kardar pushed a Wardle full toss back to the bowler. He had scored 17.

Three runs later Wardle trapped Alimuddin for a duck. And at 82, the left-armer castled Fazal and Pakistan were eight down. The end seemed near, not only of the innings, but the match itself.

There followed an amazing fightback, helped along by inspired play-acting. Wazir was the elder brother of Hanif, but widely known as the lesser batsman. If his account is to be believed, it was a spectacular piece of gamesmanship that saved the day. He spent half an hour over his first run and then Statham hit him on the front foot with a swinging full toss. It was painful, but Wazir exaggerated it greatly. He lay on the ground, while the support staff treated his leg. With the corner of his eye, he could make out Evans was convinced. The wicketkeeper advised the bowlers to pitch it up, because with the injured front-foot Wazir would succumb soon.

On that wicket, short balls were much more difficult to play. As the bowlers pitched up, Wazir played them comfortably, but never forgot to grunt, grimace and hop in pain as his front foot came into play.

At the other end, off-spinner Zulfiqar Ahmed refused to give it away cheaply. If one looks at the record of Zulfiqar in retrospect, it makes for remarkable reading. In his 9 Tests, he averaged 33 with the bat while his 20 wickets came at 18.30, hinting at superb all-round skills. The small sample is misleading — 11 of the wickets came in one Test, and a 63 not out gave a healthy boost to the batting figures — but he was a handy lower-order batsman.

The ninth wicket put on 58 before Wardle got Zulfiqar for 34. The Pakistanis were still not done. Mahmood Hussain stuck around for nearly half an hour and helped Wazir add 24. When he holed out off Wardle, the score read 164. Wazir walked back unconquered on 42, made over two hours 40 minutes. Wardle’s figures read 35-16-56-7.

The 82 runs put on by the last two wickets proved to be the crucial differentiator. Shujauddin later wrote, “The runs accumulated by these three gutsy players can without hesitation be termed the most precious in the foundation years of the new cricketing nation.”

The finale

But, England needed just 168, with that line-up of dreams. Fazal dismissed Hutton early again, but knocking over the rest of the formidable top order was not so easy this time around.

Simpson and May put on 51 in just 40 minutes. The hosts seemed to be eager to finish the match by the fourth day, instead of letting weather have any other say in the outcome. After Manchester, they could not really be blamed. But the approach had its downside. At 66, Zulfiqar held a return catch from Simpson and Compton walked in.

May continued to bat fluently, according to John Arlott ‘rolling out regal strokes’, and Compton seemed to carry on from where he had left in the first innings. Two hours after going in to bat, England were 109 for 2.

Fazal later wrote in his autobiography that at this moment Kardar was about to take him off. The fast bowler supposedly grabbed the ball from the captain, saying, “Do you want to lose the match?”

Abdul Hafeez Kardar acknowledging the cheer from the fans after the Test
Abdul Hafeez Kardar acknowledging the cheer from the fans after the Test © Getty Images

It was a slower delivery that did the trick. May’s attempted drive ended up in Kardar’s hands at gully. The young master walked back for 53.

There was a change in the order. Evans was sent in ahead of Graveney, Hutton’s ploy clearly to get the runs before the end of the day. But Fazal knocked his stumps over. Shujauddin pitched one up to trap Graveney leg-before. As the day drew to a close, Compton edged Fazal and the ever-reliable Imtiaz held behind the wicket. Suddenly England were 121 for 6. Four runs later, stumps were drawn with Wardle and Tyson at the crease.

The Pakistanis were buoyant. In the words of Fazal’s autobiography, reading somewhat like Sunday school lessons, “I had that kind of a feeling, backed by determination, perseverance, application, concentration and motivation, and I knew I could turn the tables.”

Wardle was the best bat among the rather long England tail. And almost as soon as play started on the final day, he was dropped by Alimuddin in the slips off Mahmood Hussain. Legend goes that the fielder was so upset that he could not bring himself to say sorry to his captain.

Wardle and Tyson inched the score along even as Fazal continued to bowl his heart out. The slam-bang tactics of the previous afternoon had given way to extreme caution. In the midst of the nerve racking tension, Wardle was let off three balls in a row, some sort of a record in reverse.

And then Fazal struck. Tyson hung his bat out and Imtiaz held the catch. What followed has two versions. Kardar maintained that he made the field change; Fazal claimed that it was his brainchild. Whatever be the cause, the effect was that in the next over from Fazal Shujauddin was brought in from deep mid-wicket to a short backward square. And Wardle turned the very next ball straight into his hands.

At the same score Loader fell to Mahmood Hussain. England were 138 for 9. In his magisterial Wounded Tiger Peter Oborne allows Fazal’s autobiography to tell the rest:

“…I started to bowl to McConnon. I had bowled five deliveries to him, but this servant of God played defensive. I was very unsettled by his attitude and felt troubled. I was eager to see the final scene of this drama. I felt only McConnon as now between the ground and the victor’s balcony. To get rid of this last impediment, I bowled my sixth ball with full force. Perhaps McConnon was so bored with his lifeless play or maybe he wanted to show some fury like a dying candle. Therefore, he tried to hit the ball and score a quick run. The ball went straight to Hanif who promptly threw it on the stumps. McConnon was run out. On watching this I ran to Hanif in frenzy, took him in my arms and started dancing. My dreams had been satiated. England was defeated by 24 runs and Pakistan’s name had come prominently on the map of international cricket. There was a commotion in the Pakistan stand. Everyone was jumping for joy.”

Fazal had captured 12 wickets in the match.

The Pakistanis among the sparse final day crowd broke into a great roar. There were luminaries of the young Pakistani nation in the ground, from commander-in-chief General Ayub Khan to Lieutenant General Azam Khan to Justice Cornelius, Vice President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan. But among all exuberant celebrations, there was Alf Gover of Surrey and England as well, jumping up and down in joy, screaming, “We have won.”

In Fazal Mahmood aur Cricket the hero of the match wrote that when he went out on the balcony to wave at the vociferous crowd, he found himself standing where Len Hutton had stood after winning the Ashes a year earlier. Tears rolled from his eyes as a shiver went up his spine.

Brief Scores:

Pakistan 133 (Frank Tyson 4 for 35) and 164 (Wazir Mohammad 42*; Johnny Wardle 7 for 56) beat England 130 (Denis Compton 53; Fazal Mahmood 6 for 53, Mahmood Hussain 4 for 58) and 143 (Peter May 53; Fazal Mahmood 6 for 46) by 24 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)