One of the most visually pleasing Pakistan batsmen ever, a virtuoso at the crease, it is a pity that reflecting on Saleem Malik's career will forever be akin to looking at the act of a phenomenal performing artist through a glass door covered by dirty linen, mud and smoke screen © Getty Images
One of the most visually pleasing Pakistan batsmen ever, a virtuoso at the crease, it is a pity that reflecting on Saleem Malik’s career will forever be akin to looking at the act of a phenomenal performing artist through a glass door covered by dirty linen, mud and smoke screen © Getty Images

Saleem Malik, born April 16, 1963, was all flair and grace while batting; he was one of the greatest Pakistan batsmen of the eighties and nineties. He was Pakistan’s emergency attendant on many an occasion. However, people remember him more in context of the slimy cricketing underbelly of bookmakers and match-fixing. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career of the most visually gratifying of batsmen whose career ended under obscurity of allegations.

Saleem Malik’s delicate stroke-making was once described by David Gower as batting with velvet gloves. But, then, off came those luxurious hand-wears revealing what looked like grubby, money stained palms.

At the crease he was a joy to behold. Coming into the Pakistan team as heir apparent to batting bulwarks of the stature of Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, Malik demonstrated all their virtues and then some more.

Zaheer could effortlessly stroke a straight ball past cover-point. Miandad could whip it with street-smart nonchalance through mid-wicket. Malik could do all that, even hit it for six over point. But he also delighted purists by delving in the virtue of playing it in the V.

He could stand tall as others fell away, perishing to the vagaries of the swinging ball. He was the youngest Pakistani batsman to score a century on debut. Once, having had his wrist fractured by a Courtney Walsh delivery, he came in at No. 11 in the second innings, batting left handed for a ball and switching to right handed, adding 32 runs with Wasim Akram. Malik had technique, talent and tenacity — too bad all that was tarnished by the tales and testimonies of treachery.

Early talent

Malik was 12 when he accompanied his brother to the Victorious Club in Iqbal Park, Lahore, and started bowling leg-spinners. It was the club coach, Rabb Nawaz, who pointed out that his batting was actually far superior to his bowling. This same instructor pointed out the perils of the hook and the cut along with the benefits of playing straight. Over the years Malik did not flinch away from cross-batted strokes, but most often his bat remained predominantly straight. Even the adventurous strokes came with finesse and perfection, both devastating and infuriating to opponents.

Malik scored a hundred in his very second First-Class match for Lahore, at the tender age of 16. More significantly, he top-scored for the Pakistan under-19 side when they hosted their Australian counterparts. These matches were beamed on television and Malik was soon being spoken of as the next big batting star.

He toured Australia with the Pakistan side in 1981-82, but with the team full of senior batsmen, he could play only 3 tour matches. Nevertheless, Pakistan cricket’s perennial turmoil resulted in fast-tracking his Test debut. With several experienced cricketers rebelling against Miandad’s captaincy, Pakistan had to field as many as four debutants in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Karachi in 1982. Malik batted at No. 3 in the first innings, scoring 12. In the second innings, he came in at No. 4, and scored a quick hundred as Pakistan looked to declare. At 18 years 328 days, he became the youngest Pakistani to score a century on debut.

With the senior players back in the side, Malik was not an instant regular in the team. His growth was steady, with full use of the gradual opportunities, scoring the odd hundred against visiting Indians and Englishmen, displaying an abundance of guts and application in Australia.

When the West Indies visited in 1986, Malik was hit on the wrists by a Courtney Walsh snorter in the first innings of the first Test. However, with Pakistan were 296 for 9 after trailing by 89 in the first innings, he came out with his plastered left hand, and proceeded to bat 41 minutes to remain unbeaten on 3. It laid the platform for the eventual rout of the mighty West Indians with Imran Khan and Abdul Qadir dismissing them for 53 in the second innings.

His left wrist still suffering from stiffness, Malik did little of note in the Tests of the long tour of India. However, he did play that famous blinder at Calcutta — scoring 72 in 36 balls, plundering the runs from the 81 scored when he was at the wicket, converting a certain defeat into one of the most memorable victories.

In the Reliance World Cup that followed, Imran promoted Malik to No 3. He batted fabulously throughout, including a 95 ball hundred against Sri Lanka.

Master class

It was during the England tour of 1987 that Malik stamped his class over the cricketing world in undeniable, enduring manner. At Leeds, as the ball swung around, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Mohsin Kamal dismissed the Englishmen cheaply. The Pakistani batsmen struggled in reply, with Miandad falling for a duck. Malik held the innings together with a supreme demonstration of classical technique. When he got out for 99 in the last over of the day, he put it down to nervousness due to his failure at notching up three-figure scores for 18 Tests. He had hit 5 in his first 21 matches. Anyway, Pakistan won at Leeds, the only result in the 5-Test series, and Malik got his long-awaited sixth hundred in the final Test at The Oval as Pakistan piled up 708. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 1988.

Saleem Malik's delicate stroke-making was once described by David Gower as batting with velvet gloves. But, then, off came those luxurious hand-wears revealing what looked like grubby, money stained palms © Getty Images
Saleem Malik’s delicate stroke-making was once described by David Gower as batting with velvet gloves. But, then, off came those luxurious hand-wears revealing what looked like grubby, money stained palms © Getty Images

The subsequent years brought forth a steady flow of runs before he flirted with greatness again in the Blighty in 1992. The previous season he had scored nearly 2000 runs for Essex in their county triumph. Now, he started the Test series with 165 at Edgbaston, adding 332 with Miandad. This was followed by a strokeful 55 at Lord’s as Pakistan clinched a thrilling 2-wicket win. He did not do anything of note at Old Trafford, but while tempers flew all over the place after Aaqib Javed had been warned for intimidatory bowling, he was the only Pakistani cricketer to demonstrate enough calm and tact to deal with the situation. It was again at Headingley that Malik demonstrated his brilliance. In seaming conditions, the Pakistani batsmen succumbed one after the other, and he stood there, correct, precise, elegant and well-nigh impregnable. Pakistan lost, but Malik’s 82 and 84 — both unbeaten — were absolute master-classes. In the final Test, he contributed a handy 40 as Pakistan won the series at The Oval.

Captaincy and Controversy

By the time Pakistan toured New Zealand in 1993-94, Malik had been appointed captain.

His stint at the helm lasted a year and 5 days. It spanned 12 Tests of which 7 ended in victories, and only 3 in losses. Yet, the period was riddled with controversy.

Malik started his reign with wins against New Zealand at Auckland and Wellington before losing one at Christchurch. Later, this Christchurch Test and also an ODI played at the same venue were tainted by match-fixing charges.

He followed up the New Zealand success with a couple of wins in Sri Lanka.

Back home, Pakistan triumphed in an incredible Test against Australia at Karachi, winning by a wicket as Ian Healy missed a stumping chance off Shane Warne and the ball went for the winning runs as four byes. It was this match that later came under a lot of scrutiny as Warne, Tim May and Mark Waugh alleged that Malik had tried to bribe them into bowling poorly on the final day.

Regardless, the very next Test at Rawalpindi saw Malik hit a career-best 237, a match-saving effort after Pakistan had followed on. In the final Test at Lahore, he scored 75 and 143, ensuring a memorable series win.

This was followed by two reversals. Pakistan lost the only Test in South Africa. Malik fought hard to score 99 in the first innings, but the pace of Fanie de Villers proved too hot to handle.

An embarrassing loss to Zimbabwe at Harare came immediately after this. Pakistan came back to win the series, but Malik did not score too many runs. And with allegations of match-fixing and bribery leading to suspension, and the intricacies of Pakistan cricket politics kicking off a bizarre period of musical chairs around the hot seat, Malik lost captaincy and never led the team again.

If we consider 10 Tests as cut off, Malik’s win-loss ratio of 2.33 places him at par with Javed Miandad as the second-most successful captain of Pakistan, with Zaheer Abbas leading the way with 3 wins and 1 loss in 14 Tests.

Decline and fall

The investigations into the match-fixing charges were not conclusive. In October 1995, Justice Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim acquitted Malik of all allegations and he was allowed to continue his career.

When Pakistan went to England in 1996, Malik made runs with usual brilliance reserved for the country, hitting an unbeaten century at The Oval as Wasim Akram’s team won the series 2-0. His final hundred came in Colombo the following year, a match saving 6-and-a-half hour effort of 155.

He played 7 more Tests after that, crossing fifty only once. The last few days were painful for the ones who had watched him in his pomp.

The allegations of shady dealings continued to fly. Wicketkeeper Rashid Latif, in an explosive interview, accused Malik, and several others big names including Wasim Akram, of fixing matches. Numerous probes and investigations were launched which focused on his involvement in murky dealings. Alongside, Malik also found age catching up with his skills.

He remained a combative customer till the very end. Nowhere near his best, he played his final Test match against age-old rivals India in Kolkata during the inaugural Asian Test Championships. Caught on a greenish wicket against Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, Pakistan struggled to 25 for 6 at Eden when Malik and Moin Khan put on a vital 85 runs, which was perhaps proved to be match turning. In both the innings, Malik edged balls to the slips who claimed the catch on each occasion. And the old fox stood there, the seasoned, thoroughbred professional, daring the umpire to raise his finger. Twice the decisions were referred upstairs and twice he was allowed to continue his innings. The timing and placement, the thrilling strokes down the ground, the imaginative innovations that perplexed captains — these seldom came off with any semblance of regularity, but he was still a difficult man to budge from the crease.

Malik ended his career for Pakistan with an ill-fated World Cup campaign, the fourth of his career. In the 4 matches he played, he could not reach double-figures.

A year later the report of Justice Malik Muhammad Qayyam’s enquiry implicated him with match-fixing on multiple counts, with special weight given to the statements of the Australian cricketers Shane Warne and Mark Waugh. Malik was found guilty and was banned from any sort of involvement with Pakistan cricket. That sadly and effectively ended his career under dark, murky clouds. The ban has since been reversed by a local court, but Malik’s career will forever be associated more with the foul and fixing than with the flair and finesse that characterised his batting.

As a batsman, Malik amassed 5,768 runs at 43.69 from 103 Tests with 15 hundreds. In ODIs, his record stands at 7,170 runs from 283 matches, with 5 hundreds and 47 fifties.

An occasional slow inswing bowler, he picked up 5 wickets in Test cricket. In ODIs he was used more often and accounted for 89 dismissals.

During his younger days Malik was a brilliant cover fielder, with excellent throws from the outfield. Later, by compulsion, he was added to the slip cordon.

One of the most visually pleasing Pakistan batsmen ever, a virtuoso at the crease — it is a pity that reflecting on Malik’s career will forever be akin to looking at the act of a phenomenal performing artist through a glass door covered by dirty linen, mud and smoke screen.

(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 http://twitter.com/senantix)