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The first poster boy of Pakistan cricket - Fazal Mahmood

If not for him, it's hard to argue Pakistan's fate would have been different from India, who took 20 years to finally win a Test.

Fazal was instrumental in the early success of the Pakistan team in the test matches.

Pakistan cricket has for long been blessed with world class fast bowlers in abundance throughout its short yet exciting journey in the cricketing world. This observation has been beaten to death; becoming the be-all and end-all of Pakistan cricket.

Although not discussed in the cricketing parlance with the same enthusiasm and exuberance that becomes characteristic of any conversation about Pakistani cricketers, it is still a fairly acknowledged fact that Pakistan is also home to many of the finest looking men ever to walk across the 22 yards.

Fazal Mahmood, pivotal to many Pakistani victories when this new nation was still taking baby steps as a cricket country, was arguably the first among many of Pakistan’s cricketers who have held the world hostage through their mesmerising demeanours on the field as well as through their superstar-like looks off it.

On his first tour to England in 1954, it is said that the Queen while meeting with the Pakistan team was so riveted by Fazal that she first shook hands with him, then greeted the rest of the team and finally came back and asked Fazal — “How are your eyes so blue?”

On what would have been his 90th birthday, we take a look at the glittering career of Pakistan’s first poster boy – Fazal Mahmood.

Early days

In the city of Lahore on February 18, 1927, Fazal was born in the family of Ghulam Mohammad, a professor at the famous Islamia College, and who himself was a great devout of the game. Fazal’s family had settled in the city of Lahore in early-1920s having migrated from Gujarat.

It was here in the company of his professor father that Fazal’s impressionable mind took a liking to cricket as Ghulam took his young son to the games between the iconic teams of Government College and Islamia College in the Minto Park.

Success on the road

Cricket has primarily been a batsman’s game — with most of the rules and regulations governing the ambit of what a bowler can or cannot do. Then again, it is the bowlers who ensure a team’s victory in a Test match. A team is required to take 20 wickets to win a Test match. All great teams, whether it is the West Indians of 1970s or Australians of the early 2000s, were thus built around the pivot of great bowlers.

Pakistan benefited immensely from having Fazal at its disposal. If not for him, it’s hard to argue that Pakistan’s fate would have been different from India, who took 20 years to finally win a Test, or New Zealand, who first won a Test after 26 years of playing.

In Lucknow, the venue of the second Test between India and Pakistan in October 1952, it was Fazal who took 12 wickets and turned the game decisively in their favour, having made a bet about it with the future India Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.  

He was again at the centre of the action in Pakistan’s triumph against England at The Oval, where he took a total of 12 wickets in the match to derail England’s chase of a meagre 168 in the fourth innings. In his first 24 matches, Fazal accumulated a total of 114 wickets, which came to be about 40% of wickets taken by Pakistan in those matches.

Although a chain smoker, Fazal was still able to maintain a high level of fitness and stamina with the help of his simple training methods. It is said that since his school days, Fazal would go for a 10-mile jog from half past four. 

One demonstration of his herculean stamina is the 85 overs he bowled in an innings against West Indies in which Gary Sobers went on to make 365. Only four bowlers in the history of the game have ever bowled more overs in an innings. Incidentally, all of them were spinners, which makes Fazal’s effort all the more praiseworthy.

The Majestic leg-cutter

While Fazal was not express pace, he still had the ability to pull up a few yards when required. However, it was not his pace but his leg cutters which became his major weapon of destruction which was taught to him by his father Ghulam Mohammad.

The ball would be delivered on a right-handed batsman’s middle and leg stump, with the ball making a final, late deadly turn squaring him up.

According to Richie Benaud, the legendary Australian leg spinner, Fazal bowled twice as fast as him, while spinning the ball more than he could do.

His style of bowling drew comparisons mostly with Alec Bedser of England, although Neville Cardus did compared him with Sydney Barnes.

Mat surface champion and ordinary elsewhere?

An allegation that is often levelled against Fazal Mahmood, which tries to demystify his success as a top notch fast bowler for Pakistan was the discrepancy between his record on mat wicket and the turf wicket. 

Frank Tyson, one of the great fast bowlers from England, said this about Mahmood: “Batsmen of his age rated Fazal as the best bowler of medium pace leg-cutters that has ever lived— on the mat.” Incidentally, Fazal did frequently miss turf wicket games with an injury, although what was the real reason was one may never know.

Rivalry with Abdul Hafeez Kardar

A man supremely confident in his abilities, Fazal was a hard man to captain; thus, explaining his not so friendly relation with Abdul Kardar. While both were leaders and stars in their own right, the reason why they never saw eye to eye might be due to their contrasting thought process.

Fazal was a man of simple means, native in many ways. Kardar however, was a foreign-educated Oxford returnee and it is this divide which drew a wedge between the two; that never fully healed.

Last days

His looks made sure that he was always in great demand with the opposite sex. While filming for Bhowani Junction in Lahore, American actress Ava Gardner apparently impressed by Fazal insisted on a dance with him at the Faletti’s Hotel. Mahboob Khan, director of the classic Mother India (1940) wanted Fazal to star in Aan (1952) instead of Dilip Kumar, which Fazal didn’t agree to for some reason.

After retiring from the game in 1962, Fazal took on many roles — he worked in the sports department of the police force; training many hockey players on the way. While working as a director of a textile firm, Fazal succumbed to a heart attack and took his last breath on May 30th, 2005

A true fighter on the field and a Casanova off it, Fazal will surely be remembered as one of Pakistan’s all-time greats.

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