Goodbye Hanif Mohammad - Pakistan's pillar of strength
He stood just 5’3” at the crease – so diminutive that most short deliveries flew right over his head – but Hanif Mohammad was a giant of Pakistan cricket. For a nation born out of the pain of partition, Hanif was one of its first great sporting icons – the solid and assured counterpoint to the chaos and conflict against which the country of Pakistan was birthed.
He was a courageous, talented and upright cricketer, a man whose story begins with the creation of Pakistan itself, and whose extraordinary strength and remarkable bravery were a huge comfort to a nation that, confused and stumbling, was still trying to carve out an identity for itself.
The start of it all
Hanif’s story begins in the state of Gujarat, India. The erstwhile princely state of Junagadh was the place that he and his four brothers called home. They were all members of the famous Mohammad sporting family; not only was their mother, Ameer Bee a carrom and badminton champion, many of her sons played for Pakistan while Raees, was once a twelfth man. The Mohammad clan was practically cricketing nobility, and Hanif was the first of the royals.
Partition, and the tanks that came into Junagadh with it, forced the family across the border – or rather the sea, as Karachi became the family’s new home. Long hours of practice in keeping the ball down (as per rules in the brothers’ childhood games) on the terrace of their home in Junagadh, and in the Hindu temple in Karachi that was temporarily their abode, proved crucial experiences in moulding his style. Soon, Hanif was rapidly advancing up the ranks in schoolboy cricket in his new country.
Besides batting at the top of the order, Hanif fielded in the slips and also behind the stumps, In fact, when Pakistan travelled across the border by bus to play their first-ever Test series, against India, he kept wickets in the first three games.
Also read: 5 all-time slowest Test innings
That series brought Pakistan’s first Test win (at Lucknow) and a half-century by Hanif in his innings at the age of 17 years and 302 days. It was the start of a 17-year-long international career, during which Hanif scored Test hundreds home and away against each Test-playing nation of the time that Pakistan could face.
So much of Hanif’s legend is built on defiant batting, thwarting one aggressive, blood-thirsty attack after another. His defence was impregnable, and cautious, steady play, rather than whirlwind batting.
Defiance brings with it a special kind of perverse thrill, and it was the significance and context of Hanif’s runs that often exceeded their number. In cricket, perhaps more than any other sport, that defiance can stretch over hours and days, lending an even more improbable sense to a sporting heist that is already difficult to believe. Hanif’s astounding powers of concentration and determined occupation of the crease made it possible.
Not that he was merely a defensive wall. Hanif’s talent as a batsman was often obscured by recollections of his heroic defensive play, and attacking was not beyond his capabilities; in the Lord’s Test on the 1967 tour of England, one of the first recorded examples of a reverse sweep in cricket was executed by Hanif. It came during a 556-ball 187 compiled over more than nine hours. In other words, classic Hanif.
With such a high price on his wicket, his powers of application and his appetite for hard runs, the most astonishing of records began to tumble. In the 1959 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy semi-final against Bahawalpur, 640 minutes of Hanif’s batting produced a mammoth 499 runs.
He was run out going for the five-hundredth run. It was the new record for the highest score in the history of first-class cricket, overtaking the mark set by Don Bradman twenty-nine years previously: the Australian even sent Hanif a personal telegram congratulating thew new record holder.
It seems surprising, then, to discover that Hanif’s role in Pakistan’s most celebrated victory of its formative years was somewhat minimal. He was LBWed by Brian Statham for nothing in the first innings, and extracted 19 little-appreciated runs in the second. It was one of his brothers, Wazir, Zulfiqar Ahmed and Fazal Mahmood who rightly took the plaudits, but any narrative of Hanif being the underappreciated spine of the batting is quite untrue.
Hanif was cast as the saviour of Pakistan, the one with whose dismissal Pakistan’s hopes, perhaps even the future of cricket, were damaged severely. When the immovable object is removed, when the saviour leaves the task unfinished, the tone and the mood in the Pakistani camp turned despondent. He was a world-class talent whose resistance manifested most brilliantly in the West Indies in 1958.
The saviour that Pakistan cricket needed
Hanif’s first captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, left notes for his star batsman during the course of that game which echoed the sentiments of millions of Pakistanis. “You are the only hope to save Pakistan” read one.
Trailing by 473 runs with over three and a half days left, Pakistan went out to bat again in Bridgetown, Barbados in January 1958. Hanif was at the top of the order. After 970 minutes of resistance, against a fired-up bowling attack, battling pain, exhaustion and the harsh light of the sun reflected off the pitch, Hanif had saved Pakistan with a startlingly heroic 337. It is the longest Test innings ever played, and none can match it for its scale, heroism or magnitude of physical courage.
Pakistan fought two wars with India while Hanif was playing for the national side. These were troubled times, and Pakistan cricket struggled to find opponents for its sustained growth in the 1960s. A full 20 Tests were drawn, while only two were won in that decade.
Here is a montage of Mohammad and a few other Pakistani batting greats over the years
Perhaps these uncertain climes forced Pakistan into her shell, and made her cautious in this brave new world. The struggle for identity and fear of defeat seemed to dog the team’s psyche and if one could identify the appointment of Mushtaq Mohammad as captain as the time the whole mentality underwent a shift, it’s worth at least pointing out that both those wins came under Hanif’s captaincy.
Those were simpler times of simpler cricket, although perhaps not a simpler Pakistan. It was Hanif's selfless performance and often model behaviour that gave Pakistan cricket a cloak of dignity to wear. He was the embodiment of old-school cricketing values: patience, concentration, courage. They are wonderful human qualities as well, and Hanif’s dependable, reassuring sense of security was the bastion of faith all of Pakistan cricket could trust with its future and its safe passage as the country faced uncertain times.
Osman Samiuddin, the author of The Unquiet Ones, a history of Pakistan cricket, tweeted about Hanif's passing. His short message, where he simply stated that there were more captains after Kardar and more bowlers after Mahmood but not another like Hanif, was resonant.
Not always does such an unassuming cricketer occupy such an important place in the game’s history, especially when it is packed with big personalities, but when his batting makes him an entire country’s pillar of strength, a 5’3” man can walk the tallest of them all.