Pakistanis, in general, have what one may call a victim mentality. The result of this, of course, is that when they do have valid grievances, they are lost in the mire. One such complaint should have been made after the article by Mike Selvey on Cricinfo. He writes a tremendous summary of the changes that the opening stanza of a test match has had, mentioning everyone from Jack Hobbs to Tamim Iqbal. However, One name was conspicuous by its absence – as it always seems to be. This is not to say that I am dissing on Selvey’s article (after all, amongst others, it doesn’t mention Sunil Gavaskar and Geoffrey Boycott); but the general absence of Saeed Anwar’s name from any such list is far too common to be ignored.
The 1990s were perhaps the most difficult times to be an opener. Each country – with the possible exceptions of England and New Zealand – had as good a new-ball attack as they’ve ever had. In this age, Anwar was the outstanding opening batsman in Test cricket.
And unlike his contemporaries –and what is expected from Pakistani opening batsmen – he averaged higher away from home than in Pakistan. The evidence of his versatility is in the fact that despite playing only 55 Tests, he managed to score hundreds away to every Test playing nation he toured except, weirdly enough, Zimbabwe. He, in fact, averaged over 40 in three of four countries that have been most difficult for subcontinent batsmen (South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand). By comparison, a modern great (Sehwag) averages above 40 in only one of these nations. But it isn’t just the numbers that speak of his extraordinariness; he scored his runs at a quicker pace than the men who supposedly brought attacking openers into fashion (Michael Slater and Sanath Jayasuria).
Even then, it would be a disservice to him to try and understand his batting by just numbers. The methodology he employed was one of caressing the ball to its desired location; always seeming to be in control. A Saeed Anwar shot was a work-of-art, something that generated gasps from the most cynical of cricket fans. To watch him in full flight was to rise above partisanship, for something that beautiful could never be the property of one people. There was a pleasure in watching a genius scale the heights of elegance and effortlessness; and there was pride to have witnessed it. He wasn’t a textbook player when attacking: he, quite often, played away from his body. But like Sehwag a generation later, he realized that when you have superhuman hand-eye-coordination and supreme sense of timing, you don’t need to follow any textbook. Indian fans used to say, “On the off-side, first there is God, and then there is Ganguly.” Pakistani fans would scratch their heads and wonder who this God fellow was, and how could he really be better than Saeed?
And I haven’t even mentioned his ODI record yet – where, for most of the decade, he competed alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara in the race to overhaul the centuries’ record set by Desmond Haynes.
And again, the numbers stack up in his favour: he was one of only three players (the other two being Tendulkar and Lance Klusener) to score his runs at an average above forty, with a strike-rate in excess of eighty. It was in this form of the game, though, that he excelled and made what little fame he has. As the greatest practitioner of the belief that you don’t need to go above the infield when you can go through it, he played many an amazing knocks; none more so that on a humid afternoon in Chennai.
Not only did he play his greatest ODI innings against India, he also produced one of the greatest knocks in Pakistani test history. In 1999, in the first match of the Asian Test Championship (in what was, essentially, the decider of the Pakistan-India test series), he carried his bat scoring 188 runs on a pitch on which the second highest innings score was 232. That match is now remembered for the arrival of Shoaib Akhtar, and the excellence of Saqlain Mushtaq and Wasim Akram; when, in fact, it should’ve been celebrated as the crowning achievement of Anwar.
Time plays tricks with the greatest of minds. Anwar was a rare genius: a man who was appreciated neither in his time, nor after it. Surely, it is time to give credit to the greatest batsman of Pakistan’s golden generation.