By Salim Parvez
The best part of Asif Masood’s international career was played under captain, Intikhab Alam. When Mushtaq Mohammad was bestowed with that position in 1976, the new ball was to be shared by Asif’s old partner Sarfraz Nawaz and the rapidly-improving Imran Khan. A man of old fashioned pride and self-respect and having been the first choice for Pakistan, since the start of his career in 1969, it hurt Asif. Besides that, the dressing room politics and groupings leading up to the Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, brought him to the conclusion to quit the game at the age of 30.
Asif left the game disheartened, once he fell out of favour with the selectors on an unhappy tour of Australia and West Indies in 1976-77. It was a watershed moment in the country’s cricket history as it had finally started to win outside Pakistan but not so from Asif’s personal point of view. His only Test appearance on the tour, came against Australia at Melbourne, only due to the last minute withdrawal of Sarfraz Nawaz, that most unpredictable of characters. Having given up any hope of making the side, Asif was rushed to fetch his kit from the hotel, although physically and mentally, certainly not tuned in for an international contest.
A delightful company, Shah Sahib, now nearing his 71st birthday, has lived in Manchester since being posted by PIA, for whom he also played in the domestic cricket, in 1982 and was present at Old Trafford, both for a Test match and T20I played by the 2016 Pakistan touring team
Inevitably, his 13 eight-ball overs, with a shorter run-up and bowled at a gentle medium pace, on a batting paradise of a wicket, in Australia’s first innings total of 517-8 decl., cost 79 runs and did little to save Pakistan from a massive 348-run defeat. In his 16-match career Asif, despite bowling his heart out for the country, was never to feature in a winning Test line-up for Pakistan.
The 1960s was a decade for Pakistan cricket that lacked the enthusiasm and success it had enjoyed in the post-partition period and stretching to the late 1950s. The first generation of cricketers in the newly-independent state included household names such as, Mian Mohammad Saeed, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Fazal Mahmood, Khan Mohammad, Imtiaz Ahmed and Hanif Mohammad, to name a few.
They had to their credit, Test victories against India, England, New Zealand and Australia, to put forward a highly impressive template for their successors to emulate. At the outset of the sixties, the home advantage of matting wickets, was no longer available to bowlers.
By the time Asif took to cricket, matting had virtually been wiped out at all levels of cricket in Lahore. It was a positive and logical way forward for Pakistan cricket needed to come at par with the rest of the international world and develop its cricketers on natural turf wickets.
Such were the times that small town talent, had to travel to either Lahore or Karachi, the two major cricket centres in Pakistan, to be seen and recognized. Asif excelled in the Wazir Ali Summer League (WASL) and Inter-University cricket to invite raving reviews by sports journalist, Asif Khan in Pakistan Times. The fast bowling competition intensified Punjab University were represented by Three-horse race new-ball bowlers with Saleem Altaf and Sarfraz Nawaz, joining the fray.
The Old City of Lahore in the bygone days had 12 gates, to enter its territory. Each gate (darwaza) was named after the profession or business, established in that particular vicinity. Mochi Darwaza (Cobblers’ Gate) is where Asif Masood, second in line of five children, was born and brought up. Though family moved out from the Old City in 1968, the ancestral house is still owned by one of Asif’s cousin and continues to bring back all the old happy memories to him.
Surprisingly, despite attending Muslim Model HS, which had a strong tradition of cricket, and being in walking distance to Minto Park, a focal point of all the major clubs in Lahore, Asif did not take up the game till 1958-59. His initial success, with a chest-on action for Universal CC in Lahore, which he joined in 1961, proved the podium for his elevation to the highest rank.
Asif Masood, looks back to that period, ‘I joined Universal, knowing full well that the names of Fazal Mahmood, Khan Mohammad, Mahmood Hussain, Khalid Ibadullah and Saeed Ahmed, were associated with the club. Universal along with Crescent CC, Mamdot CC and Ravi Gymkhana, were the top clubs in Lahore.
Aslam Khokhar was my first captain and our nets, attended by 50-60 boys, were held in Bert Institute in Gari Shahoo. At the outset, so keen to impress, I opted for a long run up but had no idea of how to control the ball. I was erratic but with time gained confidence. Piyara, the net in-charge, agreed to set it up for me, an hour before the rest of the players arrived at 1pm. Soon Dr. Zafar Altaf too would join me which meant I had a batsman to bowl at in that hour, instead of aiming at a single stump.’
The turning point from his cricket ambitions is worth narrating too, ‘I remember, one afternoon, we had two nets running and all of sudden everyone stood motionless. All the players, from senior and junior teams, To my utter amazement each and everyone diverted their attention to the entrance as Saeed Ahmed, the star batsman of national team arrived in Pakistan blazer.
The chan tara (star and a crescent) on his blazer was the reason for attracting such attention. The awe in which Saeed was held at Universal is hard to describe in words but it triggered an idea in my head. On that very day, I decide to give my all, to wear that green Pakistan blazer, one day. It became a burning ambition without me knowing when and where it will happen.’
Within three years of taking up the game, he made his debut in first-class cricket for Lahore Whites (Lahore’s Second XI) against Karachi Blues (Karachi’s Second XI) at Lahore Stadium in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy and met with instant success with figures of 4-98. In the following year, he was hit with a back injury that thankfully mended by Asif staying away from the game for a 12-month period.
In his first full season (1967-68), after the breakdown, Asif was a part of a three-horse race. The competition amongst the pacemen had intensified with Saleem Altaf and Sarfraz Nawaz, joining the fray. In the Ayub Trophy by taking 20 wickets @ 16.70 for the Punjab University, he emerged as the brightest pace prospect in the country.
On his second tour of England in 1974, Asif was to play an important role with the ball that helped Pakistan to become only the second touring side, after Don Bradman’s 1948 Australians, to remain unbeaten
He followed his 5-59 against Sargodha at Sargodha with a career-best 8-97 in 37.2 overs in Lahore Greens’ first innings total of 256, at Bagh-i -Jinnah, Lahore. His first game for Pakistan was in an unofficial ‘Test’ at Karachi, against Richie Benaud’s Commonwealth team. Not so long after that, Asif was preferred over Saleem Altaf, for him to make an impressive Test debut against the 1968-69 MCC touring side at Lahore. He picked up four top-order wickets in the match at the cost of 127 runs.
Asif was at his most potent with the new ball and invariably got Pakistan off to a good start with a wicket in his opening spell. It was on the 1971 England tour stole the headlines with a lion-hearted performance with the ball in the opening Test at Edgbaston, Birmingham. It was to remain the high point of his career with match figures of 9-160 off 57.5 overs of tireless effort. In Asif’s words, ‘I agree it was the most memorable match of my career. After Zaheer’s double hundred and a hundred each from Mushtaq and Asif Iqbal and the team total passing the 600 mark, I was pleasantly surprised to find movement off the wicket, right from the word go.
In my spell on the third day, Colin Cowdrey was bowled leaving the ball, when he did not expect the ball to jag back into his stumps. My off cutters were very effective and we had the England team follow-on. I took another four wickets in the second innings before rain saved England from a certain defeat.’
‘Personally I was happy with my performance, especially with little support from the other end. Both Saleem Altaf and Sarfraz were not playing due to injuries and Imran, on his Test debut, had very little control. I had not been eating very well in England and to make matters worse we were not welcome in Bangladeshi restaurants, due to the hostilities in East Pakistan. I had lost weight in the build-up to the Test, which resulted in stomach cramps. I had no choice but to carry on but sadly due to 5 hours’ loss of play on the final day, we could only claim a moral victory in a drawn Test.’
The art of winning was something elusive to Pakistan team till the mid 1970s and its highly-rated world-class batsmen were still coming to terms with playing under pressure. To some it was an evolutionary phase, as with each passing year, things did start to pick up but it was too late for Asif. A number of key matches were lost, after the Pakistan bowlers, had created an opportunity to go past the finishing line. The weight of expectation simply became too much, even for seasoned professionals.
Asif shares his thoughts with a heavy heart, ‘The memories of the third Test at Leeds in 1971 are painful. On the final day, with our openers still at the crease, we needed 206 to beat England. We had lot of support at the ground and were expected to take the match and the series from the Ashes-winning England side. Pakistanis in England were pleading us not to waste this golden opportunity.
Some came to the ground with cheque books in order to provide an incentive. At one point with 71 runs short of our target and six wickets in hand, our hopes were high but sadly it was not to be. I shall never forget the faces of the Pakistanis, as we boarded our team bus.’
Asif was picked for 1971-72 World XI squad for the series in Australia, alongside team-mates, Intikhab Alam and Zaheer Abbas. It provided a rare opportunity for Pakistan players to be in the same dressing room as the white South Africans, who had originally been scheduled to play the Test series in Australia.
More interesting was the presence of three Indian players – Farokh Engineer, Bishen Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar – at the very moment Indo-Pak war was being fought which led to East Wing distancing itself from Islamabad and creating its own identity with the creation of Bangladesh. The six Asian players showed an exemplary conduct and did their level best to keep politics out of cricket. It was on this tour that Asif set a fashion trend by wearing a boski kurta with jeans, whilst coming on the ground to see a rain-affected wicket. He sure had the looks and presence, to attract media and opposite gender
Having gained invaluable experience with the World XI in Australia the previous winter, Asif was expected to lead the attack and provide some fireworks with the Pakistan team in 1972-73. The tourists were clean swept by Ian Chappell’s Australian side with defeats in all three Test matches, at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. With only 5 wickets at an average of 80.6, Asif was clearly below par and subsequently did not feature in any of the three Tests in New Zealand.
The scars of the 52-run defeat at Sydney, are still fresh in the mind of the paceman, ‘These small targets and run-chases were a nightmare, believe me. Pakistan dressing room was a chaotic place to be and I must share some of the moments. With a target of just 159, we had to get another 111 runs with 8 wickets in hand on the final day. Don Bradman, had congratulated us the previous evening, for him as an Australian was pretty certain that Pakistan had done enough to win this particular match.
Now I was number eleven and found it so demoralising when established players such as Mushtaq and Intikhab, started advising me as to how to play in these situations. I replied back and told them in no uncertain terms that if the team expects me to win the match, then Pakistan has no chance as it was the duty of the front-line batsman to score those runs and not the tail-enders. I believe the sight of Dennis Lillee, appearing despite a back injury, psychologically killed our spirits and allowed the little known Max Walker to pick up six wickets for just 15 runs.’
On his second tour of England in 1974, Asif was to play an important role with the ball that helped Pakistan to become only the second touring side, after Don Bradman’s 1948 Australians, to remain unbeaten. The Test series was drawn 0-0 and had it not been for rain, Pakistan could have claimed a victory in the Leeds Test, for they needed to claim 4 wickets within 44 runs.
At Lord’s, weather came to Pakistan’s rescue when England required 60 runs to go one up in the series. It just was not meant to be. Besides his wicket-taking ability, Asif’s peculiar backward step before taking off on his angular bowling run-up also continued to catch attention. Tall athletic figure with flowing long hair, thick side burns to go with his well-groomed moustache, he was every inch a fast bowler of his time and a macho man of Pakistan cricket.
Asif took five wickets in 11 balls against Middlesex at Lord’s including a hat-trick and ended the tour with 29 first-class wickets @ 20.79. In a non-first-class fixture against Combined Services, he had finished the innings with four wickets in as many balls at Aldershot. With figures of 22.214.171.124 Asif won the ‘Man of the Match’ award in a 35-over match at Birmingham, enabling Pakistan to win the Prudential Trophy by 2-0.
The limited-overs experience and all-round strength of Pakistan team made them as one of the hot favourites, of the inaugural Prudential World Cup, held in sun-drenched English summer of 1975. Sadly it brought lot of misery to the supporters of the team with defeats against Australia and West Indies. Asif recalls, ‘In the match against West Indies, we allowed them to score 100 plus runs for the last two wickets.
Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the BCCP Chairman did not help matters by sending instructions to Majid Khan, the stand-in captain. I never felt the need to keep myself in the good books of Kardar, who had the habit of crossing his limits and he very nearly sent me home from the 1972-73 tour of New Zealand for not attending a meeting, having already caused so much ill-feeling in the Pakistan camp by disowning Saeed Ahmed and Mohammad Ilyas. A great captain of his time, but not a great man-manager. In my view Omar Kureshi was the best manager I worked with in my career.’
Shah, as he was referred to in the dressing room, was a permanent No. 11 in the Pakistan line-up. On two occasions, his effective swing of the bat, saved his side from complete disaster. In the 1st Test against England at Leeds in 1974, he hung around for a personal contribution of 4 not out, whilst adding 62 for the last wicket with Sarfraz Nawaz (53), in very difficult batting conditions.
It lifted Pakistan’s first innings total to a respectable 285. Asif hit three fours of West Indian Andy Roberts at Lahore in 1974-75, on his way to a Test-best 30 n.o. and a top score, in Pakistan’s disappointing first-innings 199 all out, on a rain-effected wicket.
A delightful company, Shah Sahib, now nearing his 71st birthday, has lived in Manchester since being posted by PIA, for whom he also played in the domestic cricket, in 1982 and was present at Old Trafford, both for a Test match and T20I played by the 2016 Pakistan touring team.