In a sixteen-year international career, Zaheer Abbas stood out as one of the world’s premier batsmen. The only Asian batsman to score 100 first-class hundreds, he made over 5000 Test runs and over 2500 ODI runs (with averages for both in the mid-40s). Since retirement he has concentrated on a business career but has nevertheless found time to be Pakistan’s U-15 batting coach, a coach of PIA, an ICC Match Referee and a National Selector.
His statistics, excellent as they are, don’t do him quite enough justice. Zaheer Abbas in his prime was a sublime stroke-player. Imran Khan once told me that “I have never seen the ball timed any better than by Zaheer.”
We spoke in Hong Kong last month, where the relaxed and fit-looking, ever-twinkling and genial Zaheer, still known as ‘Zed’ by many fans, voiced his concerns at the state of Pakistan cricket.
“It’s not that we don’t have the ability, we do. What I want to say is that the young talent is not coming through. It is not coming through, and it is not being found.”
And yet Pakistan won the Under-19 World Cup in March 2004. Isn’t that some evidence of talent?
“I don’t disagree with that and the boys did well, but Under-19 cricket is useful only as a preparation for senior-level cricket. What I see is that the national players are not being challenged hard enough for their places. Talent is not just talent it’s about being good enough to take another’s place. No one is coming through.” (Of the Under - 19 champions, only Riaz Afridi has made it to senior level, and that was due to injuries to both Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami during a series against Sri Lanka.)
So what’s the solution?
“The solution is first to recognize that there is a problem. Yes, Pakistan have done well at under-19, under-17, under-15 in recent years but the talent (apart from Salman Butt) – is not getting through. We’re not getting any players. I’m quite surprised that people are telling me there is talent because as a fan, I don’t get to see it. Talent can not come if the team keeps the same players. The Board, they should be knowing, they have to know like a father, exactly what their son wants. And they also need to look around and see in what areas the team is lacking. They should concentrate more on Under - 19 , Under - 17 and Under - 15 levels.”
What do you mean by saying the Board should be “like a father” to its players?
“The Board should be knowing what its players’ strengths and weaknesses are and do their best to help them. We see it everywhere, a father will bring a boy who wants to play cricket and shows some ability to a place where the son can play and become better. I mean it’s not that a basic father will know how to make their sons true cricketers – every father will like to say ‘my son is like Zaheer Abbas, he bats like him’ but the real test has to be in the eyes of someone who knows. My main objective is the promotion of the game in my country. I feel bad whenever our team is not doing well. We have done so much in the past.”
What about the level of interest in the game amongst youngsters?
“I have noticed that some people are saying that children are not interested any more – life is too comfortable with TV and AC, but the fact of the matter is that for the boys who play cricket, they have no competitions. When they know there’s no competition they will naturally get fed up and lose interest. Even a lot of my friends aren’t interested in cricket anymore because the matches seem less important than before.”
What qualities do you look for in a young cricketer?
“Well, first they must have an appetite for the game. I don’t expect them to be perfect on debut. In cricket you are learning all the time. But what is most important is mental toughness. It is this kind of quality that sets Inzamam and Yousuf Youhana apart.”
They make batting look so easy, don’t they?
“Yes, it is their talent. But successful batting is about making runs when conditions are very difficult. For that you need a good technique and you need the mental strength to survive. That is what makes a long career.”
What will happen after Inzamam retires?
“I don’t know. For a long time he has been carrying the batting but maybe he only has a short time of cricket left. What I mean is that he has been playing cricket for a long time now, and any injury could end his career permanently. Realistically, I expect him to play for a few more years.”
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