Heavenly alchemy from Abdul Qadir - sporting bygones

All-time great: Abdul Qadir.
All-time great: Abdul Qadir.
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THE breaking news flashed across the television screen during the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford last month.

“Abdul Qadir – 1955-2019,” came the announcement.

A magician, absolutely. A leg-spinner and a trailblazer of his time.

Wasim Akram

The former Pakistan leg-spinner had passed away.

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Nine days short of his 64th birthday, Qadir had suffered a heart attack in Lahore.

Imran Khan, the Pakistan Prime Minister and his former captain, took to Twitter to proclaim him “a genius”.

It was one of a torrent of heartfelt tributes.

As David Gower relayed the sad news of Qadir’s death on Sky television, remembering his own battles with him in the 1980s and how the bowler would forever be asking him whether he could read his googly, I felt a part of my childhood die a death, too.

For Qadir, along with the great Viv Richards, was my boyhood hero.

He was the cricketer that I always wanted to be.

There comes a time – usually not far into adolescence, if not before – when the vast majority of us realise that we will never be good enough to play professional sport.

Around this time we also wise up to the fact that we will never be in a world-famous pop band, become an astronaut, rise to the office of Brexit Secretary in Boris Johnson’s cabinet or whatever our particularly fancy may be.

Yet, for a brief, naive, all-too-fleeting period, everything seems possible in our childhood state.

So it was that I pretended, while playing cricket with friends in the street or on the school fields, to be Viv Richards with the bat or Abdul Qadir with the ball.

Many of you, no doubt, could tell a similar story.

Qadir, in particular, fascinated me as a child, for there was something magically different about him, mystical almost.

He seemed not so much a force of nature as a supernatural force; his bowling had an air of heavenly alchemy.

The first thing that captivated me about him was his run-up and the whole theatre of his bowling action.

Thanks to YouTube, you can see it for yourself, if you cannot remember it or never watched him play.

I looked at some footage the other day.

Qadir started his run-up at a 45-degree angle to the stumps. He gave the ball a quick spin before setting off and then bounced in over several paces, wetting his spinning fingers as he did so as though preparing to turn the pages of The Yorkshire Post.

When he arrived at the crease, Qadir unleashed the ball with a fast bowler’s menace and follow-through, often the prelude to a passionate appeal or great celebration.

He had charisma, with a sometime goatee beard and flowing black hair, and each ball was an event in the hands of this master showman.

For hours, yours truly – along with countless youngsters across the world – attempted to copy Qadir’s unique method.

The run-up was never a problem (any fool can bounce in at a 45-degree angle while licking their fingers, after all), but controlling the ball at the end of this performance was most definitely a problem – not least because Qadir’s style was so individual to him that it knocked schoolboy emulators out of sync.

Leg-spin is cricket’s hardest hard anyway, requiring that one contorts one’s wrist into improbable positions, especially when trying to deliver the googly out of the back of the hand, but trying to bowl it like Abdul was harder still.

The fact that Qadir near single-handed flew the flag for leg-spin in the 1970s and 1980s only added to his aura; he preserved the art famously populated by Australia’s Shane Warne.

Qadir had particular success against England in 1987, taking 40 wickets against them in four Tests, beginning with 10 in the final Test of that summer at The Oval before a three-match return series in Pakistan.

That was the controversial series in which England captain Mike Gatting and Pakistan umpire Shakoor Rana had their famous altercation in Faisalabad, a series in which Qadir captured 30 wickets at an average of 14.56.

I distinctly remember as a youngster sneaking down the stairs at the crack of dawn, so as not to wake the rest of the household, to listen to Test Match Special on the lowest possible volume as he took 9-56 in the first Test in Lahore, still the best figures by a Pakistan bowler in Test cricket.

The umpiring, of course, was dreadful at times, and I can still picture one leg-break – to Gatting, I think – on the brief television news highlights which seemed to strike the right-handed Gatting outside the line of his off stump before turning away even further to the off.

Qadir surely benefited from a number of dodgy decisions during his career, although the flip-side is that he might have had just as many wickets the other way had the decision review system been around in his time.

Such was my fascination with Qadir, this extaordinary enigma, that I remember, also, how he would dominate the games of dice cricket that I would play to myself as a child.

Basically, I would score out entire Test matches – entire Test tours, even – with a couple of dice and then scribble out a match report as I imagined that it might appear in the following year’s Wisden.

Inevitably, Qadir would dominate the games in which Pakistan appeared, often bowling for most of the innings and taking most of the wickets as I subconsciously doctored the outcome in his favour. Happy days...

Thankfully, I never met Qadir, which might have spoilt things; they do say, after all, that one should never meet one’s heroes.

I noticed, however, that in the many obituaries to him it was said that he was as universally liked as he was universally admired.

“The life of the dressing room, entertaining the team with his wit and humour,” was another of Imran’s reflections.

With Qadir, though, it was never the wit, the wickets or the cricketing stats; it was, first and foremost, the glorious style.

Even on his poor, wicket-less days – of which there were few – there always seemed to be something compelling about him, the destiny of the ball once he had delivered it almost secondary to everything that had gone into its actual delivery.

Qadir’s passing should not go unmourned by a serious newspaper, for he was one of cricket’s all-time greats.

More than that, he was a great inspiration and servant to an art form that is among the most glorious and romantic in sport.

Wasim Akram, another former team-mate, put it like this: “A magician, absolutely. A leg-spinner and a trailblazer of his time.

“You will be missed, Abdul Qadir, but never forgotten.”