The cricket world is mourning the death of Hanif Mohammed at the age of 81, one of the finest cricketers that Pakistan produced and who played in the very first Test match after that country received Test status. A player of diminutive stature, he was noted for his excellent defensive technique and responsible for some incredible batting records.
His most notable performance was the time he batted for 970 minutes (16 hours and 10 minutes or nearly three complete days) while scoring 337 runs against West Indies in 1958. Test matches nowadays are played over five six-hour days but the 1958 Test allowed for six days. West Indies batted first and scored a mammoth 579 runs over the first two days. Pakistan was quickly skittled out for just 106 runs by around lunch time on the third. Sent in to bat again and facing a deficit of 473 runs, Pakistan seemed doomed but Mohammed anchored a great recovery that lasted into the sixth day and saw his team score a total of 657 runs. His Herculean effort saved Pakistan from what had seemed like certain defeat and enabled them to get a no-decision (called a ‘draw’ in cricket) in the Test.
That record still stands. It is this kind of performance that separates cricket lovers from the rest. That kind of dogged endurance to save his team from defeat is hailed by cricket lovers while others would be bored out of their minds. Hanif’s power of concentration during that long innings is still looked upon with awe. While he was batting, even the West Indian spectators started rooting for him as they realized that they were witnessing an incredible performance.
There has been no shortage of accolades for Hanif’s endeavour. It left witnesses in awe of his powers of concentration, drawing generous commendation in the autobiographies of Hanif’s team-mate Fazal Mahmood, and Sir Garry Sobers, who played against him. Fazal describes how Hanif eventually charmed even the partisan spectators: “The West Indies crowd was hostile to him during the first two days of his batting, but turned friendly on the third day. They then started instructing him how to tackle Gilchrist and the others. One spectator sitting on top of a tree would forewarn Hanif whether the next ball would be a bouncer or a yorker.”
Hanif’s magnificent achievement can be gauged by several yardsticks, but none more remarkable than that 50 years on, it is still celebrated as an unequalled feat. After that innings, he shot up in fame and stature immediately. But he readily acknowledges he had no idea that so long after, his effort would remain unsurpassed. In the intervening time the world has seen another 1400-odd Test matches and an extraordinary cavalcade of batting feats, but it has yet to see an innings of greater valour and defiance. One can never settle the question whether it is the greatest innings of all time, but Hanif’s 337 is as good a contender for that title as any.
He also held for 35 years the record for the most runs scored in a first-class match, which was 499. That record also seemed like it would last forever but was broken by West Indian Brian Lara in 1994 when he scored 501.
Hanif was the oldest of a cricketing family of five brothers, four of whom played for the Pakistani Test team, as did his son, while the fifth brother came close but did not quite make it.