Illustration- Vasim Maner
Illustration- Vasim Maner

The 1990s witnessed some of the all-time great fast bowlers. The two Ws from Pakistan, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh from West Indies, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock from South Africa, and Craig McDermott and Glenn McGrath from Australia.

While Donald had the best bowling average and Waqar the best bowling strike rate, it was Akram who claimed the maximum number of wickets and he was also the biggest series-winner with the ball in ODI cricket in that decade.

No surprise here.

But the pacer who follows Akram in this regard is.

Azhar Mahmood made his ODI debut in September 1996 and, by the end of the decade, had 4 series/ tournament-defining performances ( SD /TD) with the ball in just 76 matches. This makes him the biggest series-winning fast bowler after Akram (8 series-defining performances in 195 matches) in the nineties – quite amazing for a bowler who barely played three and a half years in that decade.

It was this propensity to rise to the occasion (three TDs in tournament finals and one SD in a series-decider) which made Azhar Mahmood the third-highest impact fast bowler of the 1990s, after McGrath and Akram, despite the fact that there were 34 bowlers who had a better bowling average than him in this period (min. 50 matches and min. 50 wickets).

A stunning revelation considering the plethora of fast bowling talent that surrounded him, and for a bowler who picked up just 80 wickets from 76 matches at an average of 31.85 in that decade.

Mahmood was also the second-highest impact bowler (and also the second-biggest series winner with the ball) for Pakistan in ODI cricket (after Akram) in the nineties (min. 40 matches). This meant he had a higher impact with the ball than the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Waqar Younis and Aaqib Javed in that decade.

What makes Mahmood’s performances stand out is their timing. They came in Pakistan’s last good run in ODI cricket.


MAHMOOD’S CAREER PEAKED DURING PAKISTAN’S LAST DOMINANT PHASE IN ODIS

Mahmood had a terrible start to his ODI career failing in 9 of his first 14 matches with the ball.

Then came the transformation.

Pakistan vs India, Third ODI, Lahore, 1997: The series was tied 1-1 with all to play for in the decider. India, put in, had recovered well after the early setback of Tendulkar. Saqlain Mushtaq broke the partnership between Ganguly and Robin Singh, dismissing the former for 26. Mahmood then broke the backbone of the Indian middle-order, getting rid of Singh, Kambli and Azharuddin in quick succession to leave India reeling at 77 for 5. He was also very restrictive, conceding just 34 runs in his 9 overs. The visitors recovered to post 216, but an Ijaz Ahmed (139 not out) blitz ensured Pakistan romped to victory in just the 27th over.

This was an important series win for Pakistan. They did not have a great run coming into the series and had been beaten comprehensively (3-1) by arch-rivals India in the Sahara Cup just two weeks prior. They had not made it to the Asia Cup final and had also been beaten by Sri Lanka in two other tournament finals.

This series marked a titanic shift in Mahmood’s career and Pakistan’s fortunes leading up to the all-important World Cup in 1999. For the next couple of years, this ability to raise his game in tournament finals defined his bowling in ODI cricket.

He produced three TDs, all in tournament finals.


Vs India, Pepsi Cup, Final, Bangalore, 1999:
Electing to bat first, Pakistan – courtesy fifties from Afridi and Inzamam – posted a daunting 291 for 8 in 50 overs. Coming in at number 7, Mahmood chipped in with a 28-ball 25. Akram and Akhtar then sent the Indian top-order packing with not many on the board while Mahmood saw the back of Dravid, Robin Singh and Jadeja. He accounted for two more Indian wickets to finish with 5-38 in his 10 overs. India were bowled out for 168.


Vs India, Coca Cola Cup, Final, Sharjah, 1999:
India, choosing to bat first, were skittled for 125 by the Pakistani pace trio of Akram, Akhtar and Mahmood, thereby making the chase a mere formality. Mahmood accounted for the wickets of Jadeja and Srinath (who had been promoted up the order) and conceded 31 runs in his 10 overs. Pakistan were home within 28 overs with 8 wickets to spare.

Mahmood had produced back-to-back TDs and finished as the highest impact player in both tournaments.


Vs Sri Lanka, Coca-Cola Champions Trophy, Final, Sharjah, 1999:
Pakistan, courtesy half-centuries by Anwar and Inzamam, put up a competitive 211 (considering the par for the tournament, it was a good score). Akram and Razzaq gave Pakistan the initial breakthroughs before Mahmood ripped through the middle and lower-order. He returned with figures of 5-28 in 10 overs and Sri Lanka were routed for 123.

It was Mahmood’s third TD of the year making him the highest impact bowler and player in 1999 – a remarkable achievement.

It is also commendable that three of Mahmood’s 4 SDs/TDs came against India – clashes which always come with that extra pressure and burden of expectancy from passionate Pakistani fans. Mahmood is Pakistan’s highest impact bowler and the sixth-highest impact overall against India in ODIs (min. 20 matches). This speaks volumes of his character and temperament.

He also did exceptionally well in the 1999 World Cup but uncharacteristically, failed to deliver in the knockout stages.


WORLD CUP, 1999

Mahmood was the highest impact bowler in the year leading to the World Cup. Pakistan entered the 1999 World Cup on the back of two major triumphs against India. They carried on with that momentum and finished as the runners-up to Australia in the tournament.

Mahmood was Pakistan’s second-highest impact bowler after Shoaib Akhtar, and he produced five high impact performances. Only three other players – Lance Klusener, Shane Warne and Jacques Kallis – produced five or more high impact performances in the tournament.

Vs West Indies: 37 in 51 balls and 3-48 in 10 overs.

Vs New Zealand: 14 in 12 balls and 3-38 in 10 overs.

Vs South Africa: 15 in 10 balls and 3-24 in 10 overs.

Vs India: 2-35 in 10 overs and 10 in 17 balls.

Vs Zimbabwe: 2 in 3 balls and 2-14 in 8 overs.

However, he failed in the semi-final and in the final (where most of the Pakistani players failed) and perhaps that is why his performances in the group stages have been conveniently forgotten.

Pakistan were the third-best ODI team in terms of win-loss ratio and frequency of series/tournaments won in the world between September 1996 and December 1999, after South Africa (by far the most dominant ODI team in this timeframe) and Australia (the 1999 World Cup champions were a distant second, but they would take over in the years to come). They won 14 out of the 26 series/tournaments they played in this stretch and Azhar Mahmood (with 4 SDs/TDs in just 76 matches) was their biggest series/tournament winner, ahead of Akram and Afridi who also had 4 SDs/TDs apiece but in more number of matches. He was also their second-highest impact bowler and player (after Akram).

It is curious how, after such a meteoric rise, Mahmood’s impact as a bowler fell spectacularly in the new millennium (post 2000). A combination of some unfair treatment by the Pakistani Cricket Board (Mahmood was regularly dropped from the team after he refused captaincy in 2001) and some indifferent performances meant that he played just 67 more ODIs till his retirement in early 2007 in which he had a 69% failure rate with the ball. In fact, he was among the lowest impact bowlers in world cricket in this period. A stunning fall after a blitzkrieg run. But even in this period, and true to his inner trait, he managed to produce two high impact performances in the knockout stages (3-52 in 10 overs against Sri Lanka in the quarter-final and 4-65 in 10 overs against New Zealand in the semi-final) of the ICC KnockOut Trophy in Kenya in 2000.

Pakistan’s fortunes in ODI cricket also saw a gradual decline post 2000 and it has been a perpetual slide thereafter. In a way, the end of Mahmood’s freak run also marked an end to one of Pakistan’s last dominant phases in ODI cricket.

Perhaps the way he finished his career – with a string of failures – made the cricketing world forget Mahmood’s real contribution to Pakistani cricket.

The ability to consistently, and emphatically, rise to the occasion on the biggest stage in a short span of time, and being a vital contributor during his country’s last dominant run in ODI cricket, is Azhar Mahmood’s legacy and contribution to Pakistan’s limited-overs history. He was no footnote.

 

 

 

Nikhil Narain