Nowadays, a hundred can even be scored in a 20 overs game, yet it is comprised of slogs rather than strokes. With Pakistan Super League (PSL) in full swing, centuries would be a treat to watch, but there was a time when scoring a hundred, even in a 40-overs game, was not child’s play. Those were the days when “slow” bowlers were not picked for limited overs as pace was there to grace the field. It was 40 years ago, on 25th January 1978, when Asif Iqbal did the unthinkable, against the mightiest, fiercest of the bowling attacks.
In the late ‘70s, Australia media tycoon Kerry Packer transformed the game of cricket. Packer asked for TV rights of the forthcoming Ashes series for his Channel 9. When he was refused, he “hijacked” the game. He started his own unofficial series with professional cricketers that went successfully for a couple of seasons. Night cricket was ‘in’, cricketers were marketed as individuals, and television coverage was done differently. Players from all teams sans New Zealand and India were signed and three sides, World XI, West Indians and Australians started to play, just like gladiators, to a packed crowd.
Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Muhammad were all part of the Packer’s “Circus”, despite being active with Pakistan side, but the man who led them the “revolution” was Asif Iqbal who had just retired from the game. “I decided to quit before the final Test between Pakistan and West Indies in 1977, as I was approached by Tony Grieg to join the World Series Cricket. They later asked me if I would be helpful in recruiting other Pakistanis, which I did.”
Asif scored a century in the final Test at Jamaica, but the required target of 442 was too much for the visitors. “The only thing that could end my retirement was an India-Pakistan series which had not happened since 1961,” the 74-year-old Asif recalled while talking to this scribe from England, where he currently resides.
World Series Cricket started in November ’77, and by January, it was getting the desired results. India and Australia were busy playing a competitive five-match Test series, with a third string Australian side.
In Pakistan, England was on tour and a dull series was held between a weak Pakistan side and the Englishmen. Former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was in jail and the appearance of his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, during the Lahore Test, resulted in arson and lathi-charge. At the conclusion of the series, both teams were awarded medals by General Zia for playing the most pathetic cricket. Hours after the series ended, thousands of miles away, West Indians defeated Australia in a thrilling match. Played under lights in VFL Park at Melbourne, the West Indians needed five to win off two deliveries. Wayne Daniel hit the penultimate delivery from Malone out of the park, securing an unbelievable victory. Those were the days of eight-ball overs and the white ball was as new as cricket under the night sky.
The win was taken seriously in the World XI camp who were scheduled to face the WIndies the very next night. The batting side had the likes of Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Roy Fredricks; while the bowling line-up had Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel and Brendan Julien. Windies scored 9/238 in the allotted 40 overs. The World XI was reduced to 5/81. Julien accounted for Majid Khan, Dennis Amiss and Bob Woolmer, while Eddie Barlow was retired out. Daniel got the wicket of Mushtaq Muhammad. A 33-year-old Asif Iqbal came out to bat when Barlow retired at 2/27. He had been in such situations many a time and knew how to handle the things. With loads of country and county experience, he was the man.
Over 200 runs were required for victory and no player yet had managed to cross the hundred-run mark under lights. The maximum, 96 not out, were scored by Collis King, and the Man of Crisis from Pakistan decided to rise to the occasion.
Asif’s unusual placement of right hand at the bottom of his bat made his stance different from others.
After the dismissal of skipper Tony Grieg, Asif was joined by Imran Khan, who was yet to achieve greatness. Imran and Asif stabilised the situation with sensible cricket. With fielders up in the circle, Asif unleashed his strokes and brought up the century of his side in the 22nd over.
With a defensive field, commentators were not in favour of the World XI emerging as winners. Asif brought up his fifty in style with consecutive fours of Collis King in the 24th over. With nearly eight runs per over required, Asif ably guided the young Imran and built a steady partnership. He didn’t hesitate in using his feet, while a 26-year-old Imran complimented his senior with several hits to the fence.
Asif’s century came up in the 35th over, followed by a slight invasion on the field by children. Commentator Tony Cozier called it “charge of the light brigade”. Imran Khan had completed his half-century just an over earlier and the “World” was in safe hands.
Around 18,000 people were enthralled till the end. A victory against the “World Champions” of those days is still hard to believe. The World XI beat the West Indians by five wickets with 22 deliveries to spare. Against an all-pace attack, this was nothing short of a miracle. Asif and Imran put on undefeated 158 runs for the 6th wicket. Imran was undefeated at 63 while Asif managed 113. He did get to score the first ever hundred under lights.
Asif recalled an interesting anecdote regarding the innings. “Kerry Packer specially flew in from Hawai for the match. He had earlier told me that the West Indians were going to beat the hell out of the World, as they did a day earlier. I replied that it would be the other way around. He gave me odds of 100 to 1, if that happened. We were playing in a Football turned Cricket stadium, and when I returned after winning the match, he was waiting for me in the tunnel with an autographed hundred dollar bill. It was something I still cherish.”
Back in Pakistan, General Zia’s regime was in full swing, and Packer players were considered mercenaries. PTV had boycotted the matches and there was no chance for Pakistanis to watch the match as VCR was still not a common a feature in a normal household. Newspapers were no different as Asif Iqbal’s match-saving innings got no space in the sports sections, although cricket magazines did carry news and colour photos, but for that one had to wait for weeks.
The game is now played with might, not with mind. For a generation that has grown up listening to stories of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, it would be a different experience to catch the glimpse of the game of Asif Iqbal.