One ball to go, four to get. Millions on either side of the Line of Control glued to their television sets, Ram and Allah being invoked in parallel worlds, cricket fans waiting to erupt in lavas of emotion. On strike, Javed Miandad, a warrior of many an India-Pakistan battle. Bowling to him, Chetan Sharma, a young fast bowler, probably a shade quicker than expected for a relatively short man. This was 1986: you didn’t expect sixes to be hit for fun, not even in the desert of Sharjah.
The next few seconds were a blur. A low full toss was smoked over square leg: a cathartic moment that would win Miandad many cash prizes and define the India-Pakistan rivalry for several years. In the gloom around me, I clenched my fists and let out a shriek: “He has done it, the guy has bloody well done it!” While my friends were moaning, I wore an almost self-congratulatory grin, as if I had half-expected the seemingly impossible from a cricketer we loved to hate.
A little over a year later, I found myself in England playing for Combined Universities against the Pakistanis, my presence more a reflection of the declining standards of varsity cricket than any recognition of my talent. The thought of playing against Miandad was exciting. But when the Pakistan team bus arrived in Oxford, he was missing. He had chosen to stay back in London to rest rather than make the trip and compete with struggling undergraduates. I made my disappointment known to a Pakistani official. He retorted, “Haven’t you Indians grown sick and tired of watching him bat!”
Historian Ramachandra Guha has a delightful Miandad story to share. India were playing Pakistan in a tense World Cup quarter-final in Bangalore in 1996. As the run rate climbed, Miandad tried to take a non-existent single and was run out. It was his last international match and as he left the ground, Guha got up to cheer him. “What are you applauding him for?” asked the man in the next seat. “Because he is a great player and we may never see him play again!” was Guha’s response. Pat came the sharp reply: “Thank God I will never have to see that bastard play again!”
For almost two decades Miandad was the Indian cricket fan’s enemy No. 1. He was someone you couldn’t ignore. In the 1980s there was a B-grade Hindi film with a villain named Javed Miandad.
In 2005 the Pakistan team visited India and I suggested we rope Miandad in as an expert voice for the channel I worked for then. When our marketing team rang him, he quoted an astronomical fee. “I am retired now, I need the money,” he said. He eventually went to a rival channel for a higher price. The editor there would later tell me, “Javed is like Mogambo [a Hindi film villain] – bigger than the hero!”
I think Miandad liked the bad-boy image: he relished getting under the skin of the opposition, especially the Indian team. Remember him mimicking Kiran More’s appealing during a World Cup game in 1992 with a series of frog jumps? Or breaking the stumps after being declared lbw in the ill-tempered 1979-80 series? Or fielding at silly point, literally in the batsman’s pocket, with a constant burst of chatter?
India saw the best and worst of Miandad, a Jekyll and Hyde who could be perfectly affable one moment, a devilish imp the next. Maybe his attitude reflected the dualism of the Pakistani Mohajirs – those who left India during Partition but never quite broke the umbilical cord. He was born in Karachi but his father had lived in Gujarat before 1947. Perhaps like many others from similar backgrounds, Miandad couldn’t quite settle the identity question: he was a proud Pakistani but conscious of his roots. In 1977, when my father (the late Dilip Sardesai) invited him to play in his benefit match, Miandad rang him excitedly: “Sir, zaroor aaoonga [I will definitely come], playing in India is a dream!” As it turned out, he didn’t get a visa and so couldn’t make the trip.
In the ensuing years he more than made up. From the time he first played a Test against India in 1978, he showed a healthy contempt for Indian bowling. Blessed with a sharp eye, powerful wrists and quick feet, he decimated the famous spin quartet in the autumn of their careers. The 1978-79 series will be remembered for Zaheer Abbas, and yet it was the young Miandad with his in-your-face bravado and electric running who caught my eye. I even had a Miandad poster on my wall, perhaps my first act of teenage rebellion.
Zaheer was superhuman in that series, Miandad carried the frailties of a batsman with an apparently imperfect technique, but one blessed with an inventiveness and fortitude that made him difficult to get out. He was a bit like the galli cricketers of Mumbai (or Karachi, its twin city): they often had awkward stances and unorthodox strokes but always scored runs, never missing the cheeky single. Today, cricketers practise the reverse sweep; for Miandad it was an extension of his persona.
If you wanted someone to play for your life in that period, you would either bet on Sunil Gavaskar, with the straightest of bats, or Miandad with his sheer defiance. Gavaskar and Miandad would have made quite a pair: one a silent and ruthless run-accumulator, the other a jack-in-the-box who relished a good scrap. Maybe their contrasting styles reflected their backgrounds: Gavaskar symbolising the steadfastness of Mumbai’s Dadar-Shivaji Park middle class, Miandad the chutzpah of Karachi’s unforgiving backstreets.
Miandad averaged an astonishing 67.51 against India in Tests. During a match in Bangalore he repeatedly taunted left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi by asking him for his room number. Doshi finally tired. “Why do you want my room number?” he asked with irritation. “Because I want to hit the next ball for six into your room!”
Miandad’s five centuries against India were all made on Pakistani soil, where, as former England cricketer and umpire Peter Willey once reminded us at an after-dinner speech, “it was impossible to get an lbw against Miandad”. Maybe with his exaggerated shuffle and bottom-hand grip, he was more vulnerable away from home. Yet the very fact that he averaged more than 50 throughout his career makes him a very special player. He may have lacked the elegance of Zaheer, the power of Inzamam-ul-Haq or the dazzle of Majid Khan, but his competitive zeal made him arguably greater.
For me, Miandad was the brat in the neighborhood who never took a step back: you might have disliked his antics, but life would have been boring without him. And just when his penchant for mischief would infuriate, he would wield a cricket bat like the roadside magician who came up with a trick a day. Which is probably why we loved and hated him in equal measure.
Post-script (with Miandad there has to be one): In 2005, Miandad’s son married the daughter of Dawood Ibrahim, the underworld don and prime accused in the 1993 Mumbai bombings. Eight years later Miandad had to cancel a trip to India after controversy broke out over him being granted a visa despite his Dawood connection. “Please see me as a cricketer first, then a relative of Dawood,” he told me in a phone interview. Maybe the wheel had come full circle: the man who was once Indian cricket’s most wanted and the criminal who was India’s most wanted were now united by kinship. How typical of him to cock a snook at us even in retirement!
Rajdeep Sardesai is consulting editor and lead news anchor with India Today TV and the author of 2014: The Election That Changed India. He played first-class cricket for Oxford University.
This piece first appeared in espncricinfo cricket monthly