“Look at the some of the dismissals of Jonny Bairstow or Jason Roy,” Mohammad Hafeez says about the adventurous shot selection of England’s openers as he strives to make a larger point about Pakistan cricket. “If any Pakistani batsman gets out with those shots couple of times, he will never play again for the country.”
In a television show back home in Pakistan, aired before he left for the World Cup, Hafeez is talking about the difficulties of being a Pakistan cricketer. “Many players who feel insecure about selection, who haven’t yet cemented their spots, fear about it. Darr hai society mein. Are we ready to back our players through bad times?”
More than anyone else, Hafeez should know all about it. It’s been 16 years since he first played for Pakistan, but forget pyaar and pazirai (love and acceptance), he doesn’t even get respect. A much-criticised player, by fans and former cricketers, he has fought on through the years. In a television show a couple of years ago, Shoaib Akthar had a dig at Hafeez, who was the captain then. “Hafeez bas chup rahe on the field.” Sitting beside him, Wasim Akram chuckled before saying, “Mushkil hai, almost impossible!” The two were talking about Hafeez’s nature to over-coach and make suggestions to bowlers and team-mates.
He is known as “Professor” for his penchant for analysis, and mockingly, for his verbose and unsolicited advices. So they say. Akram pointed out an instance from the PSL when Shahid Afridi was captain and the bowler but Hafeez, standing at third man, insisted on a field change and the ball went for four as a result. “Kum sey kum third man se captaincy na karo (At least, don’t try captaincy from third man),” Akram said with a laugh. Not that Hafeez cares. Just before he left for the World Cup, he talked about how he would “not interfere but would continue to offer advice and suggestions as it’s his responsibility as a senior player”.
Hafeez has been also criticised for his strike rate, perhaps not as much as Shoaib Malik, but has had his share of criticism.
It’s in this backdrop that Hafeez walked on the field in Nottingham. Moeen Ali was bowling like a dream and, along with Mark Wood, had successfully dragged the run rate down, and picked up a wicket. What was Hafeez’s response? The man criticised for letting things drift ran down the track first ball to clobber Ali over mid-off. It was a statement and a half. Three balls later, arrived a bouncer from Ben Stokes and the ball was thrown back from the deep square-leg boundary.
Subsequent events proved the frenetic start wasn’t a reactionary urge; not even a counter-attacking move just to push the field back before he settles in. He wasn’t going to die wondering, not at this stage, not after an injury had forced him out of the last World Cup. Just a few balls in came the moment of reprieve, when he charged out to tonk Adil Rashid and his heart would have been in his mouth when he saw Jason Roy settle under it at long-off. Perhaps, Roy had too much time under it and dropped the catch. Hafeez was on 12 in the 25th over then, and eased out the next 11 balls, nurdling seven singles before Rashid opened the floodgates again. A tossed-up ball flew over long-on and the subsequent length-adjustment had the ball crashing into the midwicket boundary.
Hafeez’s experience took over from that point on – he punctuated the singles with the odd four – always well-timed hits, didn’t allow the occasional short deliveries to trouble him, and kept manoeuvring the field with neat deflections. As English bowlers started to tire, the errors crept in and when Jofra Archer provided a full delivery on his legs, Hafeez scoop-flicked it over long-leg for a crowd-pleasing six. His last hundred had come in 2015, incidentally against England, but on 84, he creamed an over-pitched delivery from Wood but couldn’t get the desired elevation and was pouched at long-off.
You might not sense the classical art of spin if you probe his bowling but he has a situational awareness of the demands on batsmen in limited-overs cricket. At one stage in his career, a few years back, he could be easily trusted to bowl with the new ball and come in the middle overs to stop the run-flow. When batsmen tried to attack him, he was pretty good. He even had a wood on left-handed batsmen like JP Duminy, slipping in those skiddy straighter ones that would come in with the angle from round the stumps to fetch him lbw dismissals. There isn’t much drift or any such nuance in his bowling, but Hafeez built a reputation for himself and a visual package to go alongside. The occasional pause before release, the left foot that would occasionally stretch out a long stride when he sought to shorten the length, and the general demeanour of confidence about him. These days, he isn’t as effective, but on Monday, just as he did with his batting, he produced an inspired version of himself.
He served Eoin Morgan with a a series of tight deliveries around off-stump before he curled one in, and cramped for room, Morgan tried to manufacture a cut but saw his off stump pegged back. However, it would be against him that England would break free in the 25th over when Jos Buttler and Joe Root smoked a six apiece of him, and began to turn the tide. But his team-mates ensured his efforts didn’t go in vain. Until then, if there was one man who had kept Pakistan ahead in the game with bat and ball, it was the unloved Hafeez.
A Hafeez moment that would stay in the mind, though, came in the 49th over of the chase. Seeing Adil Rashid try a shimmy to the off to paddle-scoop over short fine leg where Hafeez was stationed, Sarfaraz asked him to drop back next ball. Hafeez shook his head. Sarfaraz then signalled the third man to drop back. A ball later, the ball sliced towards, where else, but that third man fielder. Don’t knock the professor.