The mellowing of Saeed Ahmed

Published in The Nightwatchman 2018

It is not always easy to call on former Pakistan cricket captain, Saeed Ahmed. On my last attempt he spoke to me only briefly in the street, barring passage to his home in Faisal Town, Lahore, as if blocking for a draw in a Test match.

But there was a very different response when I went there a few days ago with the cricket historian Najum Latif. We had to wait in the street for his return from the mosque. We watched him walking slowly home, breaking off to buy a roasted corn on the cob. Then he saw Najum, one of his oldest friends – and broke into a genuine sprint as if taking a short single, although wearing sharply pointed shoes, in the style the English call winklepickers.

He ushered us inside the house and served us a luscious pile of kinnows, all peeled by himself. When the pile disappeared he offered another instantly.
At 80 years old, Saeed Ahmed seems happier and healthier than on earlier meetings over the last five years, although he has become very thin. His eyes sparkle, his gestures are animated: it is possible to recognize the dashing, charismatic batsman who burst into the Pakistan Test team sixty years ago.

Saeed Ahmed scored at least 50 in his first six Test matches for Pakistan, all against a powerful West Indies side. He made over 500 runs at an average over 50 on his first tour of the Caribbean against an attack including Gary Sobers, Wes Hall, Collie Smith, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine and the terrifying Roy Gilchrist. Then there were more big performances at home against Australia and on tour against India. To this day Saeed Ahmed is the Pakistani who reached 1000 Test runs more quickly than any other.

All these performances were on hard wickets, and he proved fallible on seaming English ones (despite changing his upright stance to a crouch to get a better sight of the ball) and later against extreme pace. But he ended with 2991 runs in 41 Test matches at an average just over 40. His probing off-spin was under-used in Tests but produced 332 first-class wickets. As a Lancashire League professional for Nelson he was actually more useful as a bowler than batsman, taking nearly 200 wickets in two seasons at an average cost below 10. He is especially proud of his first season in 1965 when he helped them to win the League championship and the knock-out Worsley Cup. “Me and Learie Constantine,” he told me: the great West Indian was the only other professional to achieve this for Nelson.

He also cites a performance that year of 85 and 100 (out of 157) representing the Lancashire League against the county side. At this distance, he remembers that Brian Statham (“what a swing bowler he was”) bowled for Lancashire: alas, the scoreboard shows otherwise, but the Lancashire attack was still quite handy.

On my first visit five years ago, it was hard to get him to talk about his cricket career: the interview was dominated by his religious vision in 1978 and its aftermath. I saw no cricket memorabilia in his drawing room.

But this time the walls were lined with cricketing photographs, especially of his legendary cover drive, which regularly thumped the boundary boards before the bowler had finished his follow-through. He was eager to point out his presentation by Hanif Mohammad to the Queen at Lord’s on Pakistan’s England tour of 1967. (Saeed Ahmed is one of that very select band of cricketers, all Pakistani, to have been presented to the Queen of England and the President of the United States. On his fleeting visit in 1959 to Pakistan’s Third Test against Australia, President Eisenhower watched him being caught by Neil Harvey at slip off Alan Davidson for 8. Many of the American reporters blamed the “Ike effect” for his fall: he had scored a fluent 91 in the first innings.)

He took the chance to re-tell – and re-embellish – the story of his private conversation with the Queen at Lord’s in 1967, when the two of them watched Hanif compile some of his epic 187. Most people are overawed in the presence of the Queen, but Saeed was quite unabashed and took the chance to draw her out about her tours of the Commonwealth. He provided an unusual glimpse of her as a quick-witted lady full of snappy one-liners. When he asked her what she remembered about Pakistan she replied instantly: “cricket and horses.” He claims that the Queen gave him an open invitation to drop into Buckingham Palace, which he has not been able to take up during the succeeding fifty years.

A movie buff, Saeed Ahmed was almost as thrilled by his meeting with the great Dilip Kumar in Pakistan’s tour of India in 1960-61. (The social life of that tour was infinitely more interesting than the cricket, in which every single match was drawn.)

Saeed’s conversation bounced around times and places. He paid moving tribute to the early support he received from the founding father of Pakistan cricket, Chief Justice Cornelius. He was almost as generous to his ex-wife Salma, although their parting was bitter and she left a scathing portrait of him in her memoirs. He acknowledges today the support to him and all his family which she provided through her diplomatic connexions.

As a personality, Saeed Ahmed produced strong reactions from those who knew him. Apart from Salma, Mushtaq Mohammad and Imran Khan left poor impressions of him in their autobiographies. But I have heard other accounts of a genuinely fun-loving man who often surprised friends with a generous gesture. Certainly, his later career was full of storms, both cricketing and personal. He coveted the Pakistan captaincy, but his three matches in charge, in the crisis-strewn home series against England in 1968-69, were stressful and unhappy. Fans and the media attacked him for being over-cautious. In the final Test in Karachi, the anger at him for supplanting the local favourite, Hanif Mohammad, contributed to the riots that caused the Test to be abandoned. He was several times dropped and reinstated as a player (once he had to apologize for an apparent assault on the then Board of Control chairman). Finally, he was banned outright by A H Kardar, who accused him of feigning a back injury to avoid facing Dennis Lillie on a green Melbourne wicket. (Few people have ever wanted to face Dennis Lillie on a green Melbourne wicket, and Saeed Ahmed is still adamant that the injury was genuine.)

Outside cricket, he fell on bad times in the early 1970s. He was divorced from Salma. His business interests (derived from her) foundered, as did an attempt at a political career. At one stage he lived in a trailer and had a brief spell in prison for sedition. The fall of Z A Bhutto (and Kardar) allowed him to attempt a cricket comeback at the age of 40, in Peshawar against the touring English team of 1977-78. It failed: Bob Willis was too much for him and the crowd wanted to see local favourites in the team rather than forgotten stars.

At this low ebb of his life, he experienced the religious vision which transformed his life. When I first met him, he took over two hours to describe it, in a torrent of words. This time he was much briefer, but he had the same intensity. After forty years, he told me, the vision has the power to leave him feeling weak and virtually incapacitated.

At the risk of great over-simplification, the vision convinced him that the end of the world is at hand, but will be preceded by a great Islamic renaissance in which all the world’s faiths will be unified. It showed a dramatically new path for him as an Islamic evangelist. His lifestyle, his values, even his clothing were transformed. He gave up parties and nightlife in favour of prayer and very public religious observance. He grew a beard. He abandoned Western fashions in favour of traditional clothing. There is a memorable image of him in 1999, astonishing his regular party companion, Tony Greig, with his new appearance as a preacher. He joined the evangelistic Tabligi-Jemaat and is regularly identified as its first cricketing recruiter. Many sources have suggested that he was a major influence on Saeed Anwar, and on all the other overtly religious Pakistan international cricketers of the previous decade.

Whatever else may be said of Saeed’s brand of religion, he is very tolerant of other faiths and those of no faith at all. He went out of his way in our conversation to praise good and honest Christians and Jews. “Paradise is not just for Muslims”, he added, and attacked the word “kaffir” as a pejorative term for non-Muslims. “I won’t say it and I won’t hear it.”

Saeed Ahmed’s life remains stormy, and he is estranged from his family, especially his younger brother and fellow Pakistan international, Younis Ahmed. He related several harrowing disputes.

Nonetheless, he seemed a far more mellow man than when I have met him before. He said that he wants to write two books, one on cricket and on his vision of the Apocalypse. He offers me the chance to prepare the cricket title: “you will make millions,” he added exuberantly. However, the Apocalypse one is likely to come first, in which he will prophesy that the United States will soon experience nuclear war.

He also believes that he should warn the Queen and may well take up the longstanding invitation to come to Buckingham Palace.

The Queen by reputation has a prodigious memory for people. If Saeed Ahmed does present himself at the Palace, I think that behind the bearded preacher she could identify the handsome, extrovert cricketer who sat beside her at Lord’s fifty years ago.

21. March 2024 by rkh
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