I remember walking out of Multan airport one March morning some four years ago and thinking, I’ve never seen a place so dusty.
It was hot, hotter than any of the other Pakistani cities our Indian caravan had waltzed through. It was also quieter. It had neither the ubiquitous urban sound of Karachi, the genteel buzz of a Lahore or even the rather quixotic foreign air that Peshawar possessed. It was just that — dusty.
Everything seemed coated with a fine layer of dust, which kept magically reappearing on an old, blown-up, rather grainy photograph of a lean, smiling young man, even as a big-built man kept wiping it away.
Ghulam Mujtaba, in the process of trying to put up a banner at the team hotel to welcome his old friend and the Pakistani skipper to his hometown, beamed down at that dusty image with exasperated affection. “My best friend, you know,” he remarked. I remember mentioning then that Inzamam didn’t really look like that anymore and Mujtaba, as everyone called him, smiling good-naturedly and saying that that was how everyone there remembered Inzamam. As one of them, a young, carefree gentle giant of a man, who smiled a lot and let life flow around him. And then, Mujtaba’s smile vanished. “He doesn’t smile so much anymore. Life has been difficult of late.”
As we watched Inzamam bid an emotional adieu to international cricket in Lahore on Friday, it is difficult not to remember that March day and what was said as one walked through that city of shrines where Inzamam grew up. Everyone had a story about him, tales that were a mixture of indulgence, awe and fond pride --- he was, after all, their greatest son.
In the years since March 2004, with increasingly erratic performances from himself and from his team, with controversy courting him with increasing familiarity, life was probably only more difficult for Inzamam, undoubtedly one of the greats of the game. A man who perhaps was to Pakistan, for a long, long time, what Sachin Tendulkar was to India for an equally long while — the cornerstone of its batting (despite, in Inzamam’s case, the presence of a Saeed Anwar at the top for a while).
By every account, it was an impossibly demanding and a very lonely job. And one he managed with the same finesse and grace that Tendulkar has — for the most at least, if you discount the alu incident in Toronto which will haunt him till the end, or the fisticuffs during a mock football game in Bulawayo.
As he himself once remarked, with his trademark pithiness and deadpan expression, when asked how his cricketing journey so far had been, it had been “interesting”. Asked to elaborate, he added, with typically understated humour and a smile, “Very interesting”.
But it’s been much more than just interesting. Inzamam has defied the parameters of an international sportsman and succeeded. He was bulky, slow, couldn’t run to save his life but he went on to become a sporting legend.
That trademark lazy elegance, an ability to play the ball later perhaps than anyone in the game, the heaps of patience that would suddenly be interspersed with an aggressive, sublime pull, it all made watching him a pleasure.
You forgot about the ungainly girth, or the horrible running between the wickets, you just enjoyed a man who had mastered an art: Whether in the way he handled top-quality pacemen (remember Lord’s in the summer of 1996 and his making batting look wonderfully easy in seaming, swinging conditions?) or in the way he (like Aravinda de Silva) would sweep Anil Kumble effortlessly, never easy given how a Kumble delivery hurries towards the batsman.
He was probably underrated in the field too, for he had a very safe pair of hands and a superb throwing arm but his size probably distracted and detracted from everything else. Yet, when you look back at his career, no one would deny that Inzamam’s has been a special story. He was truly blessed, as we have been, to watch him.