Theatrics and Deception: Remembering Abdul Qadir, the Overlooked Genius

Despite his repeated ability to bamboozle batsmen, it is unfortunate that the leg spinner is not mentioned in the same breath as other greats.

Abdul Qadir, the beguiling Pakistani leg-spinner, passed away a few days ago at the age of sixty-three. Between the late 1970s and early 90s, he was part of arguably the strongest Pakistani cricket team of all time, largely under the leadership of Imran Khan.

Qadir had retired by the time I was born, so I never got an opportunity to see him play. But the wonders of television and YouTube have allowed me to see how good he was.

There were three parts to Qadir’s bowling. It began with a bizarre run-up where he started at a forty-five-degree angle to the pitch and his arms swayed exaggeratedly as he bounced towards the crease. I would not have been surprised if he had suddenly chosen to break into some bhangra.

The middle portion was short. There was a straight arm accompanied by a congruent forward movement of the rest of the body which put all the momentum the leggie generated into the ball.

Then there was the third act, the finale, the crescendo of the opera, where the ball matched the swaying gestures of its master. It did many of the things that in the years following Qadir’s career would come to be associated with Shane Warne.

A personal favourite is when the Australian Greg Richie was comprehensively stumped having come down the track to meet the ball to discover he misjudged it. Not only was the batsman beaten by the flight, but he was also done in by the turn, which took the ball from off-stump to an eighth or ninth stump line by the time the wicketkeeper collected it.

A similar Qadir ball during the 1986 Lahore test between Pakistan and West Indies caught the great Sir Vivian Richards’ outside edge, which the wicketkeeper Saleem Yousuf gleefully snaffled. The master was outmanoeuvred.

Then there is the brilliant deception of former Australian captain Kim Hughes, who came down the pitch to whack a wide-ish leg-break through cover. But the ball turned out to be a googly which toppled the stumps instead.

Qadir had complete mastery over the exaggerated movement, both before and after he delivered the ball. In sports journalist Rahul Bhattacharya’s book Pundits from Pakistan, Qadir mentions that the theatrics of his run-up was exactly that, pieces of drama to bamboozle the batsman before the ball got him. In a sense, the ball’s movements were also theatrics, to exhibit to the spectator the oomph factor of this leggie. Look how he makes the ball groove across the surface! How do you play that turn?

Abdul Qadir in Lahore in the 1990s, seen here with the lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, the writer’s mother. Photo: Special arrangement

Most good stories though need a substantial middle and this is where Qadir’s real magic lies. That middle was short but vital to everything he did. Qadir’s straight arm and body moving forward in unison ensured that he had accuracy and control. Like an efficient postal service, it ensured that the delivery reached exactly where it was needed (and where he wanted it) to be. While not nearly as glamorous as what went before or came after, those few seconds where he released the ball were the essence of his success across his sixteen-year career.

I’ve always wondered how leg-spinners with their wrong-uns decided on the line they were going to bowl for any particular ball. Given that they have to give the ball space to turn (especially if they could break it a fair bit as Qadir could) they would need to pitch it either close to the stumps or quite wide of them depending on the direction of the spin, to keep the batsman interested. This initial direction in itself would make plenty clear to the batsman, rendering his task somewhat easier. However, all good spinners master the skills of drift and flight, to somewhat delay the batsman’s judgement of where the ball will land.

The non-theatrical middle moments of Qadir’s bowling action are essential to this. The arm and the body come down quickly, irrespective of how much flight or speed he imparts on a particular delivery, making it harder to gauge the path. The wrists also barely give any indication of the direction of the turn and despite my amateurish attempts at slowing down his bowling hand on YouTube, I just couldn’t read it. And there is the accuracy. His movements put him in the best position to choose where to pitch the ball, with a straight head ensuring that his vision is not skewed. All of this was crucial.

One his wickets which I saw online as part of a compilation was with the ball pitching slightly short of good length and turning into the West Indian cricketer Richard Gabriel to take the bottom edge of the bat onto the stumps, showing complete control by the bowler. The batsman shaped for a cut, not too early, but early enough for Qadir’s observant eyes. That was all he required.

His action’s mechanics also positioned him well for a caught and bowled dismissal. Another gem from the compilation was of the leggie beating Rodney Hogg in flight while he was defending. The ball lobbed towards the bowler and the champion spinner leapt forward in his follow-through to catch it inches above the ground.

Apparently, Imran Khan asked Qadir to grow a French beard to add to the mystique of his action and spin. However, there is so much to be admired here even without all the drama.

There is value to recalling this seemingly uninteresting part of Qadir’s delivery narrative as it parallels how Qadir is often remembered in cricket history. When remembering great leggies, there is a tendency to skip over Qadir as one moves from Richie Benaud (his popularity no doubt aided by his astute commentary career) to Warne. Sandwiched between these two Aussies, the Pakistani is often not given credit for the craftsman he was. My mother, a great lover of cricket and otherwise a decent judge of cricketing talent, does not rate him as highly as she does some other spinners. However, if you have doubts about his bowling, watch any one of these deliveries and you will be proven wrong.

My mother had met Qadir once in Lahore and the leg-spinner recounted an incident to her that took place during an unofficial India-Pakistan limited overs match in 1989. Sachin Tendulkar, who debuted on that tour of Pakistan, came out to face him. Qadir, who in his earlier over had checked the irrepressible Krishnamachari Srikkanth with a maiden, went up to the teenage Sachin and told him, not to care that Abdul Qadir was bowling to him, and play each ball on its merit. A simple and considerate gesture. However, Qadir did his best to get Tendulkar out but was still smashed for multiple sixes.

This story of Abdul Qadir’s kindness and humility would perhaps (and unfortunately so) make for one footnote in the many volumes mythologising Tendulkar. Yet, it signifies a man who did the little things quietly, both on and off the pitch.

Because Qadir is overlooked, it is worth acknowledging that a portion of his irrefutable skill was buried deep within the spectacle that was his bowling. Take away the embellishments, there is still the ability, which he repeatedly delivered. Cricket today has quietly let go of a legend.

Anushrut Ramakrishnan Agrwaal is a doctoral student in film studies at the University of St Andrews. He follows cricket keenly, and is an avid reader of writing on the game.