The big six

One match against India made us think that we Pakistanis were capable of anything
December 20, 2000

Do you remember where you were when...? When Pakistanis of my generation say this to each other there are several ways in which the sentence might end: when Zia was killed; Bhutto was hanged; democracy returned; Pakistan went nuclear; troops withdrew from Kargil; the military took over, again. But, more often than not, the sentence ends: when Miandad hit that six.

April 18th, 1986. Political tensions between the two countries had prevented either cricket board from hosting the other since India's 1984 tour of Pakistan, which was cancelled midway after Indira Gandhi's assassination. In the 1986 one-day tournament-the first Australasia Cup, held in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates-the two teams from the subcontinent, India and Pakistan, were not scheduled to face each other unless they met in the final. Which they did. The New Zealand, Australian and Sri Lankan teams were gracious enough to lose their matches in the opening rounds, giving millions of fans the final they really wanted.

In those days, before the field restrictions in the first 15 overs made it easier to bat aggressively, India's total of 245-against a bowling attack which included Imran, Wasim and Qadir-was more daunting than it might now appear. Gavaskar scored 92, Srikkanth made 75, and Vengsarkar 50. When the third wicket fell, India had already reached 216. By contrast, Pakistan lost its first three wickets for 61 runs. Wickets continued to fall regularly, and the required run rate crept up to ten an over. But Javed Miandad, at one end, was scoring steadily, reaching his century in the penultimate over of the game. With Wasim Akram-then a promising young all-rounder-partnering Miandad, and three wickets in hand, it looked as if Pakistan had a chance, even though they needed 11 runs off the final over to win.

Chetan Sharma was brought on to bowl the last over. Sharma's figures leading into that over were a respectable 8-0-37-2, and he had no way of knowing that he was just one over away from the end of his career. The over started as well as the Indian supporters could have expected. Wasim was run out, and Zulqarnain the wicket-keeper came in to bat at number 10. In the fourth ball of the over, with five runs needed, Zulqarnain went for a wild shot and was bowled. At that point, Sharma might have been feeling good about things. Miandad, on the other hand, looked homicidal as he shouted at the departing Zulqarnain that he should have taken a single and given Miandad the strike.

Tauseef Ahmed was the last man in. With two balls remaining and five runs needed, Tauseef knew that he had no option but to take a single off the first ball he faced. Sharma bowled, Tauseef nudged the ball towards cover, and charged down the track. Azharuddin picked up the ball cleanly and tossed it at the non-striker's wicket. A direct hit would have left Tauseef stranded. Azhar missed.

And so it was down to Sharma vs Miandad. One ball remaining, four runs needed for victory. I remember one of Sharma's team-mates (was it Kapil?) massaging his shoulders, trying to get him to loosen up, while his other team-mates clustered around with words of encouragement. Miandad paced up and down, bat in hand, muttering to himself. The fielders took their positions. Miandad must have seen immediately that it would be all but impossible to hit a four, because the field was placed to allow singles but to save a boundary.

Sharma bowled. A full toss. Miandad struck the ball. We heard the commentator, Iftikhar Ahmed, say, "He's hit that!" and before the ball even cleared the boundary line, Miandad raised his hands skyward, yelled "Tauseef!" and started running down the pitch as the commentator, Mushtaq Mohammed, screeched: "IT'S A SIX!"

It was much more than a six. Prior to Sharjah, Pakistan had lost six of their nine one-day matches against India. After Sharjah, Pakistan was to win eight of the next nine matches between the two, including five on Indian soil. By the time the one-day world cup began in 1987, just a year and a half after "that six," only the West Indies-with players such as Richards, Haynes and Walsh-were more favoured than Pakistan to win that ultimate one-day tournament.

But even these facts and figures don't sum up the way that match at Sharjah changed the psyche of Pakistani cricket. After Sharjah, both the team and the fans came to believe that there was no such thing as a losing position. Victory was always possible, even if it required something as improbable as Saleem Malik scoring 72 runs off 36 balls in Eden Gardens, Calcutta, against the Indians (who, many said, lost that match because of the ghost of Sharjah), or bowlers and fielders coming together to take six English wickets for 15 runs, sending the English team crashing from a very comfortable 206 for 4 to 221 all out (World Cup 1987).

But the belief that "our boys" could win any match took a peculiar twist a few years later, when match-fixing allegations first became persistent enough to demand our serious attention. Every time we heard yet another story of someone's chance encounter with a bookie who boasted that he could determine the outcome of any game with a single phone call, there was a strange kind of pride underlying all the disgust. We thought the allegations meant that Pakistan's cricketers could decide beforehand whether they would win a game-without the complicity of the opposing team. It didn't matter whether we were playing South Africa or Australia or the West Indies. If we chose to win (if the bookie so demanded), we would win. Simple as that.

This summer's revelations about match-fixing, beginning with the Cronje tapes, were greeted with enthusiasm in Pakistan. Time to have a proper enquiry into the whole matter. Time to stop pointing the (rather racist) finger at Pakistan alone. But somewhere beyond these reactions was sadness. Because maybe, just maybe, it was time to admit that we weren't quite good enough to hoick the ball over the boundary line every time we chose.

While writing this piece, I came upon an article on match-fixing, somewhere on the internet, which asked why Kapil Dev gave that last over of the Sharjah match to the mediocre Chetan Sharma, instead of saving one over of his own allotted ten for those final moments of the game. I had supposed myself numb to the allegations of match-fixing: I was ready to concede that a great many results were suspect, and we'd never really know which matches were to some extent fixed or thrown. But faced with the suggestion that Sharjah 1986 was thrown, I found myself looking up statistics, determined to prove to myself, if to no one else, that Sharma's 8-0-37-2 going into that final over suggested that, on that day at least, he was bowling no worse than Kapil (who ended with 10-1-45-1). I formulated tactical justifications for Kapil's choices; I e-mailed a friend, who had chosen that moment to write to me of his disgust with the game, to say: "You can't fix the kind of catches Jonty Rhodes takes. You can't fix Shoaib Akhtar's 97mph deliveries which uproot middle stump, or Ganguly's wristy, effortless boundaries. It's the dropped catches and the stupid run-outs and the wickets that fall to lousy deliveries which must come under suspicion. The great moments of the game remain great moments." As I wrote that (as I write this) one image would not (will not) leave my mind: willow smacking leather towards mid-wicket, and half a packed stadium and one whole nation rising to its feet in the most breathtaking, heart-quickening moment I can recall.

So when I consider the suggestion that in some way "that six" was fixed, I know I speak for a country (something I have never otherwise claimed to do) when I say, firmly and with utter conviction: No, not that one.

The odd thing is, I didn't actually start watching cricket until several months after that Sharjah match. The West Indies tour of Pakistan in 1986-87 marked my initiation into the love of the game-but like almost every other Pakistani I know, I will swear on everything I hold dear that I remember watching the match. My friend Humair insists that my memories of the game must arise from watching the endless replays. He remembers quite clearly that we had a literature exam the next day, and is sure that I must have been closeted away with The Merchant of Venice rather than wasting my time watching a cricket match to which I then had no real commitment. But the match was in April-and we didn't have exams until May. Clearly I'm not the only person whose memory of 18th April is suspect. n