Five years ago, Mushtaq Ahmed, the then head coach of Pakistan’s National Cricket Academy in Lahore, asked 19-year-old “Harry Potter” lookalike Abrar Ahmed: “Do you know who Abdul Qadir is?” Pat replied, “Ye kaun hai, kabhi name nahi suna (Who is he, never heard his name).”
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The answer left Mushtaq Ahmed in a split, and if Abrar’s brother Sajid is to be believed, the former Pakistani leg spinner couldn’t stop laughing for 10 minutes.
“Everyone started laughing and Mushtaq bhai said to him, ‘you have registered yourself as a leg spinner and you don’t know what is the best we have ever produced,'” Sajid Ahmed told The Indian Express from Karachi.
“When he told us this story, we started laughing too. Bachpan se itni deewangi cricket ko le kar aur itne bade legend ko nahi jaanta (He was so passionate about cricket since childhood but had no idea of such a legend),’ added Sajid.
Abrar’s coach Muhammad Masroor defended his division. “Not his fault; he has idolized Sunil Narine all his life. You can’t blame him for not knowing the great Abdul Qadir,’ Masroor said.
Abrar, Pakistan’s newest spin sensation who debuted against England in the Multan Test, hails from Shinkiari, a small village on the outskirts of Mansehra near Abbottabad. But his father moved to Karachi in 1977 where he grew up playing tape-ball cricket.
Cricket came naturally to Abrar; his father Noor Ahmed was a big fan of the Pakistan team, and another elder brother Shahzad Khan, a fast bowler, represented the National Bank in the domestic circuit.
“I still remember it was the Multan test, where Virender Sehwag crushed that triple hundred, and he attacked Saqlain Mushtaq the most. Abrar was about six years old and he always pointed out mistakes in Saqlain Bhai’s bowling. My father was so annoyed by his ongoing commentary that he locked him in another room,” Sajid laughs.
The youngest of eight siblings (five brothers and three sisters), Abrar was closer to his mother. When he turned nine, Abrar’s mother asked him to do hifz (memorizing the Quran). Cricket went backstage for the next two years.
“He was the smartest among us. My mother wanted him to study aalima (study Islamic sciences). And for the first time he said no to his mother. He said, ‘I want to play cricket, I have no interest in becoming Aalim Sajid recalls.
“Fingers Like Iron Bars”
For the next four years, Abrar played tape-ball cricket. One day while returning home, he heard about a cricket trial at Rashid Latif’s academy.
Muhammad Masroor, who was Pakistan’s U-19 coach, oversaw the trials and was impressed with his variations.
“Same grip se carrom ball, leg spin, googly, slider saare variations daal raha tha (He bowled all variations with the same grip). He doesn’t have such a huge turn. He was bowling on the stumps and no one could read his lengths.
“I immediately asked him if he had ever played with the hard ball. The answer was ‘no’. I could not believe my eyes. Out of curiosity I checked his fingers, and they were like iron bars,” says Masroor.
In 2016, Abrar took 53 wickets in Zonal U-19 in Karachi. Masroor, then field coach with Pakistan Super League’s Karachi Kings, sent his videos to Rashid Latif, who was director of cricket at the franchise. In 2017, Abrar became one of the emerging picks for Karachi in the PSL.
“He only played two games and was wicketless, but he impressed everyone with his brilliant spell against Peshawar Zalmi. Eoin Morgan hit a 57-ball 80, and against him Abrar bowled 16 balls and gave away just 17 runs, including seven dots I remember Coach Mickey Arthur, Captain Kumar Sangakkara, Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle, everyone was so impressed,” says Masroor.
‘He could have been paralyzed’
After the high came a setback. After the PSL, Abrar suffered a stage five stress fracture and was out of action for two years.
“He could have been paralyzed. It was serious. I remember the doctor telling our older brother and me that he might never be able to play cricket again,” recalled Sajid.
Masroor explains the reason behind the injury. “He started playing league cricket when he was 17. In two years he played cricket non-stop. He bowed tirelessly in the nets. The body could not bear the toll. As a coach, I failed to manage his workload,” says Masroor.
Noor Ahmed continued to encourage his bedridden son. “’Pathan ka bachcha hai tu, her nahi moon sakta’ (You are the son of a Pathan, you cannot give up). He told him about his early struggles in Karachi, how he drove a taxi 20 hours a day to make ends meet. It gave him motivation and he rediscovered his passion for the game,” says Sajid.
Abrar made a comeback for Sindh’s second XI in early 2020. In that year’s Quaid-e-Azam Second XI tournament, Abrar took 57 wickets at 11.75.
‘He was back. Next year he was promoted to the senior team,” says Masroor.
Press to bowl off-spin
However, after making a remarkable recovery, he was billed as a limited overs bowler; Masroor received calls and texts from former Pakistani cricketers asking why he was not working on Abrar’s off spin.
“Main hamesha Jasprit Bumrah ki misaal deta hun, agar wo ladka Pakistan mey hota toh ye humare former cricketers uske peeche pad jaate, uski action ke wajah se (I always give the example of Jasprit Bumrah, had he been in Pakistan, our former cricketers would have gone after him because of his bowling action).
“There are plenty of examples. Anwar Ali is the last thing that comes to mind. At NCA (National Cricket Academy) they changed his action and he lost his inswing. He was never the same bowler again. In the eighties there was a fast bowler, Atiq-ur-Rehman, he was even faster than Imran Khan. His bowling action was very similar to Jeff Thomson’s. He attended his first Pakistani camp where Fazal Mahmood changed his action; he lost his pace and never played for Pakistan.
“In Pakistan, most former cricketers don’t know the ABCs of cricket coaching; they just want the young to admire them. You’re asking a random legend here if they have any idea what muscle memory is.
“Arshad Khan (former off-spinner from Pakistan) called me and told me to adjust Abrar’s action so that he could bowl off-spin. Tell me one thing, does it make sense to change someone’s action when they are 22? I said no to Arshad. Abrar was unable to perform his googlies at left-handed batters. I said I would work on his googly, which is natural for him and won’t force him to do something he’s never done in his life,” says Masroor.
“They called him T20 specialist in Pakistan. That boy was not selected by any PSL team in 2021. Before the T20 World Cup, he was picked for the seven-game T20I series against England, but he didn’t get a single game to showcase his skills,” he added.
Undeterred, Abrar set fire to the 2022-23 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, claiming 43 wickets at an average of 21.95. The second-best score was a distant 31. Abrar took five five-wicket hauls in seven matches, earning the Test call-up against England.
Not dependent on the location
History has never been kind to mysterious spinners. Ajantha Mendis was discovered. Narine, Abrar’s idol, never excelled at red balls. But Masroor feels his department is a lambi race ka ghoda (one for the long haul).
“Honestly, I don’t think he will be discovered. Mujeeb (the Afghan spinner) has also been playing for so many years, and he is still a threat. Abrar has all the cards to play international cricket for at least 10 years. He does not depend on the field. It’s not easy to play sweep shots against him. On a docile field, he can make things happen,’ says Masroor.
“The most important thing will be how he behaves and how he handles the situation when it is difficult. But also the PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) will have to treat him with care. My only advice would be don’t give him too much He could be the dark horse of Pakistan in the coming days,” Masroor said.
Regardless of the wickets, the story of the tape-ball street bowler, whose career was nearly ended by injury, who has now become one of Pakistan’s top spinners, is already worth a book, a Netflix documentary or even a feature film .