ABDUL QADIR KHAN died on September 6, aged 63. If Abdul Qadir had done nothing but take leg-spin bowling out of a dusty museum cabinet and repurpose it for the modern age, he would have earned the lasting gratitude of purists. But he did much more. With his prancing approach to the crease, whirring delivery and beseeching appeals, he turned the arcane world of the leg-break and googly into a theatrical experience; no off-spinner or slow left-armer ever created such spectacle. Qadir also changed the perception that an attacking spinner could not flourish in the shorter format. Every leg-spinning hired gun in Twenty20 franchise cricket is in his debt. "He was a genius," said his former captain Imran Khan. "He brightened Pakistan's name in the cricket world."
After pace had dominated for years, Qadir's arrival on the scene early in 1978 was a breath of fresh air. Aged 22, and in his second Test, he took six for 44 against England at Hyderabad. "He bowled beautifully," wrote John Woodcock in The Times. "He has a well-disguised googly, is a genuine spinner of the ball and gives very little away." But it was a while before Qadir became the master of all the weapons in his armoury; his best days were still to come.
Qadir grew up as one of four children in the Dharampura area of Lahore. His father earned a pittance reciting prayers at a local mosque; food was not always plentiful on the family table. Qadir remembered stealing vegetables from farms, and eating them raw. He did not play cricket until he was 11 and, though no prodigy, improved steadily during his teens as a batsman and seamer. He worked on a bookstall to help the family, but his friends paid the stallholder to release him for matches. In the nets, he discovered a new talent: spin in abundance. And he became consumed. "I used to go to bed with a cricket ball, and as I was falling asleep I used to imagine various grips and what the ball would do," he recalled. Qadir joined the Dharampura Gymkhana club, and progressed to the Water and Power Development Authority, then to a first-class debut for Habib Bank in September 1975. Finally given a chance as their sixth bowler, he took six for 67.
Before Pakistan's tour of England in 1982, Imran persuaded him to grow a goatee beard, to enhance the air of a mysterious figure from the East. At Lord's, he took six in the match, as Pakistan won by ten wickets. Later that year, he claimed 22 in three home Tests against Australia, including 11 for 218 at Faisalabad. It was Pakistan's first series whitewash, and Imran was praised for backing Qadir, despite a media campaign against his selection. A bond of trust formed with his captain.
But he was not immune to controversy. He missed a series against India when the Pakistan board took umbrage after he asked for a loan to finance a house purchase in Lahore. In New Zealand in 1984-85, he was disciplined for lacklustre fielding in a tour match. He refused to pay the fine, criticised his team-mates in a TV interview, and was sent home. Three years later in the Caribbean, as Pakistan pushed for a series-clinching win in Barbados, he was enraged when an umpire turned down an appeal for a bat-pad catch off Jeff Dujon. Qadir stormed off to field on the boundary, where he was jeered by the crowd. He climbed the fence, and punched one of his abusers. The team management paid the victim $1,000 not to press charges.
He missed the start of the 1987 tour of England because his wife was ill, and after a late arrival took just one wicket in his first three Tests. But in the Fifth at The Oval, with Pakistan needing to avoid defeat to win their first series in England, he had first-innings figures of seven for 96, enabling the follow-on. England saved the match, but not the series. Qadir's finest hour came in the return, three months later. In the First Test at Lahore, he was close to unplayable, bowling unchanged for 37 overs in the first innings to take nine for 56 - still Pakistan's best Test figures. "The little paragon of prestidigitation, the sultan of spin, made sure of a page in the history books," wrote Mike Selvey in The Guardian. In the second innings, he took four for 45 to secure an innings win. At Faisalabad - infamous for Mike Gatting's spat with Shakoor Rana - Qadir added seven wickets, followed by ten at Karachi. In all, he had taken 30 wickets at 14, and flummoxed England.
Like many wrist-spinners, Qadir liked to cloak his art in layers of mystery. He admitted his hyperactive run-up was designed to create anxiety. Though only 5ft 5in, he delivered with a jump and a high arm that gave the ball natural loop. He had two googlies and two top-spinners, one from wider on the crease. David Gower recalled him asking, "Did you pick my googly?", while Graham Gooch was a confirmed admirer. "He'd show you a googly you could read, then he would bowl one you suspected of being a googly, but weren't sure about. Then he'd send down one you'd be completely bamboozled by, but it would usually turn out to be another googly. These were all bowled with a different action, to complement his leg-break, top-spinner and flipper." Over dinner, Qadir amazed Richie Benaud by demonstrating how he used three fingers to spin the ball, rather than two. "With three you get more power, more turn, and it's easier to bowl the googly," he said. "To be a leg-spinner, above all you need courage."
After the high point of 1987-88, Qadir was seldom as potent. He played his 67th and final Test in December 1990, finishing with 236 wickets at 32, still fifth on Pakistan's all-time list. But his record was markedly different outside Pakistan: in 27 Tests abroad, he took 68 wickets at 47, compared with 168 at 26 in 40 at home. And he did much better against England (82 wickets in 16 matches) than against India (27 in 16), whose batsmen did not buy into his aura, supposedly calling out "googly" or "leg-break" after each ball.
He had made his one-day debut during the 1983 World Cup in England, and in 104 matches took 132 wickets with an economy rate just over four. But by the time Pakistan lifted the trophy in 1992, he had been succeeded by Mushtaq Ahmed, one of his protégés. Qadir was a useful batsman, hitting two first-class hundreds. In a group game in the 1987 World Cup, he clouted 13 off the final over from Courtney Walsh to beat West Indies.
After retiring, he ran a cricket school in Lahore, and was Pakistan's chief selector for six months in 2008-09. In 2008 he was one of the subjects of a Wisden feature on five great players who were never a Cricketer of the Year. "In the pantheon of wrist-spinners he surely ranks near the very top," wrote Woodcock. Qadir's sons - Rehman, Imran, Sulaman and Usman - all played first-class cricket. Usman, the youngest, has played for Western Australia, and was called up by Pakistan for their tour of Australia shortly after his father died. He also had two daughters, Noor Aamina (who married the Pakistan Test player Umar Akmal) and Noor Fatima.
Qadir did not inspire only Pakistani youngsters. In the Melbourne suburbs, a young Shane Warne tried to copy his hero in backyard games with his brother: "He was the guy we looked up to." During Australia's tour of Pakistan in 1994-95, the journalist Qamar Ahmed arranged for Warne to go to Qadir's home. They ended up spinning an orange to each other across the sitting-room carpet. "That was an education," said Warne. "One of the most interesting nights of my life." Gooch was in no doubt that Qadir was the more awkward to face: "Reading him is one thing; playing him is another."