With a kufi cap on his head, the salwar kameez fluttering in the wind, the young boy, a haafiz-Quran (one who could recite the Quran), would return from madrassa with a cricket ball. That’s the first memory for Suleiman of his younger brother Usman bowling serious leg breaks. Their papa Abdul Qadir would eagerly await their arrival.
It was the late 90’s, early 2000’s. The papa of leg spin, Bau to Pakistani fans, wizard to the rest of the world, and perhaps best captured once by Michael Holding with a silent shrug of head to signify the mystery and respect his West Indies team had for the “true legend”, would get down to teach his youngest son the art of leg spin.
“Even his action was worked on by papa,” Sulieman says, describing how Qadir would stretch the limbs of the son, whir it into indecipherable arcs, pat him on the back to get the full body leaping into the pre-release position. Usman, 29, is now in Pakistan’s Asia Cup squad.
My dear dad, you are my star. I love you and miss you always. I never thought that a day like this will come when I won’t be able to see you anymore. No matter what, you will always be in my heart missing you badly 💔 😭 pic.twitter.com/SpSdy6SxHh
— Usman Qadir (@Qadircricketer) April 18, 2021
It’s the 80’s. Bowlers are revered for what they did after release, but Abdul Qadir mesmerised even before the ball fled his hand. The whirring arms, the quixotic hops, the beard and moustache that kept shape-shifting over his career, the wavy hair – he had both the school kids and adults transfixed.
Perhaps, no other Pakistani bowler’s action has been copied by as many Indians. A decade and half later, Mushtaq Ahmed would emerge with a successful resemblance. Now, at the Asia Cup, a mimic from Qadir’s blood would be seen.
In some ways, Usman’s story was foretold by his father who had warned that the system won’t be kind on any of his sons’ desire to take up cricket professionally. Usman is now 29, and disappointment seeps through Sulieman’s voice when he mentions that his brother could have played 200 games by now.
“What are you looking for in a spinner? That he should spin the ball, right? Have deception to deceive the batsmen? Who spins the ball more than my Usman? Definitely not Shadab (Pakistan leg-spinner Shadab Khan), who I have nothing against even though your readers would say it’s my bias, but his numbers should have been my brother’s.” A sigh escapes. “Papa ney bola hi tha .. (Papa had foretold)”.
“Usman is also a very emotional person. With happiness and anger as well!” Has he shown that anger to you? “Maar khayega kya?!” (Does he want to get hit?!),” the elder brother laughs. “Very kind hearted bachcha (kid). If some friend says ‘you are wearing a good watch yaar’, he would take it off and give it to him. I have seen him do it!”
Suddenly, Sulieman pipes up. “I think the expectations from the world have become too much for us, sons. Expectations and comparisons shouldn’t be done. Usman has faced that. Give him a series of matches, then you will understand his potential. You give him one match, the next chance comes after many games. How can he develop? Last game he played was 5 months back. This shouldn’t be the way,” Sulieman says.
“When Usman was playing well at the U-16 level, I remember one day papa’s Habib Bank colleagues had called him to say that they saw the Qadir of the ’70’s. He was so happy.”
Salman Butt is about to travel to Australia to face Shane Warne. He hit the terrace of Qadir’s house to face the tiny boy Usman’s leg-spin with a taped ball for days. “I remember Salman saying, just as he was about to travel, ‘Yaar, I can’t tell you how well prepared I feel. Your brother was too good. I now can hit Warne over midwicket if he bowls a leg break.’ We laughed. Then, on the first ball he faced from Warne, a leg-break, Salman hit him to the midwicket boundary! Usman was very proud and happy!” Sulieman says.
Qadir’s shadow keeps encroaching the chat. It’s impossible to tear away from the legend. Sulieman talks about how papa would scold Usman if the lengths or lines went awry. “Off-stump, off-stump. Udhar daalna hai. Then the googlies become effective,” a point that Usman has also shared before.
Qadir would talk about three frames of action that spinners have to master. Suleiman, who runs an academy and is a mentor for Naseem Shah, the pacer, and his own brother Usman, said his papa shared with him the secret of his art.
“Papa was something else. I was there when Shane Warne came to meet him. I remember Warne talking breathlessly how he idolised papa, how he has watched endless videos to pick up the nuances. Then they went too deep into the art, technically and tactically, for me to understand as a kid,” Sulieman says.
The respect for Qadir and his art was universal. Recently when the West Indian great Viv Richards was in Pakistan, Sulieman got a chance to meet him.
“The respect the cricket greats have for papa was something else. Like Viv Richards, the only cricketer I have ever asked an autograph. When he was here for PSL, I was a bit shy but the umpire told Richards. And when he learnt I was Abdul Qadir’son, he took me aside to a nice place, and said, ‘take as many photos as you want. You are the great Qadir’s son.”
There is also a Qadir tale about the Indian great Anil Kumble. “Think it was [Mohammad] Azharuddin bhai but I seem to remember Sachin [Tendulkar] Sir was also there, telling papa that Kumble sir wants to have a chat with him. You know what, even before Kumble could say anything, papa told him, “I know what you want to ask. Can I tell you?” And said, “You want to ask me whether you can spin the ball with your style, right?” Then they went into a huddle for a long time.”
If Qadir could spend so much time with outsiders, how much he would have sweated on Usman. “I could see papa was very proud and happy with the way Usman learnt. Those three motions you asked about, Usman instinctively understood it, papa would say.”
With the ball, Suleiman says, even if “Usman can do 20 percent of what papa did, it would be a great achievement”.
“And unlike even papa, Usman can really bat well. He can hit the ball long and hard. Bahut lambi maarta hai. Unfortunately, he hasn’t got many chances for him to get out of the pressure of trying to hold a spot and show what he can do with the bat.” Five months ago, the Australians caught a glimpse when Usman whacked the pacers around. “That was just one six, na,” the elder brother snorts. “He can hit so many more. Potential hai.”
The elder brother’s mind springs back to the past. He cues up a scene from when Usman was three years old. “My friend was leaving the house after playing cricket when suddenly Usman started to go ‘ba ba ba!” . He was signalling me towards my friend’s shirt. Repeatedly. I ask my friend, ‘kya chakkar hai? And then I saw that he had the ball inside his shirt! The love for the ball has been from that age! … All our talks in our home in Papa’s time revolved around cricket. Usman must have learned so much just by listening.”
Was there a wicket or a Usman performance that made the elder brother really happy? “To be frank, more than a wicket or a shot, what gives me the greatest pleasure is when I hear commentators say, ‘son of the great Abdul Qadir’. That makes me really happy. I want to hear more from international commentators now. At 29, a spinner’s peak starts, they say. If Usman can carry forward papa’s legacy, then there is nothing more that I or any of my family can ask for,” Sulieman says. “My son is 6, and is bowling leg-spin. I hope he also carries forward papa’s legacy. What else would we sons want?”