Pakistan's forgotten player sheds light on 1992 cricket victory

Twenty years ago, Pakistan were celebrating an unlikely victory in the Cricket World Cup. Tom Hussain explodes the myths that surround that incredible achievement and Imran Khan, the man who made it possible.

Pakistan's Imran Khan celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Richard Illingworth to win the 1992 Cricket World Cup. Joe Mann / Allsport
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Ask any 30-plus Pakistani male what the happiest moment of his life has been and, excluding "the birth of my child", you're likely to receive a personal re-enactment of the day Imran Khan and company conquered the England cricket team and the world in Melbourne on March 25, 1992.

They'll also talk about that year being the best Ramadan ever, with the beginning of the day's fast coinciding with the start of play at the Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Then they'll tell you how the relatively short daylight hours and mild weather of the season made fasting that much easier, and the sense of divine preordainment that surrounded the whole tournament.

But what has never been explained is how Pakistan's performance went from awful to incredible in a matter of days in that five-week, nine-team tournament.

The side were nearly eliminated in the competition's group stages before the weather intervened, forcing a match against England to be abandoned which helped Pakistan avoid certain defeat and, with it, elimination from the tournament. They would later sneak through to the knockout stages.

But was their miraculous turnaround really inspired by an infamous speech given by captain Khan, in which he referenced a "cornered tiger", as is widely assumed in sporting folklore?

Khan is now a prominent politician whose promises of an anti-corruption "tsunami" resound with those Pakistanis who watched him lead the side to victory in 1992, and who have raised their progeny on tales of his incredible feats.

The 10 other members of the team have also gone on to enjoy the material benefits of bringing home the trophy, although they have rarely offered any insight into how the side managed to achieve greatness. Perhaps the team's 12th man, Zahid Fazal, a largely forgotten man, whose role was limited to a few sessions of substitute fielding, could reveal more?

In the two decades since the tournament, Fazal had completely disappeared from public view and was rumoured to be somewhere in Sialkot, a town that is renowned for producing sporting goods, dentistry equipment and loud politicians.

We eventually tracked our man down, who is now, it transpires, the local ticketing agent for Pakistan International Airlines.

He hadn't known we were coming, but it soon became apparent that a nondescript office in Sialkot had considerable sporting pedigree. Fazal's boss, Khalid Hameed, is an Olympic hockey gold medallist from the 1984 Los Angeles games.

So, what about that "cornered tiger" speech?

There never was one, Fazal says, at least not one given directly to the players in the dressing room. Those were just remarks made by Khan to television commentators before a vital match with New Zealand. Nor was it the first time Khan had worn the tiger T-shirt that gave rise to the legend in the first place: "It was an old shirt that he had stuffed away in the bottom of his kitbag. He would wear it for all our crunch matches, especially one-day finals in Sharjah."

Khan had remained unswervingly upbeat about Pakistan's chances of success, even after the team's near-exit, and would say, at every team meeting: "We will win before we leave."

After the embarrassing performance against England, Khan repeated his mantra, but privately, some of the team thought their captain had lost his mind.

"After we were bowled out for 74, we packed our bags [because we thought we were finished]. But Imran insisted we would still win the World Cup."

Laughing, Fazal said his teammate Wasim Akram had joked that Khan, who would turn 40 later that same year, had "gone senile".

What they hadn't appreciated was that their captain was motivated by a simmering anger that first surfaced when the Pakistan Cricket Board unveiled the team's uniform for the tournament's opening ceremony.

He had asked officials, who wanted the players to wear lounge suits, "why are you dressing them like white people?".

Khan put his foot down and the team attended the ceremony wearing traditional cream-coloured shalwar-kameez made from boski, a cotton-silk fabric worn by Pakistanis on special occasions.

For Pakistan's final group game, the team had to beat co-hosts New Zealand to progress to the semi-finals.

Khan decided to pick a fight (if not a war) with his opponents, who had won all their matches to date and had emerged as improbable favourites to take the title. Only Khan begged to differ.

"They're just a B-team," Khan asserted in the run-up to the match, causing a media storm in New Zealand. Pakistan won the game and looked forward to a return match in the semi-final, which was also played against New Zealand.

B-team, Khan taunted once more, and Pakistan won again.

But they did so only after twice facing the most hostile crowds the players had ever seen. If a Pakistani batsman hit a six, there would be absolute silence. When New Zealand took a single, the roar of the crowd was deafening.

"They threw everything they could at us throughout the games. Afterwards the pitch was strewn with fruit, eggs and goodness knows what else," Fazal recalls.

In fact, Khan's tiger wasn't referred to in the dressing room until the final when, pointing to his T-shirt, he said: "Today we have to fight like this tiger."

And then he told the players why: "We must win for those green [Pakistani] passport holders, who are lined up by whites, and have dogs set on them. Do it for them."

Not that everything quite went to plan for Fazal, who Khan didn't select to play in the final.

Ironically, Fazal was on the field for the entire English innings, up to the moment of victory, because Javed Miandad aggravated a back injury while batting.

Fazal ran out sporting brand new cricket boots, supplied by Puma, the sports manufacturer, who Miandad had talked into paying four Pakistani players $1,500 each to use their kit in the final.

Unfortunately, the boots came with spikes that were too short to grip the lush outfield at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

"If you watch the video of the match, you'll notice that Mushy [Mushtaq Ahmed], Rambo [Rameez Raja] and me fell over a lot. It was because of those shoes. Javed would have fallen too, if he had fielded."

Later, after the victory, Khan said: "I told you we would win."

"The team were in awe of Khan," said Fazal, "We just looked at each other and said Imran 'must be a sorcerer or something'."

Fazal believes that Khan's move into politics would have happened, irrespective of whether Pakistan had won the World Cup.

And, despite his pre-tournament remarks, Fazal insisted that Khan is not a racist. He merely hates the fact that corruption in Pakistan has kept his countrymen poor and illiterate, and prevented the nation's emergence as social equals in the world at large. "He's a natural leader who's convinced that he'll be the best at whatever he turns his hand to."

While captain of Pakistan, Khan would often talk about the need to end the dichotomy in the country's education system, where the children of the rich and middle classes attend British curriculum schools, and the poor were condemned to attend state schools with a laughable local syllabus.

"He'd frequently tell us that if he ever came to power, he would end the class bias in education, invest in social services and bring an end to corruption." Khan's beliefs have remained constant over the years.

As for the politicians who have recently flocked to Khan's Tehrik-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, Fazal said they are in for a rude awakening.

"They think they can mould Khan into being a politician like themselves. They are sadly mistaken. He'll do precisely what he thinks is right, and won't care whether they like it or not."

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.