Unerring accuracy was a hallmark of Qayoom’s 17-year-long playing career.
The beauty of a successful fast bowler is in his line and length, in his art of controlling the ball and letting it talk. The best of them – Wasim, Waqar, McGrath … – are intelligent, outstanding in skill and variation. It was that kind of fast bowler that Jammu & Kashmir’s Abdul Qayoom Bhagaw worked hard to be. And, to many in his state, it was that kind of fast bowler that he was.
From being a 14 year old practicing on the dusty streets of the conflict-ridden Kashmir of the 1980s to J&K’s leading wicket-taker with over 180 scalps, Qayoom’s is a story well established and fondly told. Unerring accuracy was a hallmark of his 17-year-long playing career, during which he led the state’s Ranji Trophy side, before he went on to coach their next great hopes.
It is a story that began in the south of Kashmir, on the banks of the Jhelum, in Bijbehara.
Bijbehara is a chinar-lined town with several ancestral bat-making units. The smell of wooden shavings hangs in the air, over narrow streets and maidans where youngsters wield bat and ball, and nurse big ambitions. Here, at the once picturesque ground of the Higher Secondary School, Qayoom honed his skill.
As a ten year old, he and his elder brother, Nazir, played on the courtyard of their ancestral home, some 30 yards from the local Bijbehara graveyard. Every time the ball rolled there, they had to search for it for hours before the game could resume.
“We used to play daylong cricket at the courtyard. We had a good quality light wooden bat and a wooden ball, known as Bir’e in Kashmiri, shaped by the carpenter of those times,” recalls Qayoom while chatting with DafaNews at his home.
As he grew into a more serious player, the Bir’e made way for tennis balls lying around in the courtyard. In school, he didn’t care about the bruised fingers from marathon bowling spells while at practice, and the relentless effort made him someone to watch out for. By the time he was in class nine, he was starring in inter-school games.
Early on, Qayoom caught the eye because of his wicketkeeping and some batting prowess he demonstrated. Soon enough, though, the wicketkeeping gloves made way for the leather ball, and a right-arm fast medium bowling sensation made waves.
“I started bowling in 1982-83. My coach had been supportive at that time. It was the new thing and a very interesting experience. I used to practise rigorously in the morning and evening for hours,” remembers Qayoom.
He played the Col CK Nayudu Trophy, with an Under-19 team that included seven to eight players from the Kashmir region, and came to be seen as a good prospect for the fractured J&K team. He featured in one Ranji game in the 1985-86 season, going wicketless, but cemented his place as a fast bowler in the 16-member squad for the 1988-89 season.
A science graduate from Bijbehara Degree College, Qayoom, an employee of Air India, now works at the Srinagar Airport. In his bowling days, he had a reputation as a fearsome toe-crusher. He had a run-up of around 20 long strides, and released the ball after a steady high jump, with a perfect follow through. His nippy pace and bounce, and ability to swing the ball in and out made it difficult for the batsmen, both right and left handers.
In that 1988-89 season, he took 16 first-class wickets. In the following season, his best, he took 29, including a career-best 7 for 57 in an innings against Services. In fact, he had two seven-wicket hauls that season and finished as the season’s third-highest wicket-taker.
Leadership traits he honed in the streets of his town were then put to good use in 1993 when he led the team, and then again in 2000-01, when J&K, under him, qualified for the knockout stage of Ranji Trophy for the first time.
Meanwhile, his national ambitions were taking shape. Offered a job by Air India in Srinagar, he found a place in Air India’s central team. He played for them for 14 long years, alongside Nikhil Chopra and Harbhajan Singh, among others.
In 1991, he took another big leap, making his List A debut in Wills Trophy under the dynamic leadership of Navjot Singh Sidhu. In the final against Board President’s XI, he took two wickets, including those of Ravi Shastri and Lalchand Rajput.
Qayoom was confident that a national call-up would follow, but it was not to be. “The bowlers who were not even so close to me represented India, but for me, all wasn’t going good, though I enjoyed the struggle of the time.”
In 1992-93, at the prime of his form and with the Kashmir conflict at its most heated, he even received a “death threat” warning him not to play for India – this turned out to be a case of personal enmity.
In 1994, he was picked for the Rest of India team, and even joined eight other fast bowlers at the MRF Pace Foundation Camp, in a group that included Javagal Srinath, Salil Ankola, Abey Kuruvilla, Atul Wassan and Venkatesh Prasad. “We practiced rigorously and interacted with Dennis Lillee, who was very energetic and helpful. It was as if a dream had come true. Staying close, we learnt many new things from each other.”
But that final leap to the big time never came. “As my career hit the road, the insurgency was in its peak in my motherland. I would visit home for a week only after playing the full season for Air India while participating in all-India tournaments. Here in Kashmir, the situation was different. JKCA (Jammu & Kashmir Cricket Association) had no representation in BCCI meetings, no media hype, and there was chaos and confusion within the administration and nobody spoke on our behalf,” he rues while talking his lost chance.
However, he is happy that his wards have found greater success. Among them is Parveez Rasool, who is from the same town as him, and whom Qayoom has mentored. Sharing the advice he once got, the elder bowler suggested to Rasool at 13 that he too concentrate on bowling.
Having retired in 2003, he was appointed head coach for the J&K Ranji and U-19 teams for the 2004-05 season, and then again found himself in a coaching role nearly a decade later. He was assistant to Bishan Singh Bedi in 2012-13, before taking up the head coach’s role the following season, another memorable year for the state team, which made it to the Ranji knockouts again.
“I am very happy that the promising players are coming through, like Rasool, Samiullah Beigh and many more,” says Qayoom. “But what they need is quality leadership and support from the association. I feel the budding players are the prospect of our state cricket we should take care of them.”
This is an exclusive Dafanews interview conducted by Tahir Ibn Manzoor
Photo supplied by: Tahir Ibn Manzoor