Almost 50 years ago, since he played in the last of his six Test matches for Pakistan. It is difficult to ascertain where exactly Aftab Gul Khan stands among the list of some of the country’s most exciting cricketers. But he remained an enigma throughout his career. You simply couldn’t miss him on the cricket field and off it too, because such was his charm and dynamism. In the realm of Test cricket, however, Aftab Gul faded away without fulfilling his immense promise.
Then again, he really didn’t make the kind of mark that he was supposed to even at the first-class cricket level. There was apparently too much going on in his life. He was a firebrand student leader in his college days. That happened to be in those uneasy and volatile 1960s. He later trained to be a lawyer and turned into a successful one too.
But most of all he was a political activist and knowing Aftab Gul one realized that he had to be at the forefront. He himself was a lawyer but was pursued by the lawmakers and law enforcers much of his young life. So much so that, during the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, he had to spend many years in exile in England away from his family and friends and the cricket grounds of his favorite Lahore.
It was an 18-year old that Aftab Gul made his first appearance in first-class cricket at home. This was in an Ayub Trophy Championship match for Punjab University against Lahore at the former’s Old Campus ground in the heart of the city in early Dec 1964. It was an inauspicious debut thought, but Aftab Gul scored a quick 29 in 68 runs opening stand with wicketkeeper Abdul Haleem.
The Punjab University team didn’t have any real big stars in its midst. But there was Waqar Ahmed; a fine batsman who had a pedigree as he is the oldest son of India’s wicketkeeper of the 1930s that great educationalist Dilawar Hussain. Waqar Ahmed toured England with the Pakistan team in 1967 but never played in any Tests. In the past, he’s also had the opportunity of being secretary of Pakistan Cricket Board.
Pakistan fast bowler Saleem Altaf also went on that tour of England and made his Test debut there. He then proceeded to appear for Pakistan at the Test match level 21 times and take 46 wickets. There were several others in that Punjab University team who could have become Pakistan cricketers. But the golden chance just swept past them for some on several occasions. Earlier in the same year 1964, Bashir Mian had toured Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with the Pakistan A side and was a batsman of a quite high caliber. Skipper Amjad Hussain was an opening bowler of note but didn’t have a long career.
The sixties were a time when cricketers in Pakistan and even in much of the rest of the world hadn’t experienced the influx of money and the lure of professionalism. Most cricketers were simply in it for the love of the game. He lasted only until other more prosperous pursuits whisked them away.
Here’s how Aftab Gul has been described by British sportswriter Christopher Martin-Jenkins in his book World Cricketers – A Biographical Dictionary!
“A stocky right-handed opener Aftab Gul, although over-impetuous on occasions, was often a reliable and effective batsman. He toured England in 1971, coming second in the batting with 1,154 runs at 46.16, sharing in some splendid attacking opening partnerships with Sadiq Muhammad. But his highest score in the Test was only 33. At home, he played against England in 1968-69, and New Zealand in 1969-70.
He was a Law student at Punjab University and he became the first player to appear in first-class cricket while on bail for alleged political activities. Such was his following indeed, as a student leader that it was said that Pakistan officials did not dare to play at Lahore Test against England without him.
In the next match for Punjab University after his debut in 1964-65, Aftab Gul was clean bowled for a duck by Railway’s fine pace bowler Bashir Haider. Before the season was over, Aftab Gul had hit his maiden first-class fifty though. This was a score of 58, typically characteristic of him, made for Lahore Reds against Punjab University Education Board in a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Championship match, again at the Old Campus Ground.
Otherwise, the winter of 1964-65 went off rather quietly for Aftab Gul. After opening the batting in the traditional start of the season fixture between the Punjab Governor’s XI and Punjab University at the Bagh-e-Jinnah Ground in Lahore in 1965-66. He brilliantly contributed scores of 49 and 31 runs. Aftab Gul fired in with his first-class career’s first century.
This was a score of exactly 100, for Punjab University against Sargodha, again at his favorite Old Campus Ground in the Ayub Trophy Championship got underway. The hundred was made in 175 minutes and included as many as 19 boundaries. Aftab Gul’s career was put on the right track. He missed another century by just four runs when Punjab University played against Karachi Whites.
His close friend and opening partner Mushtaq Hashmi hit 69 runs. They put a first-wicket partnership of worthy 169 runs. The Punjab University side took the crucial first-innings lead over the team from Karachi. But Lahore Greens had the better of them at the next hurdle. Aftab Gul hit a brisk 76 as the match drew to a close.
The next two seasons didn’t bring Aftab Gul much joy. In 1967-68, he scores some runs but his batting average remained below 30. But two significant innings of 90 and 31 were a notable performance. This was against Combined Universities against the touring Richie Benaud led Commonwealth team had raised his stock as a future Pakistan prospect. In a previous match, when he was captain of Central Zone against the same visitors. Aftab Gul made a fighting 76 in a nine-wicket defeat in Sargodha.
He was given a chance to represent Pakistan in the second Unofficial Test against Commonwealth at Lahore. He opened the batting with Muhammad Illyas got dismissed for four in the first innings. Then he had to retire hurt in the second after he had started off well and contributed seven runs.
Much happiness was in store for Aftab Gul though in the 1968-69 season. He ended up by scoring 489 runs in seven first-class matches at an average of 44.45 and added another century to his aggregate. Moreover, he was given his first Test cap too and played in two matches against visiting England side.
But his finest achievement earlier in the season was that he led Lahore to their first national cricket title. He performed brilliantly in helping the Lahore to win the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Championship against Karachi. That team which had clinched all the seven previous competitions since 1957-58 when Bahawalpur claimed only their second and last national crown.
It was an acrimonious match, some believed, the final between Lahore and Karachi at the Bagh-e-Jinnah Ground in Lahore. Aftab Gul was a tough captain and even a tougher person no quarter was given and none asked for. It was said at that time that even despite overnight rain the last day’s play could have got underway, but Aftab Gul thought otherwise.
He refused to resume play, and the entire fifth and final day of the final was considered washed out. At the end of the fourth day, Karachi having conceded a slender first-innings lead of 18. Then they had hit back and clipped 146 of the 217 runs required with seven wickets still in hand. But there was no play after that and the first outing advantage brought Lahore a win over Karachi.
The Karachi captain in 1968-69 Quaid-e-Azam Trophies final was the legendary Hanif Muhammad. With him were players like Saeed Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, Salahuddin, Zaheer Abbas, Wasim Bari, and Pervez Sajjad. The Lahore team included Muhammad Illyas, Waqar Ahmed, Shafqat Rana, Majid Khan, Wasim Raja, Farooq Hameed, Sarfraz Nawaz, and Asif Masood.
In his debut Test in Lahore Aftab Gul Scored 12 and 29. He couldn’t go in to bat at Karachi as a crowd disruption ended the match as well as the tour. In England 1971, he was struck on the head by fast bowler Alan Ward on the third ball of the innings in the first Test at Edgbaston when only one run had been scored and Aftab had yet to open his account.
This was the match in whom Zaheer Abbas scored his mammoth 274, and Mushtaq Muhammad 100 and Asif Iqbal 104 not out contributed centuries in Pakistan’s total of 608 for seven declared. When Aftab Gul resumed at the fall of the fifth wicket, 469 runs had already been on board. He chipped with a knock of 28 though.
At Lord’s in the rain-hit second Test, Aftab Gul made his highest score of 33. Only Zaheer Abbas with 40 had more in the pathetic Pakistan total of 148. Aftab scored 27 and 18 in the third Test at Leeds and that proved to be the end of his six Test career.
Aftab Gul’s career, in fact, took a nosedive in the years following 1971. He appeared to be a favorite to play in at least the first Test against England when the MCC visited here in 192-73. His place was given to Talat Ali who went on to retain his position in all three Tests. It was in 1973-74 when Aftab Gul scored a thousand runs in the domestic first-class 1,008 at 40.32 with three hundred that he was back in contention again.
He was in the team that went to England in 1974. Christopher Martin-Jenkins doesn’t mention this fact in his book. He scored 293 runs in six first-class matches but was not chosen for any of the three Tests. His international career was all over.
Aftab Gul who played also for the Service Industries without being employed with them scored 6,179 runs in 101 first-class matches in a career that lasted until 1977-78. He ran up an average of 36.77 and hit 11 centuries of which his highest was 140 for Punjab University against Combined University in Lahore in 1973-74. He also held 48 catches and captured 14 wickets at 34.50 runs apiece.
His leadership qualities had impressed the authorities enough when he was named to lead the Pakistan Under-25’s on a tour of England in 1970. Unfortunately, the trip got aborted and Aftab never got another opportunity. That he would have been notably limited over’s player for Pakistan.
He reflected his caliber in a record during a brief one day career that lasted from 1975-76 to 1980-81. In nine matches he hammered 477 runs at the domestic level an average of 59.62. These included three hundred and a fifty and he scored almost at a strike rate of 100.
Aftab Gul is still in the business as a reasonably successful lawyer. After, having spent some ten years in exile. he has matured and sobered down with age and lives in the Islamabad.