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This was exactly the kind of Bristol day that Zaheer Abbas didn't want to experience when he rang his former Gloucestershire teammate Andy Brassington from Pakistan. "Brassie!," the voice from the Pakistan end of the connection crackled, sending Brassington instantly into peals of laughter. The former Gloucestershire keeper-bat had been watching a Royal London Day-Night game at the Bristol County Ground when the name 'Zed' flashed on his mobile. The Pakistan legend, who was also watching the game at home on the internet, had called to inform that he was going to be in town for the Pakistan-Sri Lanka World Cup game.
All it took was a call from Brassington to the Gloucestershire County Cricket Club and everything was arranged: Zaheer Abbas would be the county's guest of honour at the game and hosted at the prestigious WG Grace hospitality box. "Everyone at the club were honoured, eager and excited to have 'Zed' with us," Brassington tells Cricbuzz. If only the rain stayed away for a few hours.
Zed played 206 games for Gloucestershire, scored over 16000 runs, became the only player to have scored both a century and double century in a first-class match on four occasions, earned himself a sobriquet of 'The Asian Bradman', but his most enduring memory at the club, for those that played with him, was his abject hate for the Bristol rain and the cold. "He wore glasses those days while batting so obviously the rain didn't help," Brassie recounts with a chuckle.
"He came from Pakistan so it was understandable I guess. But he hated the chills that the English rain brought with it. Watch him on pictures from Gloucestershire, you'd think he was such a big man. He'd just collect sweaters from everywhere and wear about 10 of them before going out to bat."
Abbas's dislike for the English weather, Brassie remembers, went as far as faking injuries to avoid playing in the cold. "Back in the 70s, we didn't have these many support staff members. We had one guy, Les Barsley, who would double up as physio and if someone was hurt, he'd get a sponge and water and sort you out. If Zed said he was injured, especially in the cold or wet, and that he couldn't play, the physio would tell him to lie down on the bed with his trouser down and would return with the biggest needle he had. Zed would do a u-turn and go to the captain and say 'I'm feeling better and I'm ready to play'. He hated needles as much as the cold."
Brassington, the talented gloveman from Stoke-on-Trent, was 17 in 1973 when he arrived at Bristol for a two-week trial, that turned into a rest-of-the-life association with Gloucestershire. Abbas was already a big name in the side after prancing his way to 274 at Edgbaston in just his second Test. In a somewhat surprising move, Abbas had picked Gloucestershire even when more "high-profile clubs" chased after his signature. That endeared the Pakistan wizard to the Gloucestershire faithful as much as his numerous double hundreds. "Gloucestershire is quite a rural county although Bristol, where we are based. is a big city. Those days we played all over Gloucester. And in the west country, they say, life is a lot slower and laidback. But everyone was definitely more connected," says Brassington.
Contrary to popular perception, the usually reserved Zaheer Abbas was a hoot, but a classy one, in the company of people he knew well. There were teething communication problems. Between his Urdu and the thick Gloucester English accent, he wasn't a talker in the dressing room. In fact, Abbas spoke only to compatriot Sadiq Mohammed in his early days until club captain Tony Brown banned the two from speaking in Urdu in the dressing room to foster team culture. Eager to get the captain's approval, Abbas turned to English day-time soaps to pick up the language and soon enough became "one of the lads".
Zed's integration into the squad brought surprising changes. The Gloucestershire team now made regular stop-overs at Birmingham, irrespective of where the next county match was scheduled, on Abbas' request. "Those days, we played three-day cricket and were on the road quite a lot. Sadly. This is very true, with Zed in the side, wherever we played in England, we always went via Birmingham. That's where Zed had relatives. I remember the time going into houses where there would be 20-30 people and tables joined together for a meal. I hadn't eaten without my forks and spoons then and that was new. We would eat and then head out to where we were playing. We became culturally more aware."
Around the grounds of the Cheltenham college, where Gloucestershire have played for 140 years now, the feats of the bespectacled Zaheer Abbas are spoken with an almost reverential tone. His 141 in less than three hours to help overcome a follow-on and down Ian Botham's Somerset remains the benchmark for all other batting efforts. But, alongside that high bat lift and that god-touched cover drive, Abbas's infamous running between the wickets has also achieved cult status. "There was only rule while batting with Zed," Brassington says. "Do not run him out, but be prepared, because you have to run off the last ball and he was allowed to run you out," Brassington says with a laugh.
"He had all the shots. Heck, he had a strike-rate of nearly 85 in the mid 70s when pitches were still uncovered and early season ball seamed and swung. But he was a terrible runner. He would say stuff like: 'Let's confuse the fielders - When I say yes for a run, it means no, and when I say no, it means there is a run'. He confused his partners more than he did fielders and that's why we had so many run-outs.
"I remember once, at Brighton & Hove when I hardly got to bat and I had reached 20 that day. Zed called me for a three off the last ball and I was stranded half way down the wicket running. That sort of things happened with the great man, but he was a darling so we learned to live with it."
"Four through covers," is perhaps what the cricket world will remember Zaheer Abbas most by according to Brassington. But Zed's relationship with Gloucestershire went beyond. "Everyone likes Zed not only because he was a great player. He was a great lad. I've been out to various places with him. If he went to a shop or a restaurant or the Robin Hood pub near the ground, he was treated like god. I don't think I ever saw him pay, because they just wouldn't let him pay."
"I think Gloucestershire meant a lot to him and he never forgot that. Imagine, for overseas players, or for players in today's T20s who come and go to different teams, this bond is special. Even now, he calls asking where some of the former players are, how the club is doing. Gloucestershire will be always be in his heart and he in the the club's, on the same league as WG Grace and Wally Hammond... He is, as we say, a Gloucester boy through and through. Just a Gloucester boy that hated the Gloucester rain"
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