Memories of Nezam Hafiz alive, well
Guyanese cricketer lost on 9/11 remembered for enduring commitment to game
Liberty Avenue in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens is the heart of the Guyanese immigrant community in New York. Seemingly every 100 feet is another roti shop or restaurant serving goat curry and oxtail.
Just a few blocks away in South Ozone Park, in a residential area sandwiched between Aqueduct Racetrack and JFK International Airport, sits a white brick house with a salmon-colored porch. Over the entrance hangs a sign in gold lettering: "Nezam Hafiz Villa."
Open the front door and to the right there's a photo of Hafiz, looking sharp as usual while wearing a sport coat and slacks alongside his USA teammates on the hallowed turf at Lord's Cricket Ground in London. It was a long road to get there from Georgetown, Guyana, for a boy who started playing the bat and ball game two decades earlier.
"He loved cricket," says Cecil Hafiz, Nezam's father. "You would see him every day at the cricket ground."
Cricket has a rich history in Guyana, a former British colony on the north coast of South America, and Nezam worked his way through the ranks as a junior player, eventually becoming the national U-19 captain in 1988 at the Northern Telecom Youth Tournament, which included other teams from around the West Indies. In Guyana's first match, the captain for the opposition, Trinidad & Tobago, was Brian Lara, who went on to become a West Indies captain and one of cricket's all-time greats.
Hafiz showed signs of promise as Guyana's U-19 captain, scoring 116 runs in a three-day match against a Leeward Islands side that included future West Indies Test batsman Stuart Williams. The following season he made his debut for Guyana's senior team and wound up making six first-class appearances over the next three years, struggling to secure a regular spot on a Guyana team that was particularly strong through the late 1980s and early '90s. However, he did leave quite an impression on Carl Hooper, another former West Indies captain who played for Guyana, just not for the reasons one would typically expect.
"To me he always seemed like, we call them saga boys in the Caribbean," Hooper says. "He was my roommate and we spent a week in Jamaica. He would get up really early in the morning. The first thing, the minute we got to the room, he had all these lotions and stuff in the bathroom. He used to take forever in there. He'd go into the bath and, man, he'd be there for half an hour. He'd come out and he had these black shorts, boxers on, and he would stand in front of the mirror and there was this little curl he had at the front of his hair, just a little curl going, a little wave going, and he would spend minutes just trying to fix it right, and we've gotta get breakfast and gotta go down to the ground."
"If there was a West Indian GQ, his picture would be on the cover and it would never be taken off," says Irshad Adam, the oldest of Nezam's sister Sharon's three sons. "Cricket is a regular sport. You sweat, you get dirty, you run around the field, but his clothes would never get dirty." Cecil claims that when walking through the house, "the smell of his cologne could kill you." No one was allowed to touch Nezam's hair.
After being a fringe player in Guyana for a couple of years, Hafiz decided to go to New York in 1992 to join his parents and two older sisters. While he loved cricket tremendously, it was very difficult at that point for cricketers in Guyana to maintain a decent living unless they were established on the dominant West Indian sides of that era.
Before leaving, Hafiz left his mark with his generosity to some of the younger cricketers in the Georgetown area, particularly at Malteenoes. At 23, he was the vice-captain of the first division team but found time to encourage younger players, and when it was time to make his way to America, he donated some of his equipment to players at Malteenoes who needed it, something that would turn into a habit through the years.
"He was a national player," said Lennox Cush, who was six years younger than Hafiz and went on to play for the Guyana and U.S. national teams. "I wasn't representing Guyana as yet, but he saw the potential in me and also a few other youngsters around and he would always reach out to us and try to give us cricket clothing, gear, etc."
After settling in Queens with his parents, Hafiz joined his sister Debbie by working on weekdays for AIG. On the weekends, though, cricket was still a major part of his life. He soon got connected with the American Cricket Society club team, which played in the Commonwealth Cricket League, one of the largest cricket leagues in the U.S., with more than 60 clubs. The standard of amateur league cricket in New York was quite competitive, and Hafiz fit in immediately.
"As a cricketer, you could see the potential he had in him when he came out to play and through the years when he represented the club, the league, the region and the USA," said Zamin Amin, a former U.S. national team captain who played at ACS with Hafiz after migrating from Guyana. "He's a thinker when he's batting and what really stands out is he can work the ball around. When him and I were batting, we were very good running between the wickets. We would really break teams apart once we would get into that mode."
Hafiz experienced a particularly successful run at ACS, as the team won the Commonwealth league title seven times over the next nine seasons. Along the way he was named club captain, and beginning in 1997 he also captained the CCL squad in New York's interleague tournament.
"He was a very talented cricketer, just the sort of a captain that any team would need, especially the captain of any league team," remembers CCL president Lesly Lowe. "We had a very, very strong league team comprised of excellent cricketers, and he did a great job managing these guys."
In the late '90s, things started to pick up for Hafiz both at work and in cricket. After leaving AIG, he cycled through a few other jobs before settling into a position as a claims analyst for Marsh & McLennan in Lower Manhattan. In 1998, he broke onto the U.S. squad and made his first tour with the team as it traveled to Jamaica to take part in the Red Stripe Bowl, a West Indies domestic tournament. However, Hafiz was injured during the first match, needing five stitches in his left hand, and was out of the tournament before getting a chance to bat.
Another chance came in 2000, when a squad was formed to tour the United Kingdom for eight matches as part of preparation for the following year's International Cricket Council Trophy, a World Cup qualifying tournament. After a selection camp in Philadelphia, Hafiz was picked for the eight-match tour, which took the team around England and Wales in July, and he wound up rooming with his ACS teammate Amin throughout the trip.
The first stop was a match at Windsor Castle, where the U.S. played the Royal Household XI, a team made up of employees of the British royal family. Rain stopped play before Hafiz got a chance to bat, but during all but one of the final seven matches on tour, Hafiz opened the batting with Mark Johnson, and the pair made a formidable combination. A big opening partnership between the two set the platform for an impressive win over a Yorkshire second XI and, in the next match against Marylebone Cricket Club, Hafiz scored 33 as the U.S. secured a memorable win by two runs.
"He had so much confidence. He was like, 'Come on, Mark! We gotta go get these boys!'" Johnson says about his experiences on tour batting alongside Hafiz. "It was a pleasure. First of all, he was stylish. He had immaculate timing of the ball. He was a real good batsman. He was capable of playing the pace bowlers well and he was there to guide you, support you and influence you as an opening partner."
Hafiz was the team's leading scorer in three of the eight matches on tour, with his best knock being 62 in a win over a Wales Minor Counties side. He finished the tour with 267 runs and three half-centuries, at an average of 44.50, to be one of the top players on tour along with Johnson and then-rising star and current U.S. national team captain Steve Massiah. A month later, Hafiz was named vice-captain for the national team on a tour to Canada, a sign that he was rapidly gaining respect at the national level.
By the end of the summer, Hafiz was 31 and in peak form. As a captain of both his club and league teams and now the vice-captain for Team USA, it seemed Hafiz was destined to one day take the next step and captain the U.S. national team.
In 1995, Cush went to New York and reunited with Hafiz, and the two become good friends over the next six years. So it was no sweat for Cush to ask Hafiz to give him a ride to the airport. Cush split his time between New York, Guyana and England as a professional cricketer. After suffering a devastating knee injury in 1999, Cush was working his way back up through the ranks to the Guyana national squad. On the second Monday of September 2001, it was time to fly back to Georgetown for national team trials ahead of a tournament coming up in October.
"My flight was on the night of the 10th at 11:45 p.m. or 12:15 a.m., JFK to Trinidad to Timehri [near Georgetown]," Cush says. "My plane landed in Guyana, I went straight to Georgetown and I walk into my home. My sister is on the phone talking to my wife and she just tells me, 'Look! Look! Look! Another plane is going into the building.'"
Much of Hafiz's reputation was staked on looking sharp, nothing less than his best. Part of that extended to work, where if a person wanted to do well and succeed, being late was never an option.
"You should always be early. That's how we were brought up," says Debbie Khublall, Nezam's sister. "I had to work at 9, I used to be at work for 7:30. He used to be at work at 8 o'clock when he had to be at work for 8:30."
"Tower One, that's where the plane went in. That's where he was, 94th floor," Cecil says, echoing the words again. "94th floor."
Khublall was working at Citibank on 53rd and Lexington when one of her co-workers told her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. "I didn't take it seriously. I thought it was like a helicopter or something. So I didn't do anything about it for quite a few minutes and then, I don't know if someone told me again, but I was like, you know something, let me call my brother. I called him and I got his voice mail and I left him a message, which was real funny because I was kind of giggling.
"I giggled on the phone and I left a message and he didn't call me back. And then I called him again. And then I started calling him nonstop after that. I literally kind of went crazy because where I was working there were a lot of TVs in the area. We had a lot of TVs, the flat screens on the wall, and I stood in front of one of them and I saw the plane, they keep repeating the plane hitting the World Trade Center. I just stood there and I started to cry. The employees and my friends were like, 'What's wrong, Debbie? Why are you crying? What's happening?' I mean everybody was in shock too at the same time, and I keep pointing to the TV and said, 'My brother. My brother's in there.'"
"NEZAM A. HAFIZ" is inscribed on Panel N-6 around the North Memorial Pool at the 9/11 Memorial, where the World Trade Center once stood. In September 2002, his ACS teammates organized a memorial cricket match in Queens, and several hundred people turned out. Whether it was superstition or something else, Hafiz never wanted to have his family present at the grounds to see him play cricket. So when the members of ACS presented the Hafiz family with a framed photo plaque full of images from Nezam's career on the cricket field, his mother nearly fainted.
The following spring, another memorial match was held at the Malteenoes club in Guyana, with the Hafiz family and members of ACS flying in to take part. A memorial match was held every year in New York through ACS for the first five years, and another memorial match was organized in New York for the 10th anniversary in the summer of 2011. Yet at the national level, the USA Cricket Association never did anything to memorialize him. No trophy, no award, no memorial match, nothing.
Eleven years later, current captain Massiah is the last of Hafiz's former teammates still playing for the national team. If one asks most of the other players currently on the squad who Nezam Hafiz was, most say they've never heard of him. Not even a generation has passed since Hafiz's passing and yet sadly his name is quickly fading away. Amin wishes only that more cricketers at all levels around the U.S. could have had the chance to play with, watch or just be around Hafiz, to have some of his approach rub off on them.
"Here is a guy who was very likable," Amin says, "who was touted to lead the national team, very good cricketer, punctual in all aspects including cricket and his personal life, is very serious about what he did, and if you could follow some of those steps, you probably would be on the right track."
More than his batting, it is Hafiz's infectious personality that people close to him miss most of all. During the unveiling of Marsh & McLennan's own 9/11 memorial for the 358 employees who died that day, a quote accompanied each person's name as they scrolled across the screen during a tribute video. Hafiz's tribute quote could have come from just about anyone who met him.
"I still see that smiling, handsome face "
Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterDellaPenna
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