Pakistan pace survives ‘tuk-tuk’

How Pakistan became No.1 in Tests without the standout fast bowler they always seemed to have in the past

Wahab Riaz (left) has been key to Pakistan’s rise. Photo: Reuters
Wahab Riaz (left) has been key to Pakistan’s rise. Photo: Reuters

When Misbah-ul-Haq and his team took a lap of honour around The Oval cricket ground in London on Pakistan’s Independence Day this August, they had achieved the unthinkable. A team without a home had ascended to the No.1 ranking in Tests. What truly beggars belief is how Misbah’s motley crew achieved the improbable feat, one which surpassed what more celebrated Pakistan teams in the past have managed, without something that all successful Pakistan teams have had: a game-changing, standout fast bowler.

When Misbah became Pakistan captain six years ago, the team was in turmoil. They had lost the right to play matches in their own country after the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked in Lahore in 2009. And three of the players had been found guilty of spot-fixing, causing some to demand their expulsion from the cricketing fraternity.

When you think of Pakistan cricket, you think of fast bowling, but that was the art that was most under threat. Two of the men involved in the fixing scandal of 2010, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, were at the time Pakistan’s finest fast bowlers and among the most dangerous in the world. They were the Waqar and Wasim of their generation. In addition, Pakistan were going to have to play their “home” matches in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on slow pitches that favoured batsmen and spinners, in energy-sapping heat.

The old adage that there is an assembly line of fast bowlers in the country was about to be truly tested. Since November 2010, when Misbah captained the team for the first time, in a two-match series against South Africa, Pakistan have played a total of 47 matches, in which they have played 14 different fast bowlers. Of these, eight have made their debut under Misbah’s captaincy. Without any one bowler standing out, the quicks have collectively managed to take 333 wickets in the Misbah era, at an average of more than seven wickets every match. This despite playing most of their cricket in the UAE.

When Sir Cyril Radcliffe signed off on the boundary demarcation to create India and Pakistan in August 1947, it probably didn’t occur to anybody that Partition could have an impact on the cricketing legacy of the two nations. One side was full of wristy, elegant, aristocratic batsmen; the other blessed with lithe, athletic, graceful fast bowlers. If Lala Amarnath was the essence of Indian batting, Fazal Mahmood was the hero Pakistanis worshipped.

Throughout its Test-playing history, Pakistan has almost always had a speed merchant capable of running through the opposition. As cricket writer and journalist Osman Samiuddin observes in his book The Unquiet Ones, “To be a fast bowler in Pakistan is to be a hero.”

Thanks to the presence of the exceptional Mahmood, known for his devastating leg-cutters and Hollywood looks, and the resourceful duo of Khan Mohammad and Mahmood Hussain, the Pakistan team was able to compete with far more experienced teams in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it was the appearance of first Sarfraz Nawaz and later Imran Khan that truly elevated Pakistan’s reputation as a country with a fast-bowling pedigree. The arrival of Wasim Akram in 1984 and Waqar Younis in 1989 only helped reinforce its status.

Mercurial, unpredictable, thrilling became the most popular adjectives used to define the Pakistan cricket team, thanks mainly to its stunning fast bowling. For Misbah, though, the road to redemption and success was built on pragmatism, not spectacle. Flipping the blueprint for Pakistan’s success, he chose to rely on the battery of quality spinners at his disposal. First, the off-spinner Saeed Ajmal, most ably supported by left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman, and later the duo of Yasir Shah, the leg-spinner, and Zulfiqar Babar, another left-arm spinner, were the men deployed as primary weapons against the opposition.

But fast bowlers were not going to simply fade away. Instead, they had to adapt, and it was their ability to do so and play a supporting role rather than the lead that has kept the art of fast bowling alive in Pakistan.

Formerly renowned for inducing breath-taking collapses using toe-crushing yorkers, the quicks had to be patient and prise out wickets via the slow choke method. The Pakistan Test team learnt to use defence as a means of attack.

Many called it tuk-tuk cricket and decried it as boring. But Misbah’s priority was to keep the team afloat and competitive, style be damned. Aware of the ever-growing influence of Twenty20 cricket and the increasing speed at which the game is played these days, he sought to apply the hand-brakes. His aim was simple: Deny the batsmen scoring opportunities, and they will make mistakes.

Being asked to bowl dry instead of trying to take wickets is anathema to a fast bowler. The tactic also meant they were denied the limelight. In Pakistan’s 22 wins under Misbah, only two fast bowlers—Rahat Ali and Wahab Riaz—have managed to win Man of the Match awards. The quicks also had to get used to being rotated. With Amir and Asif gone, Misbah had to tinker with bowling combinations. Bowlers such as Bilawal Bhatti, Tanvir Ahmed, Mohammad Talha and Ehsan Adil failed to hold on to their spots and faded away after playing only a handful of matches, unable to offer Misbah the control he demanded.

With spinners choke-holding opposing batting line-ups successfully, it was the emergence of Junaid Khan, in 2011, and Rahat Ali, in 2013, that gave Misbah what he wanted—fast bowlers who could do the same. Junaid has taken 71 wickets in 22 Tests. Importantly, he has managed this while maintaining an economy rate of just 2.93 per over. Rahat Ali has taken 48 wickets at an economy rate of 3.22.

Though Pakistan have won consistently and surprised teams under Misbah, the ascent to the No.1 ranking began in earnest when they played against Australia in the UAE in October 2014. Forced to overhaul their bowling line-up after injuries, lack of form and suspensions, Pakistan played with two debutants in their bowling attack—Imran Khan, the fast bowler (no relation to the older Imran) and Shah, the leg spinner.

In the 10 victories in 17 matches that Pakistan have managed since the beginning of that series against Australia, Shah was the star bowler, but the fast bowlers continued to play their quiet yet effective role and even dominated some matches. It was in this period that Rahat Ali and Wahab Riaz secured their Man of the Match prizes, the latter with a searing spell of fast bowling against England in Dubai in October 2015. Imran Khan, too, has been a vital cog in the attack, albeit an underrated one. With a solid record of 20 wickets in seven matches at an economy rate of 3.22, he is the prototype of the Misbah-style fast bowler.

Mohammad Amir’s return to the team, after serving his ban, highlights how Misbah’s strategy has dominated Pakistan cricket and turned the team from a mercurial beast into a well-oiled machine. Before his suspension, Amir was an out-and-out attacking bowler, taking a wicket every 56.2 balls. But when he returned, he had to acquaint himself with the ethos of team Misbah. He ended his comeback series against England with just 12 wickets, at a strike rate of one every 81.2 balls. But his economy rate was 3.13. He played his role. And Pakistan drew the series, something they had not managed when he was at his marauding best back in 2010.

Abid Hussain is a journalist based in Karachi.

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