Consider this: Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif, and Junaid Khan could have been leading Pakistan’s bowling attack in this World Cup. Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz would have been there to support these three. It didn’t happen of course.
Amir and Asif took a different route roughly four years ago. Back then, it felt like Pakistan had lost out on the last potential leaders of the bowling pack. They were replaced by the likes of Aizaz Cheema and Tanvir Ahmed. To be honest, there was the odd show of brilliance and aggression from Wahab Riaz but that was, more or less, a rarity. Irfan and Junaid rekindled the partnership on the tour of India in 2012-2013, albeit briefly. And then Junaid Khan got injured in the lead up to this World Cup.
Bottom line: Pakistan’s fast bowling stocks were now made up of the likes of Sohail Tanvir, Bilawal Bhatti, Anwer Ali, and Ehsan Adil. That is an indictment of sorts; a proverbial slap on a country’s fast bowling legacy.
You see, fast bowling is the ethos of Pakistan cricket. It is the very structure upon which Pakistan’s rich cricketing history rests. Simply put, fast bowling is the dil of Pakistan cricket.
In some ways, the team’s unpredictability perfectly mirrors the moods of a Pakistani fast bowler – hot one day, cold the very next. Big player egos are epitomized by fast bowling playboys. Think of Sarfraz, Imran, Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib, and Asif. The sense of liberation and carelessness around Pakistan cricket is not epitomized by a reckless Umar Akmal heave on the on side. But you can sense it – even feel it perhaps – in Shoaib Akhtar’s run up.
Here is another way to go about this. What if you were to define Pakistan cricket? Would you think of Mohammad Yousuf coming down the track to play an inside out lofted drive? Would you think of an airborne Younus Khan negotiating a short-pitched delivery in Johannesburg? Would you think of a 37-ball 60 from Inzamam-ul-Haq? A Javed Miandad special where he runs between the wickets as if his life depends on it? Some of those stylish Saleem Malik drives? Not really.
Pakistan cricket’s dil beats with Fazal Mahmood’s 12 wickets at the Oval. It beats with Sarfraz Nawaz picking up 7-1 at Melbourne in a matter of minutes. It beats with Imran Khan’s 12 wickets at Sydney. It beats with Wasim and Waqar defending 126 runs at Hamilton. It lives in what is a timeless image of Shoaib Akhtar’s perfect first-ball yorker to Sachin Tendulkar.
Through different generations, fast bowling has defined Pakistani cricket. For every Gavaskar, there has been an Imran. For every Sachin, there has been a Wasim.
So roughly five years of spin-domination between 2010 and 2015 was, quite simply put, un-Pakistani to its very core. It was as if Pakistan were playing in, say, Sri Lanka’s avatar. Average pace bowlers at best, world-class spinners on average. While this brought success to Pakistan, it also eroded the very essence of our cricket. Where was the next gum-chewing, chain-flashing free spirit of a fast bowler?
On Saturday, against the mighty South Africans, we saw a glimpse of the good old days. Misbah and his team took us on a time machine ride, straight back into a session from the 1999 World Cup perhaps. 28.3 overs of attacking pace bowling: pace, attacking field settings, chewing gums, and perpetual stares. This was vintage Pakistani stuff.
It’s a good thing that these guys know they are not Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis on the field. Expecting the same quality from them is just being unfair. Together, as a hunting pack, these guys are picking up the pieces. They know their limitations and they are complementing each other. This is an Aristotelian representation of Pakistani cricket where the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. For Irfan’s aggression, there is Rahat’s control. For Wahab’s free spirit, there is the odd Sohail Khan burst.
But wait, it will be unfair if one doesn’t talk about Misbah here. He came into this World Cup not knowing his first choice bowling attack. Five matches in, he now seems to be well versed about his strengths. He knows which bowler to turn to and when. Just like his bowlers, he too seems to understand their limitations: Irfan bowled 4 overs in his opening spell and Sohail Khan got 3 overs with the new ball.
Roussow was greeted with two slips and length bowling, almost cramped for space. And then came the short ball, hooked straight to Sohail Khan at fine leg. This sense of calculated aggression was just the kind of freedom Wahab tends to enjoy. Misbah gave him that freedom.
With a small partnership building between Duminy and AB De Villiers, Misbah went back to Irfan in the 20th over.
He was fending off length balls from Rahat and Wahab, almost aching to go after the ones falling slightly short. In came Irfan and he hooked a short-pitched delivery to Wahab Riaz at fine leg.
That Misbah and his boys are scripting wins with pace bowling once again, after the 2012-2013 tour of India, is a massive relief for Pakistani fans. They can own such victories with a greater sense of association.
Basically, they know that the dil is still beating.