Saad Shafqat December 9, 2009

The Kaneria conundrum

Kaneria’s assets include a highly effective googly, an accurate stock ball, and the will to strike back after coming in for some stick

Despite Kaneria's ability and success, we are still left with a sense that he has not lived up to his promise © Associated Press

During the course of the second Test against New Zealand in Wellington, wrist spinner Danish Kaneria inched past an important milestone on the ladder of Pakistani wicket-takers. With 238 wickets (from 55 Tests), he has now become the most successful spinner (and the fourth-most successful bowler of any type) in Pakistani Test history. Ahead of him lie only the truly hallowed names – Imran Khan, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram. Kaneria is almost 29, and still has several years of active playing life left. If he continues at his current rate of 4.3 wickets per Test and six Tests per year, he could well end up with 400 wickets.

He is no Shane Warne, but then nobody is. Still, Kaneria is potentially a great bowler. His numbers (an average of 34.04 and strike rate of 67.9) stand up well against Pakistan’s other leggies; an accomplished fraternity by any standards. Abdul Qadir took 236 Test wickets at an average of 32.80 and a strike rate of 72.5. Mushtaq Ahmed had 185 at 32.97 and 67.7, and Intikhab Alam, the first Pakistani wrist-spinner to go past 100 Test wickets, took 125 at 35.95 and 83.7.

Although Kaneria has done exceptionally well against Bangladesh (34 wickets at an average of 16.41 and strike rate of 36.1), he has succeeded against all the frontline teams as well. His Man-of-the-Match awards have come against South Africa, Sri Lanka, and West Indies, in addition to Bangladesh. During Pakistan’s 2005 series in India that was drawn 1-1, he performed better than his revered Indian counterpart Anil Kumble.

Kaneria’s assets include a highly effective googly, an accurate stock ball, and the will to strike back after coming in for some stick. Nevertheless, despite his ability and success, we are still left with a sense that he has not lived up to his promise. There is a feeling that he has not continued to grow as a bowler (he still cannot bowl a flipper, for instance), but to be fair, unimaginative selection is also to blame. With a respectable limited-overs record in domestic English and Pakistan cricket, he deserves greater opportunities in ODIs and Twenty20s. But in nine years of international cricket, he has played only 18 ODIs and not a single Twenty20 international for Pakistan.

Kaneria’s poor batting and fielding are cited as unacceptable limited-overs liabilities, but Saeed Ajmal, a tight spinner who is no better at batting and fielding than Kaneria, has shown you can be effective in limited-overs cricket on the basis of spin alone. The greater barrier is the presence of Shahid Afridi, a transformed wrist-spinner who these days can do no wrong. In the 1920s and 30s, Clarie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly wreaked havoc as an Australian wrist-spinning partnership, but these days it is sacrilegious to suggest that you play two wrist spinners together. So long as this stale mindset prevails, Kaneria is unlikely to play ODIs or Twenty20s for Pakistan.

He is certainly the best wrist-spinner in Test cricket today, although that isn’t saying much. His natural comparison is with Qadir, but he lacks Qadir’s intensity and repertoire, and has yet to rip through an innings the way Qadir did on a few memorable occasions. Unlike Qadir, he has not mastered the art of flighting the ball and don’t expect him to bowl the ball of the century, because unlike Warne, he cannot get serious turn from balls pitching outside leg.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that if you just fall short in comparison to the likes of Qadir and Warne, you’re really not doing too badly. Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Qadir, and Warne, along with Grimmett and O’Reilly, are five wrist-spinners who have made it into Christopher Martin-Jenkins’s ranking of the top 100 cricketers of all time. Will a similar compilation in later years find room for Kaneria? If he can learn one or two more tricks, it just might.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi