November 25, 2013

Two more to Pakistan's fast bowling tally

It's too early to anoint Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali as the next big things, but it's great to watch them send stumps flying and batsmen hopping

Bilawal Bhatti: flamboyance, no; intensity, yes © ACC/Mithilesh Mishra

"How many Bhuttos will you murder? Each house shall give birth to one."

This slogan is one of the most popular in Pakistani politics. Part of a poem written by the late Naseer Kavi, it was originally shouted in defiance against the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq. It was General Zia's coup that deposed the charismatic, polarising prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and it was Zia's regime that orchestrated the trial that led to Bhutto's hanging.

What interests me about this slogan is its premise, namely that Bhutto was an idea, not a person. Consequently, it argued that killing one Bhutto would be futile, since others would be born who would manifest the same idea.

If we are to commit a few leaps of logic and phrase, we could come up with a similar slogan for the bounteous stream of Pakistani fast bowlers as well. No matter how many are lost to injury, hubris, greed or international drug laws, Pakistan will always keep producing more.

I've noted previously how Pakistan's attack is led by a spinner now, and it is quite clear that the majority of the attacking options, particularly in limited-overs games, come via spin.

Yet fast bowling is intrinsically tied to Pakistan's cricketing soul, and it is one of the cornerstones around which the Pakistani imagination is built. Last night at Newlands, Pakistan gave extremely successful debuts to two fast bowlers, both seemingly evidence of the fast-bowler bonanza.

The first, Bilawal Bhatti, I've immediately taken to. A diminutive build and a complete absence of flamboyancy in his hair mean that he doesn't look like a conventional Pakistani bowler. When those on my Twitter feed saw him in the first T20, many paid him the worst insult possible for a Pakistani pacer - he looked like an Indian quickie.

Yet what struck with me was Bhatti's quiet, smouldering intensity. You saw it each time he delivered his well-directed bouncers, managing to look down upon his nose at batsmen several feet taller.

His spell in the second T20, 4-0-19-0, was crucial to the team's success, defending Pakistan's total. In the Cape Town ODI, Bhatti took another step forward with a match-winning all round display. Despite his three bowleds (another Pakistani trademark) the most cherished moment for me was when he bowled his first over to Jacques Kallis.

Few cricketers are able to execute their skills with the adherence to orthodoxy that Kallis does, and thus any time he has to adapt, it is a testament to the opponent's abilities. Twice in that first over, Kallis was left confounded, misreading the bounce in one delivery and then the pace of the next. He was able to crash the final ball for four, but it was proof that Bhatti belonged.

However, just as I was about to shout from the rooftops, a much wiser observer of Pakistani cricket, Osman Samiuddin, preached caution. He noted how Bhatti was similar to Yasir Arafat, and others mentioned Rana Naved-ul-Hasan - both bowlers who have no dearth of variety, are death-bowling experts in various domestic leagues, and are blessed with pace and guile. But for various confounding reasons, both never really made it to the pantheon of Pakistani pace.

And perhaps an even greater warning sign for Bhatti lies with his fellow debutant - Anwar Ali. One of the most famous Pakistanis on Youtube, Anwar rose to fame in the sort of scenario that B-movie producers would reject for being too trite. Defending a laughably small total against the arch nemesis in a global final, he became a Pakistani legend before he became a Pakistan player.

In the intervening seven years, his frame has become Watson-esque, and his hair has gone from Harry Potter extra to guitar god, yet the one thing that hasn't progressed is his career. Despite having travelled the world with the senior side, chances have been rare and he's had to wait five years to return after his 2008 T20I debut.

I am not aware of the reasons that have led to Anwar's stagnation, but the impossible expectations foisted on him the first time everyone saw him surely couldn't have helped. Therefore, it makes even more sense not to rush to anoint Bilawal as the latest heir to an immortal, infinite lineage of fast bowlers.

Yet, it is also important for us to celebrate last night as well. With all the (warranted) doom and gloom about the imbalance between ball and bat in the modern game, it was a sheer pleasure to see two young men send wickets flying and batsmen jumping. It was a relief to see Anwar work towards redeeming his career, and it was astonishing to see Bilawal punch above his weight.

It is still to early to know if that slogan has rung true and new pacers have risen again, but after this, we can hope to clear our throats soon.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here