Danish Kaneria remains a matchwinner for Pakistan November 3, 2005

Shock, stock and spin

From five years ago, England will find a changed Kaneria. He has improved, sharply in the last year, and unsurprisingly, for a successful legspinner, he doesn't lack for confidence. In his breakthrough series last year against Australia - 15 wickets and R

After a muted entrance into Test cricket, Danish Kaneria has spun himself into a matchwinner for a Pakistan side looking for a top-class spinner © Getty Images
And then, like light, there was Warne. But in 1977 BW (before Warne), there existed Abdul Qadir. If Qadir didn't entirely revive a genre single-handedly, he did at least set in stone one of cricket's modern day commandments; if thou art an English batsman, thou shall have little to no clue against legspin.

To England, Qadir was positively oriental, not a million miles in imagination, you suspect, from Ranjitsinjhi; swaying, dancing in approach, an overplayed action, mysteries in bag, all occasionally embellished with long locks and a goatee. His success against them - 82 of the 236 who fell to him were English - contributes disproportionately to his legend (he only took a shade over three wickets per Test against sides that weren't England) but it became an embodiment of the ineptitude of England against a generation of spinners, led of course, by Warne.

So when he introduced himself with a googly, five years ago against the same opponent, Danish Kaneria was propagandised as another legspinning dervish to taunt and ridicule the English. Unlike Qadir, however, who took six in his second Test against England or even Mushtaq Ahmed who took the same in a warm-up match in 1987, Kaneria's entrance was muted. "I was nervous at the time and I didn't do as well as was expected. But there was a lot expected of me. I had little experience and the pressure of being this secret weapon was too much," explains Kaneria.

It wasn't just the nervousness of a debutante. Even then, as England were assiduously building what they have now, their befuddlement with spin was being stripped off. Warne had happened, but years of exposure at county level to Saqlain, Murali, Harbhajan, Mushtaq and Kumble, had dulled the aura. Saqlain took 18 wickets in that series but at a strike rate that troubled no one. England nullified him, as they did Warne's 40 wickets this summer. Familiarity had bred a comfort zone.

Kaneria bemoans, "Over the last decade, they have really improved their play against spin. It helps with Warne playing for Hampshire, Mushtaq for Sussex. That fear has gone. Everyone studies videos nowadays and bowling machines can replicate the type of delivery, the bounce, the pace; these things all have made it difficult for spinners."

But if steadfastly refusing to play county cricket helped Qadir maintain his mystique and success, doesn't playing for Essex, in a sense desensitize Kaneria? He argues, "It isn't all one way. Batsmen are learning to play spin but I am also learning a lot. I bowl on all types of wickets, in different conditions and against all types of batsmen. That helps my bowling develop."

From five years ago, England will find a changed Kaneria. He has improved, sharply in the last year, and unsurprisingly, for a successful legspinner, he doesn't lack for confidence. In his breakthrough series last year against Australia - 15 wickets and Richie Benaud's stamp of approval - he unveiled a deliberately cocky, in-yer-face guise, not shy of a word, a send-off and experimentation in his bowling. For some, like Qadir, it is too bristly, but Kaneria insists it is necessary.

"I wasn't like this two years ago although I have always had aggression in me. People used to hold me back but I don't listen anymore. If I don't act it I feel something is missing." Few, including Qadir and Warne, would argue that in legspinning - a contrary and punishing occupation - such indulgences are not only allowed, but indispensable.

"I am much more confident now. Having played internationally and at county level so much you learn every day and your confidence increases. I have proved myself in different places around the world, taken wickets against good teams and I want more."

Unusually for his breed, at least till pre-Ashes Warne, his role is multipurpose. Because of the thinness of Pakistan's bowling, he has been dually burdened, adding stock to his shock. Consequently, he has bowled an obscenely large number of overs. Oddly, it has led to criticism that his wicket-taking is profligate with runs.

Odd because, one, as a legspinner parsimony isn't prerequisite, and two, "if I bowl 50 overs in an innings, then will I not give away 100 runs for my wickets? As a leggie, I attack so runs will be scored. But I take wickets which is how you win matches."

There's not too much of Qadir in him; less of Mushtaq, who did have enough of Qadir's idiosyncrasies. But conceivably, he could equal and surpass both; statistically at least, with 132 wickets from 28 matches (very incidentally, Warne had 125 from the same number) and all before 25, he is likely to.

Mushtaq's recall to the squad ("it gives me an opportunity to learn") may be a forlorn wildcard, for much still depends on Kaneria. His success is not the surety it once was with Qadir and Englishmen, but that isn't so much about him as it is about how the tourists have rationalised and neutralised spin.

He has, though, won matches for Pakistan now. "My aim is to improve on what I have done in the last year. In a sense, it is also a chance for revenge, as in I want to prove this time what I am capable of. The team is working hard and though the series will be tough, I think it's going to have some very exciting cricket." Kaneria is unlikely to be far from it's centre.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo