Hungry Wahab answers his critics
You cannot curse Wahab Riaz. Especially when the man has a five-for on debut. Not on the day when he proved to be an able replacement for the injured Umar Gul and bowled long and testing spells on a pitch he described as 'batsman's paradise'. Not when he kept constant pressure on England, sharing duties with Mohammad Asif after Mohammad Amir seemed out of sorts. Still, back in Pakistan, his achievement will be viewed with a sceptical eye. Some even might hold a grudge against him.
According to the critics, what lies behind the unfair criticism is the fact that Riaz lacked the necessary credentials to deserve a national contract ahead of other aspirants like the erratic but experienced Mohammad Sami, who destroyed Australia with a fearsome spell of fast bowling at the SCG in the first week of 2010. Other competitors included the towering Mohammad Irfan, another left-armer, nearly seven feet in socks, who caught the eye not only for his height but also his bowling skills. Then there was Tanvir Ahmed, the best bowler in the 2010 Quaid-e-Azam competition with 86 wickets for Karachi Blues. The 30-year-old Ahmed was up against Riaz for the spot left vacant by Gul.
On Tuesday afternoon, just before the final training session, Pakistan coach Waqar Younis told both men that he would make his choice based on which of the two bowlers would display more confidence. It helped Riaz that he has a permanent smile on his face. That and a penchant to engage with the batsman did not go unnoticed. In the end Riaz was preferred.
Ijaz Ahmed, the assistant coach, and one of the few Pakistan batsmen to succeed in England, gave Riaz the cap with the simple words "make sure you do your best". He proudly wore it and was embraced and backslapped by his team-mates. Half an hour into the morning he would take the cap off to measure his run-up as Amir, probably exhausted after a long summer, for the first time on the tour failed to dominate with the new ball.
Riaz's excitement lasted just a few deliveries as Andrew Strauss stroked two sumptuous boundaries at the end of his first over in Test cricket. Next over Riaz made use of the true bounce on the Oval pitch to seam it slightly away and pocket the England captain as his maiden Test wicket. It wasn't long before he'd added Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, before returning to successfully gain an edge off Eoin Morgan's bat just after the lunch break. 10-5-19-4 were not bad figures after barely a couple of hours on the field.
While England were left scratching their heads as to what had hit them, Riaz must have been wondering 'is Test cricket always so easy?' To give due credit, he had been performing overseas in the last two years. On the 'A' tours of Australia and Sri Lanka, he topped the bowling charts with 11 wickets in each of the twin Test series in 2009. Against England Lions this year he was the second highest wicket-taker.
But if his initiation was made easy it was because of the help he received from the A-pair - Asif and Amir. Like a conveyor belt Asif returned to harass the batsmen with his never-ending probe. In the morning Trott was on the hop almost every delivery he faced from Asif, Pakistan's highest wicket-taker so far in the series. So when Riaz offered him width on his very first ball Trott plunged excitedly to drive the fuller, angling-away delivery, but could only succeed in edging to second slip. Amir, before he left the field with dehydration, was constantly egging Riaz to remain persistent with his lines while offering valuable tips to work out the batsmen. "Amir and Asif's contribution was big and they have been supporting me and they were boosting me, giving me the confidence that I could do it," Riaz said.
Riaz's stock ball is the one that is angled away from the right-hander. But what also caused discomfort was his ability to move the ball at speeds consistently hovering around the 90mph mark . Allied with the bounce and a slinging action, the batsmen needed to pay attention and even that could not save them at times - as Pietersen and Morgan found out.
"The main thing he had today was the element of surprise," is how Matt Prior, England's best batsman on the day, described Riaz. "We hadn't seen a great deal of him, so that played into his hands. He bowled well but having seen his action and how he bowls and tries to get people out, that will stand us in good stead in the second innings."
But Riaz today showed that uncanny ability to constantly frustrate the opponent with his consistency. In the second session Prior and Stuart Broad had put up a record stand for the eighth wicket and threatened to spoil Riaz's debut until he bounced back to deceive Broad with a clever slower ball. In the preceding over leading up to the dismissal Riaz had pitched fuller and was varying his pace smartly, forcing Broad to wait for the ball. It was a good contest between two youngsters not shy to exchange a few words.
Though Riaz was warned by the umpire to not waste time talking to the opponent he enthusiastically chased the batsmen and irked them with his antics. Even after the day's play, he crossed paths with Prior after the media scrum and could not resist saying: "Now, I've to get your wicket."
"Next time I want to get 10 wickets," he said with a big smile. He is clearly hungry for success and for now the critics can rest easy.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo