Australia v Pakistan, 3rd Q-F, Adelaide March 20, 2015

Wahab v Watson, the fury and the folly

For 30 minutes, everything else took a backseat, as the world watched in awe and fear, a fired-up Pakistan fast bowler mercilessly bullying an Australian batsman
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"Are you holding a bat?"

When Shane Watson stalks in from the slips to lean in and spit those words at Wahab Riaz, does he know? Does he have any bloody idea, what he is really doing to Wahab, and 90 minutes later, to himself?

Australia had, at one stage, spoken in team meetings about easing off Kevin Pietersen verbally. "It fires him up," was Brett Lee's reasoning. They had not had this meeting about Wahab. When Mitchell Starc beats his edge with an outswinging yorker in the 39th over, the bowler slithers forward. He tells the batsman: "It's the white thing, you have to hit it." Wahab, already cranky at another middle-order meltdown from his team-mates, follows Starc down the pitch. He seethes at the bowler, complains to the umpires.

Next over, James Faulkner throws Wahab a stare. Brad Haddin, running close to the stumps to collect a return throw, sticks his own verbal shiv in Wahab's side. Watson's sledge is only one of many, but it's Watson's sledge Wahab remembers. Before the end of the night, Watson would know best of all, this is not a man worth ruffling; that Wahab's blood boils when you turn up the heat.

Eighteen overs and an innings break later, it is Wahab with the white thing in his hands. Third ball, he rushes David Warner into an uppercut, which settles in the palms of third man Rahat Ali. Tenth ball, Michael Clarke arches his creaking back and fends the white thing to Sohaib Maqsood at short leg.

The first ball to Watson would have flattened the batsman's grille. He dips beneath it with only a little discomfort, but for Wahab, ducking is tantamount to submission. He gets in Watson's face, claps him sarcastically. The next ball is 150kph, Watson dare not play.

Wahab Riaz smelled blood and did not stop © Getty Images

The next over is even more intense. Wahab is an inferno. The white thing is a meteor. Watson goes through series of evasive full-body spasms. His back and limbs are aping the shape of half the alphabet, but his mouth can form no words now. In the stands, 35,516 people all smell leather, voices hoarse, fidgeting, pumping fists from the edge of their seats. In the slips, Haris Sohail's face contorts at the climax of each delivery, sometimes with glee, other times with desperation. On occasion his eyes are filled with fear. Is he afraid for Watson?

Steven Smith, who is bending space-time to appear in a parallel universe from his partner, routinely takes a single early in the overs that follow and coolly observes the combat from the best vantage point in the world. Does he feel the heat pouring off Wahab? Is he enjoying the view?

All through the match, the cricket had not failed to be interesting. This spell is transcendental. Of the tens of thousands in the ground, there is only one protagonist, and one victim, but the cricket so good, all are drawn in. Wahab's anger is felt as keenly as Watson's timidity. So bent is Wahab on embarrassing Watson, he taunts him after every ball.

In one over, he does it so many times, it's as if Wahab rides a conveyor belt from the bowling crease into Watson's personal space. In the crowd, nothing of their exchange is heard, but its details are intimately understood. The Adelaide Oval playing surface covers acres of land. The stands themselves are vast and high. But in those moments, it's as if the whole stadium exists in the burning space between these two men.

Shane Watson experienced an onslaught like no other © Getty Images

"When I was batting Watson just came up to me and said, 'Are you holding a bat?' And that was going through my mind," Wahab later said. "I let him know that even he is having the bat, but he couldn't touch the ball. I know that nowadays, he's not good on the short ball. It was a plan of myself that we discussed in the team meeting."

Eventually, Watson is defeated. Having ducked, arched and hopped, he is eventually humiliated into playing a hook shot off the first ball of Wahab's fifth over. Australian crowds so often scream insults at foreign fielders lining up high catches, but in the seconds this top-edged ball hung in the air, the wind's rustling through the trees at the Cathedral End was heard in perfect silence. When Rahat spilt the simple chance, 35,000 yelped - more in relief than frustration. A sheepish Watson is avoiding gazes at the non-striker's end. A disbelieving Wahab is keeled over, mid pitch.

In the limp finish, an hour later, Australia cruise to the semi-final with six wickets in hand and 97 balls remaining. On the scoreboard, Wahab's figures read 9-0-54-2. Watson has 64 not out from 66. Few will remember in years to come, the ins and outs; that Pakistan had been bowled out for 213.

But few will forget the theatre, and the unbridled, oscillating emotion of this spell. Tattooed into their nerves will be the night a fast bowler filled a stadium with his fury; the half-hour their collective pulses raced in sync with a batsman's heart.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Wajeeha Sarwar on June 17, 2015, 11:13 GMT

    Incredible piece of writing.. Loved it.. And love to read it again and again and again.

  • IndianInnerEdge on March 24, 2015, 11:56 GMT

    awesome lion hearted and memorable...way to go WR

  • wapuser on March 24, 2015, 5:44 GMT

    This piece is as riveting as the real thing. Memorable writing and memorable duel.

  • dummy4fb on March 24, 2015, 4:31 GMT

    He is inconsistent but is a world class bowler! I always admired and liked his heart which he put in his game in the big tournaments! however People forget Ashish Nehra Chaminda Vaas and Zaheer Khan! Ashish's 6/23 against a top class in form english team at Kingsmead during the night defending only 250 odd! That was one of the top bowling efforts in WC ever probably 2nd best only to wasim's game against england in 1992 WC amongst left arm bowlers! Ashish on that day bowled like McGrath/Akram would on their great day! He had pace, swing, seam, yorkers, bouncers, block holes swinging toe-crushers and quality traditional outgoing deliveries to right hand batsmen! Pakistan has never ending line up of fast bowlers but the quality has dropped a level not like the WI or Pakistan of old!

  • dummy4fb on March 24, 2015, 4:29 GMT

    Very good performance ! Lion hearted effort and passionate too! But where were yorkers, slower ones and mixing? 2003 WC on SA was astounding to cricket! From McGrath to Gillespie to Bond to Bret Lee to Zaheer to Akhtar to Shane Bond to Srinath were damn good! Zaheer Bret Lee and Akhtar topped the chart with maximum wickets from yorkers! Wow what an WC was that!

  • dummy4fb on March 24, 2015, 0:26 GMT

    Wahab can be a good fast bowler if he can aim at stumps,not on batsman's head.

  • Ralfoo7 on March 23, 2015, 20:27 GMT

    All these guys look like deer in front of a headlight when it comes to short ball. Why single out only Raina or any Indian batsmen? We are as good or as bad as anyone.

  • dummy4fb on March 23, 2015, 19:21 GMT

    ...... another genuine fast bowler from Pakistan. Respect for Fast bowler

  • dummy4fb on March 23, 2015, 17:07 GMT

    Fantastic article - the spell really did crescendo, and Wahab Riaz gave it absolutely everything. Props to Watson, he got them home. He cops a lot of flak, and much of it perhaps rightfully so, but he's seen Australia through a couple of top spells during high-stakes matches in recent years. Remembering Champions' Trophy in SA where Mills & Bond delivered a swing bowling masterclass to him, but they couldn't pass..

  • dummy4fb on March 23, 2015, 16:00 GMT

    Sledgers(Australians) be better aware that Cricket is gentleman's game. Some quality players like Wahab will give that amount of beating required to hold their tongues & they will eventually learn sledging is never a choice to show your passion towards the game. Its better to win the hearts with your game not with your piece of two inch-wide opening, because one right person might throw appropriate stuff to keep it shut. Besides, Wahab take a bow. Applaud to editor, great article.

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