The late bloomer
I have a weakness for left-arm spinners. As I'm Pakistani, it is likely that I have a weakness against them too. Like many traits, this is a childhood thing: the first full Test I watched was Pakistan's 1987 win at Bangalore. Sunil Gavaskar's last it was and while his 96 was widely hailed, I was more intrigued by Maninder Singh (partly the colourful patka I admit) and Iqbal Qasim, strolling in from strange angles, throwing up these loopy gimmes and getting wickets.
As it turns out, not much happened by way of left-arm spin for Pakistan after that. Qasim played six further Tests, finishing his career more high than low, with 12 wickets in three Tests against Australia in October 1988. In 148 Tests since, four specialist left-arm spinners have played a meager total of six Tests and though Qasim had hardly an ODI career, in 496 matches since he stopped twirling, only 22 times have Pakistan included what profilers call slow left-arm orthodox (leftie batsmen who turned their arms over don't count). English leggies and Indian tearaways have been more prominent.
The arrival of Abdur Rehman, and some success with it, then is cause for mild celebration. Heck, it at least warrants asking him why the hell he would choose to be SLA. "I went to these practice nets while at school one day and tried bowling left-arm fast," he tells Cricinfo. "Sheikh Javed (a cricket 'name' in Sialkot) told me to try spin instead as I wasn't tall enough. I resisted but within a week he got me to play a club match where I did well enough."
Well enough he has done since. Having played but two first-class matches for Gujranwala in 1998, he was selected for Pakistan U-19s to play against South Africa in February 1999. A five-for on debut, and a six-for the following 'Test' might prompt gentle inquiries as to why he didn't graduate to the senior side earlier. After all, ten of his team-mates from that side are, or have been till recently, international regulars, though admittedly none of them ply as unfashionable a trade as he does. Indeed, Danish Kaneria's more glamorous leg-breaks took half the number of wickets Rahman did in those two matches.
So the debut came late, at 26 ("Late not just by our standards, but internationally too," he says self-deprecatingly). Even Inzamam-ul-Haq raised a dry, sarcastic eyebrow when Rameez Raja asked about the "youngster's performance" after his debut ("youngster Rameez?") but Rehman reasons blooming late was blooming better. "It's been good because it's given me more time to learn about my game. If I had debuted earlier, I wouldn't have been able to do this. Now I know about flight, about variations. I know that I can't take a wicket every ball, as you do when you're younger."
So far, he's taken one every 30 balls, which isn't the worst way to start a career. Already, he has pulled off two classic bits of left-arm subterfuge; Dwayne Smith was harmlessly beaten twice by turn, before being trapped by an arm-ball in the second ODI. Next game, Darren Ganga was lured into attempting an on-side drive, only to first be beaten in flight and then bowled by turn, a form of dismissal some have waited years to make.
|It's been good because it's given me more time to learn about my game. If I had debuted earlier, I wouldn't have been able to do this. Now I know about flight, about variations. I know that I can't take a wicket every ball, as you do when you're younger|
He's also been economical, which is lucky as he is big on accuracy. Fittingly the day we meet, Monty Panesar has just made some people look silly. He is a fan ("Superb bowler, so accurate,") and when he starts talking about capturing lines, he sounds like Panesar. "My priority is to capture one line and stick to that. If batsmen try to hit me, fine but if I do too much initially, there is a chance that I might be hit. My main aim is to put batsmen under pressure and not let them score. Wickets will follow." His action is unremarkable, in a good repetitive way, and it is one, he says, that has remained untouched since the day he quit bowling fast.
This is all a little pragmatic though isn't it, getting the line right, strangling runs? Against Brian Lara, he bellows, "No loop, don't give him any air at all or he'll murder you!" A few exceptions apart, it is something that haunts the art of left-arm spin, this nobility, this earnestness: "Look mate, we're not mischievous like those wrist-using buggers. No wrong 'uns or doosras here. You all know what we do, just try to beat it." Where is the drama, the theatre of a leg-spinner, or even a modern off-spinner?
"We have variation," he retorts. "A topspinner, a straight ball, an arm ball, different degrees of spin and loop but it depends on how much control you have. I have experimented at domestic level but at international, you have to first get the line and length. You have to use the variation smartly."
It shouldn't matter so much, for a longstanding hole has been filled for now for Pakistan. More in fact, if Bob Woolmer's gushing praise is anything to go by: "He's been the star performer for us. He is the find of the series." The view of his captain and much of the team management is similar: "Their support has been a great help." And if he keeps bowling as he has done, taking wickets and stopping runs, then who really cares about the drama?
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo