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He doesn't fail dope tests, he doesn't fight team-mates or officials, he just runs up, bowls - damn well - and goes away
June 13, 2009
After Shoaib Akhtar and before Mohammad Asif, there was Umar Gul. Not as quick as one, not as gifted as the other, not as flash a Feroze as either, but a special one nonetheless. He's all grown up now from the gawky, thin teenager with an action so clunky the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz once called him to ask for it back. He has filled out, become stronger, smoothed his action, grown a mullet, cropped it and experimented with blond streaks. He now wears the confident, spiky crop beloved of 25-year-old men.
But not so much have things changed either; when he cocks up, the same grin appears. When he let the ball slip through his legs for a boundary against England the other day, he looked much like he did that March day in Lahore when he picked up a stump and ran off at the end of India's second innings, thinking the Test was over, when Pakistan had actually to chase 40 runs.
With ball in hand he has grown years. He wasn't swift then, but that day, against the finest modern-day batting line-up, he worked the channels, finding nip, bounce and cut where others found only frustration. He hits the bat harder now, and if he hasn't always found the same movement - the Mohali 2006 Champions Trophy game against South Africa was one occasion - he has other tricks. His natural length, just back of a length, demands caution from batsmen to survive and risk to thrive. Extra bounce makes it no easier.
Few men's yorkers have such unquenchable lust for toes or stumps. And only Albie Morkel could claim to have taken on an oft-deceptive bouncer and come out better; that too in a recent warm-up game. But the context of that India Test was significant: faster, brasher men - Shoaib and Mohammad Sami - sprayed it around that day, while Gul slipped in quietly, unheralded, took wickets and went back. Yes, much has changed, but not this.
If he isn't the best Twenty20 fast bowler in the world currently, it is only because the glare that falls upon Shoaib and Asif hasn't located him. Thank god for it. "The yorker and changes in pace are the two big weapons in this cricket," he says. "It is a batsman's game, but there is so much of it now that there is an opportunity to really hone these two skills."
Honed they have been during long hours in the nets, and by a wanderlust rare for the modern Pakistani cricketer. After ending the first World Twenty20 as the highest wicket-taker, a limited-overs anomaly in that he was a lethal first-change, Gul worked it at the IPL for the Kolkata Knight Riders, and in Australia's Twenty20 competition for Western Australia. He only played six games in the IPL, and though others from the franchise got more newsprint, nobody took more than his 12 wickets. In Australia he was the second-highest wicket-taker, alongside Dirk Nannes.
"Yes, I did well," is the uncomplicated observation, before noting how much watching old videos of Wasim and Waqar have helped his yorker. More has hopefully been picked up from the videos than just the ability to break a toe; manful things about leading attacks and all that. For with Gul lies the same job the one before him and the other after have failed abysmally at. He hasn't shirked so far and the outlook, from this year, is bright.
|He is a plain and straightforward cricketer, is Umar Gul. Complexity is not contemplated around him, and though all humanity is inevitably complex, with Gul it is of no interest to anyone else|
Understandably it was forgotten among the bullets of Lahore, but Gul's efforts in those two Tests were mammoth. Few nine-wicket hauls could have extracted such sweat and toil. It wasn't enough that he was combating surfaces with less life than Michael Jackson's pop career; he was lumbered with two raw newbies, each playing his first Test. Yet Gul caused a flutter in Karachi and ended with his best Test haul the day before the cricket world changed, Sri Lanka coasting to 600-plus each time. That performance was sandwiched between seven ODIs this year against Sri Lanka and Australia, in which he took 16 wickets. And before arriving in England, he poleaxed Australia in a Twenty20 international with the second-best figures ever in the format. Perhaps he needs to fail a dope test or three, or get arrested somewhere, to attract some attention?
"Playing international cricket for five-six years, I think you learn to adapt across formats. There is so much happening, you have to," he says. "I still enjoy Tests more than any other because you can really set yourself in for a spell. And if you don't do well, you can always come back in another spell, or the second innings. It's a proper test.
"I'm very happy with the responsibility, very comfortable with it. A lot is expected from us as players, but the coach, the captain and the team are there for support and they are happy with me. It's not like I mind leading Pakistan's attack or that it is a burden. You do it and you respect it."
How often he gets that opportunity is about the only dark spot on his horizon. Gul will be of a sizeable generation of players - including Salman Butt, Danish Kaneria, Sohail Tanvir - on whom isolation might take a toll. It is early yet, but Pakistan's lack of cricket over the last two years has done little for growth and development. No country has played as little international cricket as Pakistan has since the start of 2007. And where the rest of the world gorged themselves on cricket, glam and moolah at the IPL in South Africa, Gul and his countrymen lurked off cricket's red carpet, wronged and patient.
"Obviously it will help those who were there, but we also had a decent warm-up with the camp and the RBS tournament," he says. "But yes, it [lack of international cricket] is frustrating. When you are in form, at your peak, you want to play as much as you can and if you don't it affects your development as a player."
He is a plain and straightforward cricketer, is Umar Gul. Complexity is not contemplated around him, and though all humanity is inevitably complex, with Gul it is of no interest to anyone else. With Asif and Shoaib, you cannot but avoid it, heaped upon you by their very actions; excessively pampered, delusional, village bumpkin made it too big, all that stuff. Even Waqar, Wasim and Imran had much greyness about them. Gul? He bowls. He bowls long, hard and uncomplainingly. Then he goes away.
Though he is the head of the attack, he is naturally inclined to be an unquestioning follower; therein may be required some adjustment, but it is nothing terminal. And this shouldn't take from him. Rather the opposite; it is what makes him. He's already been through and come back from serious stress fractures of the back. If he had come back diminished or the same, nobody would have been surprised. But remarkably, he's come back better, and you could probably count the number of fast bowlers to have done that on one hand.
But what should brighten all Pakistan is the prospect that, at the end, when all is said, done and dusted, Gul's tale will be told in on-field feats and numbers and not in off-field scrapes.
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