March 1, 2011

Shoaib and Gul to the rescue

Only with Pakistan could it happen that they lose their two most exciting new fast bowlers, only for them to be replaced by Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Gul

When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, an emotive rhyme was chanted by her many supporters, drawing on the tragedy of a family in which the sons and father died unnatural deaths. "Tum kitne Bhutto maaroge? Har ghar se Bhutto niklega!" or, "How many Bhuttos will you kill? From every home there will come a Bhutto!"

A similar sentiment, lighter on the morbidity, can be adapted for fast bowlers from Pakistan. No matter how many are lost, new ones keep appearing. Sometimes the same ones keep coming back. The only thing Pakistan knows better than fast bowlers is fast bowlers who didn't make it. So for them, during this tournament has lingered an absence. The two As, the Fox and the Kid - and they couldn't have come much more incisive - are not here and are not likely to be seen on a cricket field anywhere near anyone for some time.

But what an absence it is that brings Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Gul instead.

Many countries would kill for that kind of absence. In the many permutations of fast bowlers Pakistan have put together over the last decade to win them matches - and remember, Riaz Afridi and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan once opened the bowling in a Karachi Test win over Sri Lanka - Shoaib and Gul is an odd one. Though they've both been around for years, they've barely played together. Before this World Cup, they'd only bowled together in 22 ODIs and three Tests. In another reality, they could be Pakistan's premier new-ball pair.

And what a pair they make, the unlikeliest since peanut butter and jelly got together to have a party in people's mouths. Shoaib temporarily lost his flip flops on the field in Hambantota during practice and it nearly became a story, so involved did everyone become. Gul could lose himself and people might not notice until he didn't turn up to bowl. The pair slipped by for their first proper media interaction on Monday at the P Sara Oval in Colombo, where Shoaib bowled among the most thrilling spells of fast bowling of the last decade, in 2002 in a Test against Australia.

Shoaib arrived ready with a headline. "We are a hurt side and we are here to hurt others." Gul? He came to talk about fast bowling variations.

Pakistan will go as well as Shoaib and Gul go in this tournament. As ever Shoaib's fitness had been the issue until the Sri Lanka game. He is not, according, repeatedly, to the team management, fully fit but is apparently getting there. Shoaib sounds more fatalistic and confessional. "Actually I am only half fit. I have never been fit throughout my life, but you all know I have hypertension in my knees and joints. I always have niggles."

The knees are not gone, but are going. He has now a permanent limp on the field. The run-up, finally, is shorter, though it probably takes more time than his entire sprinted run-up did in the late 90s.

"I am planning to play another 15 years," he quips, to loud guffaws from his audience. "I am 36 now [35 actually]. I am still bowling as fast as anyone can imagine but I have cut down on my run-up and that's helping me save energy in a way that I can bowl 10 overs."

In his last 18 ODIs, he has bowled his full quota eight times and eight or more overs 14 times. On Saturday at the R Premadasa he bowled all 10 and was the standout quick of the day. Though Shoaib running in is not the spectacle it once was, more cerebral pleasures are to be derived from his bowling: the pulling back of lengths against Tillakaratne Dilshan, or attacking his pads. The castling of Mahela Jayawardene, the contest's bling moment, was built on cut and length as much as pace. It's one thing that big-name wickets still matter to him, but entirely another that he still takes them.

He says he doesn't care about pace anymore - "I have long ago left this race of bowling fast. I am 36 now and more mature, so I am focusing on wickets now" - but sounds as convincing as the case for Iraqi WMDs. The bluff is exposed in his next breath. "I still bowled 159kph the other night, so that is good enough for me," he says, referring to what may well have been an occasionally malfunctioning speed gun. If you're still hitting, for sustained periods, 145-150kph, you can afford to take the stance that, hey, pace isn't that important. The shoulder is still strong and the arm still fast.

What a pair they make - the unlikeliest since peanut butter and jelly got together. Shoaib temporarily lost his flip flops on the field during practice and it nearly became a story, so involved did everyone become. Gul could lose himself and people might not notice

But his latest, and surely final, return has come from spirit, the very spirit that he has so often been accused of lacking. For some months this World Cup and its possibilities have driven him, more than many other things have ever driven him. The time to leave is upon him, and this could be as good a stage as any.

Gul is from a different world. On TV he can be a clunky sight, but first-hand he bounds through to the crease with some zip. He is a senior now and appears both proud and surprised at the promotion. "If you look at our strike bowlers in the team, there are three: me, Shahid [Afridi] bhai and Shoaib bhai. We always try - not everyone will perform every day and any bowler can have a bad spell - but we try that the wicket-takers get wickets," he says. Of all the Pakistani fast bowlers of recent years, none have had his humility.

His natural length is short of full, so on ungiving surfaces he can be carted. There is no reason why he doesn't bowl fuller - a length that brings him much more success - more consistently. It could just be rhythm, because when he does hit the right groove and length, he becomes impossible to hold back. But it hasn't happened often enough. Rashid Latif, his first international captain, can't work out why Gul hasn't developed in the same way as a contemporary, James Anderson, who made his international debut three months before Gul.

He isn't as shy as he was before, shedding it the way he has a once lanky, gawky frame, but there remains no off-field aspect to him. Meet Shoaib and a hundred different subjects could crop up in conversation; meet Gul and only cricket. Both are equally endearing.

He went for runs against Sri Lanka, but Pakistan will rely on him at the death. "You need variation, especially as a fast bowler," he reasons. "The faster you bowl the quicker it comes off the bat, especially in Sri Lanka.

"I bowl two spells always in practice, with a new ball and then with an old ball. When I learnt reverse swing, I learnt by watching videos of Wasim and Waqar and their techniques. You can't just have an old ball and reverse swing it, you have to know how to do it." The yorker outside off, from round the wicket, he is not sure about just yet, though he agrees it could be effective.

Both are asked about Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. Both pay their respects: "assets," "lethal attack," "we're all very sad about it," and so on, but "we are not jokers either" appears to be the implication. It is a good time to move on.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo