March 11, 2015

Wahab and the tale of the Pakistani bouncer

In the high art of Pakistani fast bowling, where the short ball is mostly used as a warning, Wahab's uncomplicated, extreme pace is an indulgence that stands out

Wahab Riaz has been the driving force of Pakistan's attack in this World Cup © AFP

I'm a sucker so it took only one ball to start believing in Wahab Riaz again. It was the ball of the series in that it is the one delivery I remembered vividly enough to want to see again. For a series in which Rangana Herath took as many wickets as he did, that says something. It didn't even get Wahab a wicket; there had been two already in the over and so naturally he was pumped.

Dhammika Prasad was the recipient, from around the wicket. There had been a flirtatious rumbling between them through the Test, nothing clever, and as subtle as Liberace. Two balls before, Prasad had responded to an extended Wahab stare by dismissively shooing him away, like he was a fly. There wasn't much pace or bounce at the Sinhalese Sports Club, though that isn't to say it was death for pace bowlers. Junaid Khan and Wahab took 11 between them (and Junaid didn't even bowl in the second innings). Better to say subcontinental fast bowlers could find a way on it.

This ball didn't spit up off the pitch as much as rise gradually and ominously, like a giant wave, which, even as it gathers itself, feels somehow slower than it is. Travelling at 139.1kph it wasn't slow and neither was it super-fast. But at its peak, its threat was all-enveloping, in that there seemed nowhere Prasad could go and nothing he could do other than jerk his head away, throw his bat in front of his heart and hope. It might be deemed his victory that the ball found the bat's shoulder, looped over gully and fetched him two runs. But to most connoisseurs of fast bowling, the image of Prasad airborne in clumsy self-preservation was the victory, if not quite the "inverted cobra" of bouncer avoidance (see Smith, Robin or Stewart, Alec).

Alec Stewart is turned into a comma by Wasim Akram © Getty Images

It brought alive the moment and jarred it, like how movies imagine bomb blasts and the camera does a movement between vibrating and outright shaking. Though he had taken two wickets and had bowled another worthy bouncer at Prasad in the first innings, this had a quality of suddenness. It's like being assaulted by the stun-guitar and rolling ferocity of drums that begin this song immediately after a period of silence (solemn advice: turn it up loud).

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The Pakistani bouncer is under-celebrated. Nobody much bowled them till Imran Khan came along and his developed into a really nasty one, the kind that stalks batsmen, invading their personal space. Then even Sarfraz Nawaz - big, smart Sarf - got into it, never quick, waddling to the crease like a penguin on fire, but with the one crucial ingredient for bowling bumpers: personality.

Wasim Akram's was vicious mostly because his action was so difficult to pick and the angles with which he came at the batsman. Note the fabled ones, to Sachin Tendulkar, or to Lance Cairns, and to Ewan Chatfield in his second Test; in each case the batsman is blindsided by the ball, as if it shouldn't be there.

The most dangerous was probably Shoaib Akhtar's, his extreme pace and hyper-extension doubling, tripling its threat. It felled Lara. It felled Kirsten. It pinged Sachin. It cracked Nasser Hussain's fingers. On November 1, 1999, he bowled one so quick to Matthew Hayden in a game against Queensland, Hayden had time only to raise his bat in back-lift and perhaps see the first blurs of life flashing before him, before the ball struck his right shoulder. Shoaib's bouncer was so frightening he frightened himself - at least that is what it looked like when he hit Lara and Kirsten.

Shoaib's bouncer frightened batsman and bowler © Getty Images

There's even a magnificent Mohammad Sami delivery to Sachin in Bangalore, rising into his left armpit, which he fended straight to Asim Kamal at short leg, only for the chance to be dropped. It was thrilling and summed up Sami's life in two seconds.

But the Pakistani bouncer is not the weapon it is for others, because it is almost a counter-intuitive impulse. It is impossible, for instance, to imagine a Pakistani fast bowler winning a series the way Mitchell Johnson did, or West Indian bowlers used to. Pakistani fast bowling, of fuller lengths, is generally high art. It has been known to beat batsmen for pace, sure, but it's always accompanied by swing, some seam, and plenty of smarts. The bouncer is something they reduce themselves to when they are bored of being highbrow and fancy (at one stage, the Ws used to bounce only to make the ball older). Remember Indiana Jones resignedly taking out the gun on the sword guy? That's Pakistan and the bouncer, although it also works as a little reveal occasionally: boy, don't mess with us.

Wahab has a terrific bouncer, and right now his ability to consistently bowl a mean, quick one is worth as much as anything else he bowls. It has a little to do with the air around us, heavy still with the feats of Johnson. Who, after all, wouldn't want a low-arm, left-armed seriously quick bowler who sprays it everywhere but also gets it magnificently, unavoidably right?

I don't think I had actually stopped believing in Wahab per se. It was just that it was easier to believe more in others and, even, heretically, in other methods. Never has Pakistani fast bowling been higher art than in this last decade. It hasn't been so much about how fast they bowl - though the national obsession remains - but how much they can do with the ball; Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, even Umar Gul were not defined by the singularity of their speeds. Sami, in fact, did plenty on his own to shake the faith in pure pace.

Waqar makes Nasser Hussain duck at Lord's in 2001 © Getty Images

Never has it been higher farce either; every new genius, new waif has arrived as a clown, made of glass, and soon disappeared. Amid so many absences, and with smarter, slower bowlers around, Pakistan could do with someone as uncomplicated as Wahab. He is an indulgence, sure, but also a reminder that it's never ever a bad thing to have a really, really fast bowler.

This, at least, was the rationale of Waqar Younis when he returned to coach Pakistan last year. He had a few bowlers around, good ones too, but there was a kind of sameness, if not in method then in impact. These bowlers could work out and work their way through batting orders rather than explode upon one. His first stint as coach had produced a fairly productive period with Wahab, though Waqar's worries over his wrist and release were never erased.

But this time he stopped worrying excessively about the mechanics of Wahab's action. Instead he chose to go about him the way you imagine Imran would have with a young Waqar. He had a gut feeling this could be his time. So he had a little life chat with him. He reminded him that he was 29 and that it was about time he started bowling like he was the man, like he was the leader.

Perhaps in Wahab, Waqar saw a little of himself, the energy, the presence, the ability to strike. "For me, he's always been a match-winner, the go-to bowler who you turn to when things are down," Waqar had said just before the Australia series last year. "When you talk about having an X factor, he's one of those. I haven't taught him anything, do this, do that. I just told him, it's about time, get your act right. I don't think you can change much, but whatever resources you have - I mean he bowls 145kph and above, and he's become smarter as well."

Imran Khan's bouncer invaded your personal space © Getty Images

How hard is it really to believe in pure pace? Wahab stood out at the Champions League, and despite an injury that forced him out of much of the winter, he has been the central force in Pakistan's attack during the World Cup. Here he has been the driving force, the one whose energy the rest have fed off, and the one, above all, who represents the durability of Pakistan's pace resources. It is a period that has matched the verve of his Test debut, or the Mohali semi-final, one-off moments where it really felt that Pakistan had come upon a thoroughbred.

The suspicion that he could still have days like that Asia Cup nightmare in 2012, when his day's work read 4-0-50-0, is not entirely gone; that his action remains such a delicate, tightly sprung work of the human body that one tiny glitch could see him unravel completely. He still goes for runs. His ODI economy rate since July is actually up on his career figures. Some deliveries, with nothing to them, still look eminently hittable. But those days when he didn't look like taking a wicket to boot haven't come round that often: his wickets are coming much cheaper, much quicker.

There has been nothing especially fancy. He has controlled and used lengths well, not overdoing changes in pace. The intent has been most visible in his run-up, rushing in with so much energy, so straight and direct it's easy to see him - and not the ball - continuing down the pitch and clattering into batsmen. When he has got his lines straight most batsmen have had to think solely about protecting their wickets and not which of the ten attacking shots they can play; that inversion is a win. Mostly, though, I think it could just be the realisation that he is Wahab Riaz, a Genuine Pakistan Fast Bowler, and the force of that designation is seeing him through.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket

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