October 26, 2015

The fast man and the leggie

It's a bowling partnership not peculiar to Pakistan but highly identifiable with the country

Yasir Shah's arrival has ended Pakistan's five barren years without a dominating legspinner in the Test side © Getty Images

First, a churlish point. In a collapse that wrought seven wickets for 36 in less than 18 overs, not a single stump was hit. There was only one leg-before. In these matters Pakistani tastes are highly refined, and so, when no timber is being upended, it somehow feels as if the collapse isn't whole.

Even the usual soundtrack to these moments was dulled. Where, for example, were the screeching fielders, like those who provided the accompaniment for the castling of Andrew Flintoff first ball by a Danish Kaneria googly in Lahore? (Where, too, was the accompanying comedy of Kaneria tripping over his own feet in celebration?)

In every other aspect, though, the collapse in Dubai on the third morning was recognisable, a scene that is as much of a signature to a Pakistan-England contest as the extended single shot is to a Brian de Palma film.

Pace at one end, usually serious; legspin at the other; and in the middle, splayed and akimbo, England. Fast Man and the Leggie (said no badmazing '80s film poster ever); Wahab and Yasir; Shoaiby and Dani; Waz, or Vicky (but preferably Waz) and Mushy; Imran and Qadir. How would you choose to perish, eh?

The collapse, of course, is not just a collapse. It elicits deep from the innards of English cricket an envious lament. Why can we not produce bowlers such as these? And even when we do, like we have done for this very series, as it happens, we don't, do we, not beyond the mere outline?

England shouldn't despair. They are the rule. Finding one good, or very fast, fast bowler can take a generation; to then ally that joy to the emergence of a legspinner? Hardly anybody does, or has done - that's just luck, which is precisely why South Africa have one of each but not at their best simultaneously and in the same format.

Under the captaincy of Imran Khan and by bowling alongside him, Abdul Qadir (facing camera) developed a fast bowler's body language © PA Photos

Of a small sample, McGrath-Warne stand alone, unparalleled in their combined successes, in individual triumphs, in self-belief and in durability. And because Australia have always possessed one of each, and often at the same time, they have not glanced so covetously at Pakistan. Occasionally they have succumbed, as in Pakistan in late 1982 or Sydney in 1995, but it has never turned their insides out quite like it has the English.

Pakistan's contribution to the pool is richest, not just in quantity but perhaps in variety and personality. Their couplings have been flightier, and if none have endured, in a way their transience has granted their highs greater intensity. If the fast man bowling with the leggie is when cricket is at its most bewitching, most beautiful, then thank you, Pakistan.

Actually, in the hindsight of Yasir Shah's arrival, that is perhaps what was oddest about the years since 2010 - not that Pakistan relied so heavily on spin instead of pace. They still had fast bowlers doing what they could around Saeed Ajmal. But there was not even a sniff of a legspinner. Since the summer of 1982, when Abdul Qadir's career really began, with the ascension of Imran Khan to the captaincy, Pakistan had more or less always had a genuine, wicket-taking specialist legspinner in their Test side: one of Qadir, Mushtaq or Kaneria played in 169 of Pakistan's 229 Tests between July 1982 and July 2010 (and given the long careers of both Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Mohammad before it, they have had a working leggie for pretty much forever).

Pakistan's pairs worked in different ways to McGrath-Warne. Though on the surface the Australian pair was different in so many ways, their bowling styles were fairly complementary. "We were opposite bowlers but we were the same, in that we could build pressure," McGrath once said. They worked at you, McGrath outside off, Warne inside your head.

Waz and Mushy: would you rather be done in by magical swing or deceived by guile? © Getty Images

Every bowler bowls to take wickets, but the cost at which they are willing to do so differs. That is primarily what separates McGrath and Warne from the Pakistanis. Qadir and Imran, Mushtaq and Wasim/Waqar were always willing to pay a greater price, to cede more runs, in order to take their wickets.

Lines could blur between Pakistan's pairs. Qadir actively fed off Imran's aggression. In his first Tests under Imran, the captain would force him to attack more, and such an impact did it have that most days thereafter, Qadir pranced around the field like he was a fast bowler. And alongside Mushtaq, Akram often felt like a fast bowler with the intuitions and impulses of a legspinner: to deceive and not blow away.

The fast man and the leggie; the fast man as the leggie, the leggie as the fast man, wrong'un as reverse - conjoined as one.

But there was also distinctness, or wholeness, to each bowler that brought to mind the complications of bowling being an act of partnership. It is a point Gideon Haigh makes in his examination of McGrath-Warne.

Unlike batsmen, bowlers strive for a share of a finite reward - 20 wickets. That necessitates not only collaboration but rivalry. The commonest illustration of this is the partnership-rivalry of the Ws. But the joy of Imran and Qadir, or Akram and Mushtaq, or Shoaib and Danish, was in watching them as individual entities. They did not work away at batsmen together as one, as much as carry out their own individual inquisitions. The tests were the same - of technique, hand-eye coordination, of fleetness of feet and mind and thought, yet they were not the same at all.

How would you choose to fail? It's not really a choice is it, even if it is the most beautiful failure?

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