Iftikhar Anjum: In the vanguard of a new trend
In a sense, the concept of the true medium-pace bowler in Pakistani cricket, at least at international level, has ceased to exist in the last 20 years. This is the type of bowler so commonly found in England: the Martin Bicknells, the Peter Martins, the Dominic Corks. Punjab has provided the country with an abundance of fast men, and even those who weren't express - Aaqib Javed, Azhar Mahmood, or the Abdul Razzaq of a few years back - had been groomed to attack and think like fast bowlers.
But, as in fashion, this is a cyclical trend. Express bowlers will not keep on appearing, and soon Pakistan could have a medium-pacer to be proud of. The initial transformation and eventual advent of Shabbir Ahmed into a genuine fast-medium bowler, as parsimonious with his runs as he is plentiful with aggression, may just be the beginning of the change. Riaz Afridi, a bustling fast-medium bowler with a bagful of wickets in the Under-19 World Cup, will soon knock on the doors of a senior set-up that already has Shabbir and Umar Gul. And it might soon have Rao Iftikhar Anjum joining the ranks too.
Iftikhar, in the words of Gul Hameed Bhatti, the sports editor of The News, is "an old-fashioned fast-medium bowler", who has been impressing on the domestic circuit for nearly three years now. Since making his debut as a 19-year old in 2000-01, Iftikhar has amassed 210 wickets in only 47 matches, at an average of less than 23. This season alone he has picked up 41 wickets in seven matches, including a matchwinning ten-wicket haul in the Patron's Trophy final, which lifted his team, Zarai Taraqiati Bank, to a tense three-wicket win. After Iftikhar's consistently penetrative and probing spells throughout the competition, this performance sealed the vote of a selection committee eager to reward those who have caught the eye during the domestic season.
Iftikhar's enthusiasm and energy at the team's training camp have impressed the chief selector, Wasim Bari, and Iqbal Qasim, one of the other selectors. "He is a genuinely good fast-medium bowler," says Qasim. "He will never be express like Imran or Waqar or Shoaib, but that is no bad thing. He has a tidy action, excellent control over his line and length." And it can't be a bad thing if your action is likened to the dominant fast-medium bowler of the last decade, Glenn McGrath.
Qasim and Wasim Bari both acknowledge, however, that the chances of Iftikhar actually playing at the start of the series remain slim. He'll probably need an injury epidemic in the pace camp - though this isn't as unlikely as it might seem. "Shoaib, Shabbir and Mohammad Sami, if fit, have all matured and are fairly experienced bowlers, so he is there mainly as a back-up," said Qasim. "But we have monitored him specifically this season and have been impressed. We wanted to get him into the camp because, at 23, he is an investment for us. Hopefully, training with the senior team will provide him with a boost and it should be motivation for him to really excel and make a push for the playing XI."
The example of Iftikhar, the call-up of Rana Naveed, and even the return of Saqlain Mushtaq, should provide encouragement to players on the domestic circuit. The message is clear: if you play and perform in domestic cricket, you will be noticed and rewarded. Coupled with Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq's almost puritanical pursuit of consistency and continuity in selection - a radical strategy in these parts - this may mean that the days of picking unknowns off the streets may be gone.
With the Under-19 World Cup-winning spinners Mansoor Amjad and Tariq Mehmood (the new Saqlain according to local experts) also making an impact, Pakistan's pace age may also soon be coming to an end, to be replaced by delights of a more subtle and probing variety. Rao Iftikhar - born incidentally in Khanewal, from where the first-choice first-change bowler Shabbir Ahmed also hails - might then find himself at the vanguard of a new trend.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance cricket writer based in Karachi.