Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st ODI, Karachi January 20, 2009

Another wow from Rao

Is it sacrilegious to suggest that what Pakistan needs more of is a Rao Iftikhar Anjum and less of the flash that we've become accustomed to? Rao is as far removed from the bling of Pakistan's pace lineage as is possible.
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Rao Iftikhar Anjum picked up his second four-wicket haul in consecutive matches and a second successive career-best performance in Karachi © Getty Images
 

Is it sacrilegious to suggest that what Pakistan needs more of is the likes of Rao Iftikhar Anjum and less of the flash that we've become accustomed to? Rao is as far removed from the bling of Pakistan's pace lineage as is possible.

He threatens neither toes nor heads. He isn't a film star-in-waiting and neither is he likely to be seen flirting with one, and nobody turns their heads when he walks by. Autograph hunters don't stalk him. Scandal and glamour dodge him as smoothly as a bureaucrat does forthright questions.

With the ball in hand, few would call him a genius.

But how soothing has his presence been over the last two years when Pakistan's fast bowling line has been as stable as a house of cards during an earthquake? Sure, he has often been taken for runs and sometimes lacked variety, but like a factory-worker, he has turned up everyday, uninjured, or banned, or in the midst of a bust-up. He punched in his card, did what he was meant to do to the best of his ability, and let others deal with headlines, cameras and tape recorders.

He doesn't complain whether he opens the bowling or when he comes in, as seems his very nature, first change. There is no teapot stance if he is taken off after a short spell, and no hangdog expression when bowling a long spell.

The latter, once reckoned Pakistan's trainer David Dwyer, is something he is built for, as one of the fittest men in the team. In another life, said Dwyer, he may have made a handy 800m runner.

Rao's methods are no state secrets. He bowls at a healthy, consistent pace, with McGrathesque ambitions of hitting the top of the off stump. Away swing is his default, but there is a cheeky nip-backer, and when he is really feeling it, a handy slower ball as well. At its best, it is done repetitively. If it didn't sound like a little dig, the temptation would be to say he was a plain bowler. And it would say nothing of the essential stability of the package.

Today, he found himself in his natural habitat. This was the first time Pakistan had played a four-man specialist pace attack since an ODI against Zimbabwe back in 1993 in Rawalpindi.

Rao, obviously, was the least heralded. Bigger men first up hadn't been bad but had allowed misfortune to turn to carelessness. Sri Lanka had sped away and someone had to do the dirty work and try and haul them back.

But as he does not favour one-man shows, it was Umar Gul who struck two key blows and bowled the tighter spell. But would he have done so had Rao not done what he has so often - offered unquestioning support?

Mahela Jayawardene was undone by the Rao stock ball: outside off, on a length, shyly curving away. To a man amid such a hellish run (four ducks and a single in his last six ODIs), it was, suitably, a ball from hell.

And just when Sri Lanka were trying to pick themselves up again, around Kumar Sangakkara, back came Rao. Two wickets in an over, including Sangakkara's with a clever bouncer, throttled what hope was left in the innings. A second four-wicket haul in consecutive matches and a second successive career-best performance was Rao's reward: 51 unnoticed wickets now in 28 matches stretching back to the 2007 World Cup represents, in Pakistan's darkest period, a rare, unblinking sliver of light.

In this world of the bat, Salman Butt was always going to pick up the Man of the Match award for his century. In any case, had it gone to a bowler, they probably would have jumped for Gul. It was left to the man who knows the full value of Rao, Shoaib Malik, to capture precisely what he brings.

"If you look at his performances, the way sometimes our senior bowlers have been unfit, and he has come in and performed and then when they are back sometimes he has had to sit out. But I really appreciate how he has never complained or shown any attitude. He has always come back with the same effort and fight," said Malik.

Malik has been able to call on him more than any other through this period, which perhaps explains the surprisingly articulate nature of his answer. People call Rao 'The Rawalpindi Mail' with a snigger, in snide reference to the faster Rawalpindi Express. At least, Rao can respond, he is always on time and gets there in the end.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo