Keeping pace with tradition
Pakistan's lavishly talented new-ball attacks have set the Under-19 World Cup alight in recent tournaments: Riaz Afridi finished near the top of the wickets table in 2004, and the trio of Anwar Ali, Jamshed Ahmed and Akhtar Ayub sensationally dismissed India for 71 while defending 109 to retain the trophy in 2006. Inevitably, their squad for 2008 had a potent pairing as well, formed by Mohammad Aamer and Adil Raza.
However, that partnership has been on view only once in the World Cup, when Pakistan destroyed Malaysia for 75 with Raza taking 6 for 29 and Aamer 3 for 12. Since then, Aamer has been hospitalised with a dengue virus and will not play any further part in the World Cup. His absence has added to Raza's responsibility and, encouragingly for Pakistan, he has stepped up and delivered. Raza is only 16 and is the third highest wicket-taker in the tournament so far with 11 at 8 runs apiece. His first-over dismissals of both the Australian openers for ducks played a significant role in Pakistan qualifying for the semi-finals.
The quarter-final against Australia was Pakistan's first game at the Kinrara Oval, and the conditions were different from those in Johor, where they played their group matches. Imad Wasim, the Pakistan captain, said that the pitches in Johor were wet and Raza agreed that there was far more assistance for the fast bowlers there.
"There was more moisture in the pitches in Johor for about 20 overs so the ball moves a lot," Raza said. "Here there is moisture for about 5-7 overs and after that it's a flat wicket.
"My plan was to first check what the conditions are like, get an idea of how much the ball is swinging and bowl accordingly. If the ball was moving [off the pitch] too much then I try to make the batsmen come on the front foot, and if it doesn't move much I try to keep the batsmen in the crease."
Evidently he did not take long to understand the conditions at the Kinrara, for he induced an edge from the left-handed Phillip Hughes with his third ball and trapped Marcus Stoinis lbw with his sixth. Both deliveries were sharp offcutters, which Raza calls his "main ball", one that he learnt from Mohammad Asif during a three-month stint at the National Cricket Academy in Pakistan.
Demonstrating his technique for the delivery, Raza says that the secret of the incutter is getting the wrist position right, and one can't help but notice the ring finger on his right hand is oddly shaped. The portion after the DIP joint (the joint closest to the fingertip) is almost at a right-angle to the rest of the finger.
"I injured my finger when I was four," Raza said. "It got jammed in a door but I can grip the ball well because of this finger. It helps support the seam position."
While several U-19 cricketers in this tournament have said that they made their first forays into the game at the ages of nine and ten, Raza, who is from Gujranwala, started relatively late. It's been only three years since he began playing seriously.
"When India came to Pakistan after the previous U-19 World Cup, Raza just came for the trials and was selected because he was the best among the lot," Mansoor Rana, the Pakistan U-19 coach, said. "He had not played any district or regional cricket before that. Raza was one of the finds of the year but he got injured and didn't play against India."
Raza made his U-19 limited-overs debut in the last of five one-dayers against Australia in October 2007 and scalped 4 for 36. He remembered that he had bowled Kumar Sarna, who opened for Australia in that match and fell to Raza in today's quarter-final as well. Since then he has gone on to represent Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy. "I played four matches this season and took 18 wickets which included Faisal Iqbal and Wajatullah Wasti."
Ironically, Raza said that he began as a batsman and batted at No. 6 or 7 in the line-up. "When I was a batsman nobody used to play me in the team. There was a senior called Adnan Farooq who made me understand that I bowl well and that's when I started working on my bowling. Then people started taking an interest in me."
Several Pakistan bowlers have turned heads at the Under-19 World Cup but few have gone on to establish themselves in the national team. Afridi, a star in 2004, made his Test debut that same year but hasn't played since. Ali, Ahmed and Ayub from the class of 2006 are active on the first-class circuit but haven't taken the next step yet.
"There's a big gap," Mansoor said. "Apart from exceptions such as Wasim Akram, Javed Miandad and Salim Malik, who played right after U-19, cricketers need to play two to four years of first-class cricket to mature." Raza has at least one more opportunity to perform in front of a world-wide television audience before he slips back into the rigours of domestic cricket.
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo