Late-blooming Cheema grabs his chance
On Monday, Aizaz Cheema, Pakistan's debutant seamer, turned 32. He said he felt as though he was just 19. Judging by the circumstances of the last week, a Test debut for Pakistan, eight wickets in the match and a youthful grin on his face, Cheema was completely justified in feeling as though life, in some senses, was just beginning.
"Honestly speaking I didn't feel this fit at the age of 21 or 22," Cheema told ESPNcricinfo. "I couldn't run then what I can run now."
Cheema has put in ten years of hard work, from when he first started playing in 2001, for Lahore, as a tearaway rookie who was once reported to have bowled at 149 kph. That delivery, the speed of which he has seldom reached again, was bowled in a match between the Punjab and Karachi Academies nine years ago. There was nothing quite as quick in the Test match, where there was no speed gun, but Cheema was estimated to have been in the upper 130s. "I actually like to bowl a lot of slower balls," he said.
It was a delivery that became a little over-relied upon on the first day of the Test, when Pakistan's seamers were ineffective on a flat track, and looked unlikely to conjure up too many wickets. He obviously knew what he was doing though, because he returned to clean up the tail on the second day.
"On the first day when I started bowling, I was not getting much help but I was very hopeful," he said. "There have been many situations in first-class cricket, where I couldn't get wickets on the first day and suddenly on the second day I got wickets so that's what I told my captain," he said. "When the last five wickets were left and he said 'What do you think of the wicket?', I said there are still five wickets to go, I am very hopeful that I will get some wickets."
Cheema sent down a selection of bruising yorkers, a skill he says he learnt from playing seasons of club cricket in England. He mixed that up with two or three bouncers an over and some reverse swing. His variation was proof of the value of experience because the wickets soon followed. That Cheema is willing to bang in bouncers with such regularity is remarkable in itself because, six years ago, the short ball almost cost him his career.
"I was bowling in a first-class game at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore against Faisalabad, Misbah-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez were playing against my team," he said. "I bowled a bouncer and my whole body weight was pushed onto my right foot and I broke the fifth metatarsal."
It was an injury that doctors told Cheema would be career-ending. "For the first three months, I wasn't able to walk because I had a nail in my foot. After three months they took it out and then I went to the Pakistan International Airlines training camp. On the second day, I felt the same pain and I went back home. I was very disappointed. Many of the doctors told me that I could not get back into cricket because fast bowling is an abnormal activity."
After two more months, Cheema decided to try again, this time from the very beginning. "I started doing training and a lot of running and I played some club matches in trainers, not in spikes, and I got some confidence back," he said. He made his first-class return shortly after that, with successful results. In the 2007-08 season, he took 44 wickets at an average of 22.22, the next season he only managed 13, but in the 2009-10 season, he managed 40 wickets at an average of 21.12 and in the 2010-11 season, 57 wickets at an average of 14.56.
In between all of that, he earned high praise from one of Pakistan's most exciting young players, Umar Akmal. He called Cheema "the fastest bowler her had faced in domestic cricket who swings it at pace too," in an interview done before Umar went to the 2008 under-19 World Cup in Malaysia. "It's very encouraging," Cheema said when asked how such comments impacted on him, but he was able to see the lighter side of it too. "Just before Umar went to the under-19 World Cup, we had a practice together and I bowled him a bouncer which hit him on his head. I think that was in his memory when he said those things."
It's not just the younger Akmal who has recognised Cheema's potential. The selectors included him in the national squad on a few occasions, such as before the 2011 World Cup, but he has somehow failed to make the grade for the final 15. He was on his way to West Indies for Pakistan's tour in May this year but a groin injury prevented him from boarding the plane. "That was a very hard time for me and my family," he said. "I went back to England to play league cricket and all the time in the gym and at the match and at home, I was thinking that I got dropped but I have to go back to Pakistan, because there might be some opportunity for me to show my fitness again."
He returned for the domestic T20 tournament and was chosen to attend a fast bowlers training camp, conducted by coach Waqar Younis and presided over by the chief selector Mohsin Khan. After helping his team to the semi-finals of the twenty-over tournament, Cheema spent over two weeks at the camp. "I thought it is a good opportunity to show them my fitness and get their confidence. They told me not to go back to England and play league cricket and to work hard on my training at home, so I did that again and got a chance in the national team."
His first Test has shown him to be a skilled bowler, who can serve Pakistan well. Waqar has also indicated that he thinks Cheema has a future in the national team and, despite his age, Cheema agrees. "I have got a lot of years left and I hope to play more international cricket."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent