Zimbabwe v Pakistan, only Test, Bulawayo, 5th day September 5, 2011

Late-blooming Cheema grabs his chance

Aizaz Cheema

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jawwad on September 7, 2011, 0:06 GMT

    Listen, age is just a number. As long as you maintain the fitness, you can perform at a higher level. Plus, this lad Cheema does not have too many mileages and therefore he has somewhat fresh legs. Mohsin Khan brought about the fact Pakistan was only looking for backup bowlers and he certainly fits that role. Keep in mind also, cricketers both bowlers and batters are at their best between the ages of 28-34. M. The likes of Wasim Akram and M. Amir are exception to the rule because they were unique in their own sense. Lot of people mentioned the ages of Waqar and other bowler who retired around 33-35. Please add anther 4 years to their ages. Don't you remember Younis Khan laughed when someone pointed out to him at a press conference that he was only 31 during that fateful Australia tour? Cheema has got good 3 years to give his all and that is all the team needs at his point while we hope Amir returns.

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2011, 12:45 GMT

    Aizaz Cheema is a great new hope for the Pakistan. but the basic need is to guide all the talented youngsters, so that they can shine as long as possible for the Pakistan Cricket. I think in the absence of M Aamir and M Asif, Pakistan has a lot of backup force like Umer Gul, Wahab Riaz, Aizaz Cheema, Tanvir Ahmad, Junaid Khan, Sohail Tanvir and Sohail Khan. I hope that akistan's Glorious fast bowling trend will continue in the Future also.

  • Ben on September 6, 2011, 11:47 GMT

    For the last 3 years Aizaz has been our overseas player in Devon, England and was at the start of the season before he went home to play in the domestic twenty20 tournament for Lahore. I can honestly say we could not of asked for a better overseas player. On many occasions he has bowled himself into the ground for us to win us games. He has bowled long spells, flat out, I have rarely seen overseas players 'care' as much as he has for a club side. Finally he is a top top guy who deserves every success!

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2011, 8:35 GMT

    can play for more than two or three years and then amir comes back

  • khurram on September 6, 2011, 7:53 GMT

    agree with andy ZAltzmannsHair. chema did well on debut. yes it was gainst ZIM but no other bowler did well. sohail was disapointment. junaid didnt get any but he troubled them. now main thing is to give chema more chances. dont drop him like they selected sadaf husain in WI a7 without playing any game he was out.

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2011, 7:01 GMT

    Well Done Cheema, Keep It Up, This is just an example of how much talent Pakistan has, if used properly they can beat any side in th world.. look at the Indians who don't have anyone in their academies who can bowl at 14o plus speed in last five years and this lad 32 is bowling at 145 nearly, Superb !!!!!

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2011, 2:28 GMT

    Here's another late entrant...

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2011, 0:35 GMT

    I always believe that the mixture of aggression and attitude is must for the good fast bowler. His hard work finally paid off and I hope he carry the same in the future. Very well bowled Cheema and Good Luck for the future.

  • bharath74 on September 6, 2011, 0:25 GMT

    He definitely bowled like a 21 yr old. Gud luck to him.

  • Dummy4 on September 5, 2011, 22:48 GMT

    AndyZaltzmannsHair: i always like your comments and analysis..

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