As 2007 ended, Danish Kaneria was worried and not just because the country was headed for the abyss. Worried despite being one of only three players to play all of Pakistan's Tests last year, despite being their leading Test wicket-taker (for the fourth year running), and despite having bowled over a third of all Pakistan's overs in 2007.
"With due respect, I get more respect at Essex," he said presciently just before 2008. "I play limited-overs and Twenty20. They love me like crazy, so I give them effort. I do it for Pakistan as well, but sometimes my heart is broken, because for all I do for Pakistan, what do I get? I am in category B for central contracts, being a senior player. People who started after me are in A category. In ODIs I don't even get a chance."
Turns out he had reason to be worried. In 2008, Kaneria was again overlooked for an ODI series, against Zimbabwe, which says little for his future in the format. He was demoted in the central contracts to category C, the same tier as Fawad Alam, who has played two ODIs. A financially and otherwise rewarding county future with Essex was also under threat, after the PCB belatedly recognised the need to protect players from burnout and injury.
Selectors privately and persistently muttered Kaneria wasn't flighting the ball enough; an unknown leggie from Swabi in the NWFP played, and was heralded, against Zimbabwe in a tour match, a sly kick up Kaneria's backside. If he didn't get the message then, he sure as hell didn't miss it as the only 51-Test, 220-wicket invitee to a specialist two-week camp for spinners overseen by renowned.opening batsman Mudassar Nazar. Tough love, yes; just more tough than loving.
But some stirring was needed. Top of the wickets pile he has been, but over the last two years they have cost him 40-plus and arrived every 13.2 overs. Those numbers don't hide much and yet don't fully reveal the true depth of his struggle either.
He just hasn't looked a consistent threat, falling quickly into predictable, repetitive rhythms. He bowls good balls, but few wicket-taking ones; the longer he goes wicketless, the more he experiments and fidgets, and he rarely gets one early. The fizz, in short, has gone.
Not that he accepts it readily. Pitches are blamed first, particularly Indian ones, from where he had arrived with 12 very expensive wickets. "My performance was okay. I was Pakistan's highest wicket-taker and I was second overall. If I had better support, it would've been different," he reasons.
So you are happy with your bowling?
"There can be improvement. In 2005, I was the highest wicket-taker in India. This time people asked Kumble about my threat and he said we have a solution. The wickets were slow without bounce or spin," he sidesteps.
Then follows what is every spinner's clinching defense against poor performances in India: Shane Warne's nightmare experiences. "Look at Warne. I have more wickets against India than he does." Point noted, and almost entirely true: they have the same number of Indian wickets (43), but Kaneria has taken them in three Tests fewer (11), at a less poor average (41 to 47) and a better strike-rate.
But only later, to an unrelated query, does he acknowledge that, yes, he may be going through a dip. Even then it is qualified. "Bad patches come to all players, to the greatest like Wasim, Waqar, Sachin. The best emerge from it. I'm going through a bad patch right now but even then my performances aren't completely zero. I just need more support."
In that last plea lies a large part of the Kaneria conundrum. Since the summer of 2006, Pakistan have played with joke pace attacks, forever missing not one but at least two top bowlers. Kaneria has played every Test, flitting uncertainly between shock and stock bowler. Which is he?
Two years ago it didn't bother him much. "If I bowl 50 overs in an innings, then will I not give away 100 runs for my wickets? As a leggie I attack, so runs will be scored. But I take wickets, which is how you win matches," he said before England arrived in 2005. But, as he points out now, support was solid back then: Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami, Shabbir Ahmed and Abdul Razzaq.
"There is confusion over my role now," he admits. "When Inzamam was captain, he used me as a strike bowler, a wicket-taker. Unfortunately, this time I was both an attacking and defensive bowler. All responsibility was under me. We didn't have another bowler to stop runs or take wickets, so I ended up doing both.
"Sami is going through a bad patch and we're missing Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif. Along with a fit Shoaib, these are guys who perform, and with them [around] it's a different ball game."
Misfortune of all misfortunes is that when Kaneria has bowled well, Kamran Akmal has been keeping wicket. Conservatively, Akmal has fluffed 15 chances off Kaneria alone. Thus comes true Rashid Latif's observation that a legspinner owes at least half his prowess to the keeper.
"Warne had the best in Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist," Kaneria begins diplomatically. "Unfortunately, chances have been missed and others tell me how many wickets I've lost. No problem, everyone goes through a bad patch. Kamran is having a few problems, but if he had taken them, I would have 30 more wickets. No regrets, it is part of the game. It's a bad time right now but let's hope he gets better."
Right from his days as a short, chubby youngster at Karachi's St Patrick's School, Kaneria has been fiercely individualistic. He is justifiably proud that nobody has helped him get to where he is today. Admirably, he has never, privately or publicly, made an issue of his religion, but understandably, perhaps, being Pakistan's first real Hindu star has added to a sense of pride.
Maybe that is why he never felt the need for a mentor, a sounding board. "I've played over 50 Tests and done it as a lone spinner. Younis Khan is great as he always has tips and is willing to give ideas. But it doesn't make a difference. I have enough experience, knowhow and brains to adapt and progress."
The subject is poked further: to move up, prevent stagnation, might not some outside help or perspective be a good idea? "I'd love for someone to work with me. A leggie matures after 29. I have achieved something before it, but I now want to learn more. I want it to be in the right way so that I benefit, so that I add to my skills. Mushtaq, Qadir, Kumble, Jenner, anyone."
The other endearing Kaneria trait is the one that makes possible every 50-over spell on a merciless track. He is determined, cussedly so, and even when times are bad, confidence is never fully gone. "I need to shift up a few levels. My aim is to take 500 Test wickets, then attempt the record. Someone in India asked me whether I could take 700 wickets. I believe I can.
"I've gone past Saqlain and I am a few away from Qadir. After that Wasim, Waqar and Imran. I don't ever think I can't do it, because if I start thinking that, then I won't. Sure injuries, fitness and form issues are there, but whatever happens in the world or to me, I want wickets. That's it."
So it is, for Pakistan will hope it is this trait that might ultimately see him through.