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Match Analysis

Unassuming Rauf re-emerges from shadows of Afridi and Naseem

And he does that while doing the most unglamorous job in ODIs: bowling the middle overs

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
07-Sep-2023
Like the eldest son with precocious younger siblings is doomed to only have to talk about them, Haris Rauf spends a lot of time fielding questions about Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah. Fresh from collecting his Player-of-the-Match trophy at the presentations, he walks into the press conference room.
What do you think about your chemistry with Afridi and Naseem? Rauf begins enthusiastically, speaking of giving each other confidence, about the bond they share, and how teams need this sort of relationship to gel.
The follow-up is primed. You rely on raw pace while Afridi and Naseem use seam and swing. Does that make you condition-proof? It does not, he assures everyone, before falling back on pointing out how well Afridi and Naseem are doing, and how extra pace can prove more expensive.
But oh, there's more. When they take wickets, how do you feel? Under pressure or confident? It's a devilish little question, forcing Rauf to choose between admitting even his wickets are partly down to Afridi and Naseem's brilliance, or saying their explosive early starts actually work against him. He has the grace to laugh, and gushes about how much joy their qualities personally bring to him.
We are down to the last two questions, we're told. There is one about the weather, and another about facing India again this weekend. The four wickets he took - as many as Afridi and Naseem combined in this match - do not get a single mention. He thanks everyone before he gets up, greets some old acquaintances and leaves.
Rauf is a 'Pindi boy through and through, and has never pretended otherwise. When he emerged on the T20 scene through Lahore Qalandars's player development programme, the edges were still excitingly rough. He never wanted the sort of aggression Shoaib Akhtar has made a second career venerating on TV, his send-offs as in-your-face as they were unorthodox. In PSL 2019, he bizarrely serenaded Dan Christian off the pitch after he was run-out. In 2020, defending six off the final ball against England in a T20I, he angrily waved captain Babar Azam away when he came over once too often buzzing in his ear about strategy. During a PSL game in 2022, he playfully slapped Kamran Ghulam for a dropped catch off his bowling. And while some of those edges have invariably been manicured, flickers can still be seen, as his spicy send-off to Ishan Kishan in this Asia Cup reminded everyone.
But many fast bowlers cannot switch that mode off when they go off the field, which is where such behaviour becomes rather more unpleasant. In Pakistan, that sort of toxicity is often seen in men who find themselves in Rauf's situation, whose envy exceeds their security when people younger than them garner more praise and achieve greater things. Just about all Pakistanis in every field recognise this kind of situation, especially in work environments.
Sport is no exception, but Rauf is. Afridi, Naseem and Rauf - and this is invariably the order in which they are named - are spoken of as a youthful tearaway trio, but while Afridi is 23 and Naseem has only just begun taking baby steps into his third decade, Rauf is two months away from his 30th birthday. He may be the fastest of the three, but there's also little doubt he is now into his prime, whereas the other two almost certainly have their best years ahead of them. That realisation may bring out the worst in smaller men, but Rauf has none of the resentment that so often frays such competitive relationships.
After all, this is the man his captain turns to for one of the most unglamorous jobs in all of cricket: finding a way to make something happen during the middle overs of an ODI innings. Afridi and Naseem had waltzed in against India, taking their pick of end and conditions, and guaranteed they would be the story no matter what happened after the first hour. Rauf came in straight after the rain break and promptly went for 12 in the first. But with Afridi and Naseem's workload being rationed, he was the one who took the next two wickets, and the one that broke the fifth-wicket partnership in the middle overs and triggered a mini-collapse.
He had two wickets in his first seven balls against Bangladesh on Wednesday, but again, the attention was locked on one of the others. Naseem had put in a dive off Afridi's bowling, and gone off grimacing and clutching his arm. While his possible injury had Pakistan sweating about their near future, Rauf was busy taking care of the present. Moments before his second wicket, a 145kph delivery that crashed into Towhid Hridoy's stumps, ESPNcricinfo's own ball-by-ball commentary was talking about how Naseem just had his shoulder taped and was moving around.
Rauf, meanwhile, had just taken his 50th and 51st ODI wickets for Pakistan, the third-quickest Pakistani to that mark. Since he made his ODI debut in October 2020, these three fast bowlers inevitably make up the top three wicket-takers for Pakistan in the format. But Rauf sits atop that list, boasting 53 wickets to their 43 and 32, respectively, at a superior average and strike rate than Afridi's. Those included two at the backend of the Bangladesh innings, removing Mushfiqur Rahim, another set batter, before dispatching Taskin Ahmed next ball.
And in that over lay another barely noticed act of mateship. Naseem hadn't yet taken a wicket since that injury scare, but the tail was set up on a platter by Rauf for him to help himself to the shot in the arm he needed. Babar brought him into the attack and four balls later, Naseem had picked up a couple more, depriving Rauf of a five-wicket haul he unlikely cared about.
A couple of weeks ago, the PCB got the pace triumvirate together for an in-house video interview after Pakistan had shot Afghanistan out for 59. On that day, he actually had managed five wickets, his only ODI five-for to date. The mood was light-hearted and playful when Rauf was asked about his performance, which had won him Player of the Match that day, too.
Afridi and Naseem barely heard what he was saying. There was an adolescent glint in their eye as they shared an inside joke - perhaps one Rauf was too old to understand - clasping hands and giving each other a side hug with huge grins on their faces. Rauf, meanwhile, was pointing towards them, talking about how he had learned what length to bowl by looking at what they were doing.
They're still laughing as he puts an arm around both. He could talk about these younger kids all day long. "This," as Rauf said at the post-Bangladesh presser, "is how teams are made and how teams gel."

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000