Wahab Riaz dreamed he would be picked for the World Cup. And then he was

The Pakistan veteran of three World Cups very nearly didn't make it to his third

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
Oh my god, he's back again: Wahab Riaz was out of the Pakistan side for nearly two years before he got called up for the World Cup  •  Getty Images

Oh my god, he's back again: Wahab Riaz was out of the Pakistan side for nearly two years before he got called up for the World Cup  •  Getty Images

There has been a voodoo working for Pakistan the last two weeks of this World Cup. The phoenix reared its head two Sundays ago at Lord's, when they defeated South Africa, bringing back infuriatingly sentimental yet uncannily similar memories of 1992.
That their campaign was snuffed out not by their own hand, but by a combination of other teams' results, will convince Wahab Riaz that whirling dervishes have been in control of his career in recent times.
After two years of being spurned, he was a last-minute entrant into the World Cup team, weeks before the first match. The night before that must-win game against South Africa, he was running a fever and couldn't sleep. "Meri body toot rahi thi." [My body was breaking.] He needed meds to put him on the field the next day. In the end overs, he cleaned out three wickets with reverse swing and sealed the game.
The day before another virtual knockout, against Afghanistan, a hairline fracture in the little finger of his right hand didn't stop him either. Two wickets in the death and in to bat when the match was counting down to an epic detonation in Leeds. Imad Wasim was operating on ice at one end. Pakistan needed 22 off 20 balls. Wahab smoked 14 off eight, including a six and a four off Rashid Khan. Pakistan remained on course.
This is the oldest member of Pakistan's pace-bowling attack, No. 2 in the team overall, behind Mohammad Hafeez. He has ten wickets in the event, the second most for Pakistan, along with the rookie Shaheen Shah Afridi. The morning after the South Africa match he is slightly the worse for wear but happy to chat about how he is really joyful. About even being here, in this place at this time, even if with a body that rebels against his well-being.
He went two years outside the Pakistan set-up in the white-ball game, after walking off injured in a 2017 Champions group game against India, saying to his newly signed manager, Ameem ul Haq, "Bro, my cricket is finish."
Two years later he is eating breakfast in the team's Swiss Cottage hotel during the 2019 World Cup, the centre of attention of fans hovering in the lobby. "The last two years I cannot describe to you how frustrated I was, and how much disappointed, after the Champions Trophy." The joke he had made to Ameem had come to haunt them. "Will you sign me when I will be out of the team?" Wahab had asked.
Between the Champions Trophy and the start of the 2019 World Cup, Wahab played two out of Pakistan's 13 Tests (separated by a year, against Sri Lanka and Australia) but none of their 38 ODIs or 29 T20Is. The spiral, he says, began earlier in 2017, after the death of his father in February.
"It broke me," he says, "because I loved my father dearly and he had never put any responsibility on my shoulders - not me or anyone in the house. After he died, I had to take responsibility and deal with everything."
On a cricket field, Wahab has often had the appearance and demeanour of the sagacious, weary older cousins to be found in large South Asian families. The kind who step in when the over-excitable whippets around them land themselves in a jam and find a way to get them out of trouble. Like death-overs wicket-takers who emphatically end games. After the death of his father, Wahab stepped away from cricket to do that in real life.
When on tour in the West Indies, the time-zone difference didn't stop the worried or tearful phone calls from home. He says it took him close to about eight months to cope with what was demanded of him as the oldest male and head of his extended family. By the time he got a grip on it all, it was too late. "I lost my place in the Pakistan team because I was not concentrating that much on cricket."
It was Ameem, he says, who pushed him to find his way back into the sport - by responding to the invite he had received from the Caribbean Premier League.
"Whatever cricket I played, whether it was domestic cricket or league cricket, I [knew I] should focus on the thought that it would make me play for my country. Giving performances in all these leagues would get me back into the Pakistan team."
Wahab flung himself into cricket whenever and wherever. In the two years between the end of the Champions Trophy and his inclusion in the Pakistan World Cup team, he played 109 first-class and List A matches across continents for seven teams other than Pakistan and Pakistan A.
His T20 freelance work him took him to the CPL (19 wickets at a strike rate of 19.6 and economy of 7.54), BPL (16 wickets at 12.2 and 7.71), PSL (35 at 17 and 6.84), and England's Vitality Blast (16 at 17.2 and 7.27). In the National T20, for Lahore Whites, he had 16 wickets from 18 matches. In the first-class Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, he turned up for WAPDA (Water And Power Development Authority), with modest returns (311 runs and 19 wickets in eight games). In those 109 matches across 20 months, he finished with 142 wickets and used the time and the varied experiences to learn more about his bowling and his body. He took 51 wickets across formats in the 2018-19 season.
The two years he spent trying to clawing his way back into contention, notice and attention were to give more proof of the soundness of one of his key beliefs. "A player can get motivated by anything," he says, adding a rider: "if you want to." He was sure about which side of the "if" he was on.
Going back to the careworn grounds and the tired worker bees of domestic cricket was difficult, but Wahab says, "What happens when you go to those places and play again, it reminds you that you should not be here, you should be there." We know what the here and there mean. "I wanted to be at the World Cup, that's why I put everything, whatever I have got, into this comeback."
It wasn't the other stuff, the unglamorous side of cricket, that bothered him. He still sleeps on the floor, to protect his back, and says he can travel on any form of transport. Because his parents "always kept us ready for everything.
"So I never mind where I am, if I am living in a five-star or one-star hotel, it doesn't affect me. What should affect me," he says, "is what I am there for and what I have to produce in performance."
It is a comeback that was never meant to be. Or was it?
In April 2018 he was publicly criticised for his shoddy work ethic during training by coach Mickey Arthur, which the coach said was against the "high-performance culture" that was being created. Wahab was reminded that he had not won a game for Pakistan in yonks.
When he did not make it to the original list of 23 World Cup probables in April this year, that was when the dreams began, he says. Where he saw himself having conversations with Arthur or the captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed, about his selection. He also dreamt of receiving a phone call from chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq telling him he had been chosen.
"I was so much into it - why I am not in the Pakistan team, why am I not in the World Cup team? It was all over my mind at that time." He uses the word "lagaav" - attachment, obsession - to describe wanting to be back.
When he was about to go on holiday in May, Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood asked him to stay put. That dream about Inzamam calling to say he had been picked? That's exactly what happened. For real, when he was watching a Pakistani TV serial with his wife.
During the World Cup, Arthur has declared Wahab transformed. When Wahab is asked about whether he agrees with that assessment of his two-year turnaround in character and personality, his face breaks into a grin and his eyes slide over to the Pakistani media manager sitting next to him. Raza Rashid is talking into the phone but Wahab is too seasoned an interview-giver to fall for that one.
"As a coach he has own benchmarks. You always pick those who you think make you win games and tournaments. At that moment I was below par in ODIs," he says, "but not in Tests and T20.
"But whatever he thought as a coach, I wasn't fitting into the coach's Pakistan team." He said that reaching the Arthur benchmark provided motivation. "That I have to do good to reach those benchmarks and I have to let everybody know, no, I am the best."
His drive to return to the fold might seem obsessive, especially since he has plenty of value in T20 franchise leagues, but Wahab knows where he stands on the club-versus-country debate. "You play cricket anywhere in the world and you play for your country - those are extremely different things. If I'd never played for Pakistan, nobody would have known me." On the other hand, a poor season or two with a franchise and you're gone. "If you play for your country, there is always room, because the [franchise] owners know, if you're playing for your country, you are good enough to play for them."
At this World Cup, Wahab has been once again in the forefront as one of Pakistan's most effective death-overs bowlers and, he says, beaming, a forever-aspiring allrounder. ("No. 3 for Derby in T20.")
Like in previous World Cups, Pakistan have spent ten days in this one tackling must-win games and now find the numbers are stacked against them. It's an old familiar habit. "We would love to play relaxed and without pressure but things do happen when you don't expect them to," Wahab says.
It's Pakistan v Bangladesh on Friday, where the qualification calculations are massively stacked against Pakistan, even for Wahab and his fire-starter brethren. This bittersweet World Cup, already, incredibly, his third, will surely be Wahab's last. But wherever he goes, whatever he does, eyes will be on him, because Wahab Riaz will always be watchable.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo