This winter Umar Gul completed 10 seasons in international cricket. Frankly, this is remarkable. Not only is it so by simple fact of him still being around, still bowling fast after the three stress fractures of his back less than a year into his debut.
It is also because it does not feel that long, because in a way Pakistan is still waiting for Gul to explode into a bona fide fast bowling hero. Don't get me wrong, he is already there as far as limited overs cricket is concerned.
But on the eve of their most difficult Test series in over two years against South Africa and with Gul turning 29 in April, a moment is still waiting to be owned, waiting since his Test debut back in 2003/04 when he generated such a burst of expectation.
Instead his Test story has barely formed. There are a few big performances but they are too randomly scattered to pull into one narrative. He's been great support in a few series, but he has never taken over one entirely.
He has only played 45 Tests so far. That is just two more than Shoaib Akhtar managed in ten years and that career is always said to be scandalously unfulfilled. That back injury robbed Gul of two years, but if the effect of Gul the Test bowler is vapoury, it is also the obvious consequence of Pakistan's own bare Test schedules.
They just do not play that many (none in 2008, for example, none in the last six months). James Anderson debuted a couple of months before Gul and despite not being a regular in the Test side for nearly two years has now played 77 Tests. Zaheer Khan, injury-prone, with periods out of the Indian side, has played 64 Tests since Gul made his debut. Steve Harmison began a year before Gul but played his last Test over three years ago and still managed 63 Tests.
Everything about him in Tests then flows from this lack of playing. In some spells he still looks like a bowler learning about bowling (the process of learning never stops all sportsmen will say, but this is at a more elementary level). Many times, immediately after a good spell, or a good series, he will flag in the subsequent one. These are signs, basically, of a newbie, which - and this is the point - is a remarkable thing to say about a bowler who has been around a decade.
So stunted does his Test career seem, there is still no satisfying conclusion to whether he should open the bowling or come on first change. The solution has not been in his hands always.
The kind of pace bowling talent that has burst through and then disintegrated in his time - a mutant flowering - is seriously freakish; many times there have been distinctly better but impermanent new-ball bowlers. But even now, having been the senior-most paceman for over two years, if he did not open with the new ball in Johannesburg, there may be a few shrugs, but little real frothing.
His figures look better as first change but they are beefed up disproportionately by a good Test each against Bangladesh and India early in his career. Take those out and he averages nearly 36 in 11 Tests, with a strike rate of 64, as against 33 and 58, respectively, overall. New-ball or first change? No idea.
A useful insight emerged recently in a private conversation with a member of the team set-up. Gul is a stand-up guy, no real drama; dedicated, good discipline, a team man, that kind of thing (it is said that the arrival of his first child has distracted him, but that is the natural reaction of any warm-blooded creature).
But the gist of the talk was intriguing.
Gul is a bowler controlled to such an extraordinary degree by his on-field moods that captaining him can become tricky, difficult even. If he is not happy, say, with the first over he has bowled, it can drag him down alarmingly. Conversely, a good first over often sets him up for a good spell.
It is just one assessment but it is a persuasive one. This flux is evident from just watching him. A brief attack, a flurry of boundaries, and he is left unsettled. But if he picks up one wicket, then he becomes, very quickly, a dangerous bowler.
But it is the extent of it that is important to understand, that he becomes difficult to lead on the field not because he is disruptive, but because it becomes difficult to plan anything around or with him. It is not unresolvable, but one of the best things for it would have been a senior, mentoring bowling mind, standing at mid-on, working through with him. That, unfortunately, is not something Pakistan has at the moment.
A way will have to be found somehow because, despite the flakiness, it cannot be disputed that if Gul goes well, then so will Pakistan. Given the general thinness of his Test career, it is no surprise he has never bowled in a Test in South Africa.
This is a big series for him, not because his position is - or should be - under threat but because it is the ideal moment for him to become the Test bowler Pakistan thought he could be so many years ago.
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