x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Call Junaid 'next big thing' and jinx the Pakistan bowler

A slow trickle of fast pacers arriving on world stage is reason why Osman Samiuddin hesitates in announcing his talent.

Junaid Khan's four-wicket haul for Pakistan in the humid conditions of Chennai in India could well be the seminal moment that a fast bowler needs to announce his arrival on the big league.
Junaid Khan's four-wicket haul for Pakistan in the humid conditions of Chennai in India could well be the seminal moment that a fast bowler needs to announce his arrival on the big league.

Gradually over the years it has become natural to hope that the next big thing in Pakistan fast bowling remains forever frozen as just that and does not actually move beyond.

That he stays in that brief moment in which you begin to understand how good he could be and the greater portion of the world is just beginning to find out; it is the delicious anticipation of a well-kept secret on the verge of being revealed.

More than anything, it has become a paternalistic worry because being a Pakistani fast bowler, The Pakistani Fast Bowler, is not for everyone, not even for most Pakistani fast bowlers.

In many ways it is a heavier burden to wear in Pakistan than that of the captain; those guys come and go but a genuine paceman? Fast bowling is too important a thing to be left to mere humans.

He is after all the real hero, the one who will win you matches, save that cat, marry your daughter, sort out the economy, eradicate poverty and terrorism and then go to sleep for the night.

And he will stay with you forever.

But given what has happened recently to some, mostly in the decade or so since the departures of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who have come accompanied by greater hype but have been less durable, it could even be a curse of a kind.

Whom the gods would destroy, that is, they first make them bowl fast.

Among the many stories of fast bowling decadence, I always remember one of a bowler who will remain nameless and who I never saw (and not many did) but who was thought to be as quick as Waqar (aren't they always?) and swung the new ball more.

There is nothing like invisibility as a garnish though, so a healthy scepticism is in order. But he was close to making it and the closer he got, they say, the more his creative and recreational smoking habits took him away. It isn't apocryphal entirely, just likely exaggerated in the right places, but it serves the point.

Different reasons may have accounted for Mohammad Zahid, Shoaib Akhtar, the Mohammads Asif and Amir and Mohammad Irshad, but the curse was strong through them.

Which is why it is reasonable to want Junaid Khan to remain forever as he has been in this last year or 18 months, a tightly-wound ball of pure hero, waiting to be sprung open upon the world.

Over this period and before, he has been well-known in Pakistan but yet to explode on the wider world.

He has travelled around with the squad, had some good moments in low-key series against Sri Lanka, developed considerably, had a stint in England. But until yesterday he had not produced that one seminal burst, after which life can never the same again.

But his bowling in Chennai, so simple, pure and grown-up, and against India (life does change, as his fellow left-armer and squad member Wahab Riaz will tell him, after a big day against India and not always for the better) means there is no hiding him now after his four-wicket haul in Pakistan's victory in the first one-day international.

Junaid Khan is here, which means soon he may not be. Even writing about him feels like a hex.

Junaid, poor boy, is trebly burdened. Not only is he the next big thing, but he is also making up for the possibly permanent absence of one young left-armer (the last next big thing) and living up to another left-armer, the biggest thing ever, in whose shadow all of Pakistan bowls fast.

Already the curse has been playing with him, because it is not like Pakistan cricket is short of ways in which to waste him.

So he has had injuries which may not have been treated properly and led him to missing an important series against England.

And their selection policy has been perverse. They did not pick him for the World T20 earlier this year for which he was patently suited as a stint for Lancashire showed.

They reasoned that he is better suited to bowling in the longer formats, which is unnecessarily limiting. Admittedly, that may ultimately be of benefit.

How good can he be? Should we even be asking? How can we not?

Well, Iqbal Qasim who is the chief selector now, and who brought him through at the Under 19 level at the same time as Amir, thought Junaid to be the better prospect back then. He was surprised Amir made it through first.

Waqar, as good a judge and reader of Pakistani fast bowlers as any, worked with him through his time as coach.

He loved his ability to pick up things quickly, the capacity for hard work hard, a solid wrist release and a sharp bowling brain (in fact, Waqar often gave the impression that he thought him a smarter all-round bowler than Amir, but that will probably never be conclusively proved).

And just looking at him over the last year, it is easy to see how much he has improved and how quickly; more pace, more swing, both ways, smarter bouncer, better yorker, reverse swing.

And now the world has seen it. It is a shame really.

And worrying.


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