x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Pakistan's forgotten bowlers keep pace with tradition

Osman Samiuddin looks at the long lineage of unsung pacemen that have kept the light burning in the team's fallow periods.

Aizaz Cheema is congratulated after he accounted for key man, Kumar Sangakkara, on the first day of the Test.
Aizaz Cheema is congratulated after he accounted for key man, Kumar Sangakkara, on the first day of the Test.

The true story of Pakistan's fast bowling cannot be traced just through the big names, the Fazal Mahmoods, Imran Khans, Wasim Akrams and Waqar Younises.

No, the true indicator of just how rich and bountiful this tradition is lies in the men behind these men.

These are the bowlers who have plugged the eras of transition from one great paceman to another, the straight men who have filled in when the stars have been out injured, banned, busy fighting each other, partying too much, or just being plain difficult.

It is a long, uncelebrated lineage, from Mohammad Munaf, Asif Masood and Salim Altaf to Sikander Bakht, Jalaluddin and Azeem Hafeez, to Aamer Nazir, Mohammad Akram, Rao Iftikhar, Rana Naved ul Hasan and Shabbir Ahmed and many others.

In hindsight, these are bowlers who have kept the hope alive that there will come another champion. But in their day they have given fine, utilitarian service, responsible for the occasional memorable spell, but more regularly the mundane; key breakthroughs, long, untiring spells on hot days and dead tracks.

These guys have not thrilled or excelled for long, but they have come in, done a job, and receded back away from the lights.

Pakistan find themselves, following the departures of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, in another ostensibly fallow period.

Yet in the last year, Tanvir Ahmed has filled in, Wahab Riaz and Junaid Khan have emerged and now Aizaz Cheema, at 32, is living a second life, having sweated in the domestic circuit for nearly 10 years. It is quite likely that only one name, or none at all, from this current crop goes on to be written forever in gold.

That is just the law of probability. But on their shoulders Pakistan has been dredged out from the muck of last year.

Take, as an example, Cheema today at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Pakistan's decision to put Sri Lanka in to bat, based on the greenness of the surface, was not looking like a mistake exactly. But only one wicket and little give from the surface until lunch would have caused a little flutter.

So Cheema, such an engaging visual sight, rushed in after lunch and lit the fire for an entire session's collapse. Cheema falls easiest into this stock of the unacclaimed.

He has got pace, but it is of a type that is worked for, the toil visible; the greatest fast men have never looked like they are straining for pace.

He only took a solitary wicket (admittedly, in Kumar Sangakkara few solitary wickets are as valuable) but he became, for a five-over spell, the sharp end of Pakistan's intent.

Mahela Jayawardene was pounded with bouncers, struck once, ducking often and hooking once for a magnificent six.

But it wasn't one dimensional stuff, for he seems to be imbued with a restless spirit. He attacked off stump, he tempted batsmen outside off and one outrageous slower ball nearly had Jayawaradene bowled over his head. The surface demanded it, as Junaid acknowledged later.

"When we were doing nets yesterday the ball was seaming so our plan was to play three seamers to take advantage," he said.

"There was movement early but after that we had to really put in the effort. You had to do it, not just let the pitch do it for you."

Pakistan have a thing for left-arm fast bowlers and Junaid, being a contemporary of Amir's, the headlines will be his.

They will be deserved, for a maiden five-wicket haul is a special moment, and a burst of three wickets in five balls on a sleepy afternoon, a typically Pakistani route of announcing it. That one of the victims was yorked round the wicket ... well, that's just asking for instant celebrity.

But it was Cheema who realigned them, allowing Junaid and Umar Gul to benefit after a low-impact opening. It was Cheema who showed them there was a reason for bowling first, that if discipline was maintained - the former coach Waqar, here as a broadcaster, was most impressed with the discipline incidentally - rewards would come.

How long, and successfully, will Cheema play? Even Junaid? Who knows? Tanvir Ahmed took six on his debut here last year and where is he now?

Rested first, now dropped for being rested, that is where. That is Pakistan.

But this is also Pakistan, surging forward when the times are great in giant leaps, on the back of giants. And when times are lean, shuffling forward in smaller steps, on the shoulders of forgotten men.




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