x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The art of bowling in the death of a one-day international is no more

When much is at stake in the final over, experience is vital but that may not be enough.

Pakistan's Wahab Riaz was bowling the last over of a match for the first time on Friday. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Pakistan's Wahab Riaz was bowling the last over of a match for the first time on Friday. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

When Misbah-ul-Haq handed the ball to Wahab Riaz for the last over against the West Indies on Friday evening and asked him to defend 15 runs against their last batting pair, a tiny, collective Pakistani groan could have been heard.

Partly, this is expectation nurtured by the extreme bipolarity of Riaz's career. For every extreme, heady high, there has come an immediate, bewilderingly dark low.

The fierce five-for at the Oval against England in 2010 followed by that sting operation in which he was seen wearing the white jacket of a man trying to arrange some spot-fixing.

That rush of a World Cup semi-final five-for against India in India? Kaput, amid the hangover of a spell against them that read 4-0-50-0 a year later.

His entire bowling persona can be defined in such extremities: potentially he is fantastic, but sometimes that potential is not just frittered away, it is blasted by a series of explosive breakdowns.

If his career were lyrics, Kylie Minogue and Kurt Cobain would have to be the alternating writers, happy shiny, simple pop one day; dark, heavy brooding rock the next.

So when he came on to bowl that last over, my mind went back to his superb spell in the Champions Trophy against the West Indies in England just over a month ago and swiftly concluded that Cobain was in charge this time.

He was, and it was dark. A 14-run over allowed West Indies to steal a tie, in which a man hitherto averaging four, smoked him for six clean over extra cover.

Junaid Khan's over just before had not helped Riaz and neither did the fields he set with Misbah, but few will remember that.

Last-over blowouts are like that, wiping clean everything that came before.

The other reason, I later figured, it felt wrong giving Riaz that over was because bowling last overs needs the experience of having bowled it over and over. So to speak.

Riaz, I suspected, had not bowled too many 50th overs in an ODI. In fact, I was completely wrong, but also right. Friday was the 10th time in 35 ODIs that he has bowled the last over of an innings. He has performed to type some days outstandingly, some days very shakily.

He almost always bowls during the death stretch of an innings - and was particularly good for a period in late 2010 and early 2011 - so he was not as inexperienced as I imagined.

That is one of the things about death overs. It rarely makes for a memory unless you screw it up royally. But this is where I was right: Riaz had never bowled the 100th over of a game, never mind a game that was still live.

Because bowling that one last over, when a match is still to be decided, is a different universe of last overs altogether.

Here everything about the last over is intensified and anyone can have that blowout. Just before this series MS Dhoni took 15 from one to beat Sri Lanka.

Saeed Ajmal conceded more against Michael Hussey at the 2010 World Twenty20 semi-final.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul once won a game by hitting Chaminda Vaas for 10 off the last two balls (all three happened in the West Indies, which clearly is a bad place for bowling last overs).

And 20 years ago, also in the Caribbean, the greatest last-over bowler ever conceded 11 to let West Indies tie another game.

It is only on watching Wasim Akram bowl that over to Carl Hooper and Ian Bishop in Guyana that it becomes clear just how difficult Friday would have been for Riaz.

Akram was bowling to one specialist batsman, but in those days was so expert that 12 in the last over was effectively 100.

Predictably, he bowled four yorkers or low full tosses, mostly scraped away for singles and doubles.

But his fourth ball was the game; he erred by inches, a little short of a yorker, leg-side, allowing Hooper to move to off and flick away a boundary to fine leg.

Bishop dug the last ball almost a yorker but crucially not to long on for two . The crowd burst on to the field, forcing the game to be deemed a tie.

Now cast your mind to the four Kemar Roach swatted off Junaid in the 49th over on Friday. It was near enough a yorker, yet Roach, set deep in his crease, timed it purringly through midwicket.

Bishop, up in the commentary box, marvelled at the stroke, probably as much from experience as on its own merit; 20 years ago Bishop scampered two from a similar length and only because of a crowd invasion.

Here Roach found a boundary like he was Hooper.

Would Akram's tactics have worked today? Maybe, maybe not, though he definitely would have adapted.

Because the real point lies in Roach's shot - and Jason Holder's six off Riaz - and in how much more difficult it is today to defend 15 even against tailenders.


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