Wahab and the tale of the Pakistani bouncer. An Awesome Read!!
I’m a sucker so it took only one ball to start believing in Wahab Riaz again. It was the ball of the series in that
it is the one delivery I remembered vividly enough to want to see again. For a series in which Rangana Herath
took as many wickets as he did, that says something. It didn’t even get Wahab a wicket; there had been two
already in the over and so naturally he was pumped.
Dhammika Prasad was the recipient, from around the wicket. There had been a flirtatious rumbling between
them through the Test, nothing clever, and as subtle as Liberace. Two balls before, Prasad had responded to an
extended Wahab stare by dismissively shooing him away, like he was a fly. There wasn’t much pace or bounce
at the Sinhalese Sports Club, though that isn’t to say it was death for pace bowlers. Junaid Khan and Wahab
took 11 between them (and Junaid didn’t even bowl in the second innings). Better to say subcontinental fast
bowlers could find a way on it.
This ball didn’t spit up off the pitch as much as rise gradually and ominously, like a giant wave, which, even as
it gathers itself, feels somehow slower than it is. Travelling at 139.1kph it wasn’t slow and neither was it
super-fast. But at its peak, its threat was all-enveloping, in that there seemed nowhere Prasad could go and
nothing he could do other than jerk his head away, throw his bat in front of his heart and hope. It might be
deemed his victory that the ball found the bat’s shoulder, looped over gully and fetched him two runs. But to
most connoisseurs of fast bowling, the image of Prasad airborne in clumsy self-preservation was the victory, if
not quite the “inverted cobra” of bouncer avoidance (see Smith, Robin or Stewart, Alec).
It brought alive the moment and jarred it, like how movies imagine bomb blasts and the camera does a
movement between vibrating and outright shaking. Though he had taken two wickets and had bowled another
worthy bouncer at Prasad in the first innings, this had a quality of suddenness. It’s like being assaulted by the
stun-guitar and rolling ferocity of drums that begin this song immediately after a period of silence (solemn
advice: turn it up loud).
The Pakistani bouncer is under-celebrated. Nobody much bowled them till Imran Khan came along and his
developed into a really nasty one, the kind that stalks batsmen, invading their personal space. Then even
Sarfraz Nawaz – big, smart Sarf – got into it, never quick, waddling to the crease like a penguin on fire, but with
the one crucial ingredient for bowling bumpers: personality.
Wasim Akram’s was vicious mostly because his action was so difficult to pick and the angles with which he
came at the batsman. Note the fabled ones, to Sachin Tendulkar, or to Lance Cairns, and to Ewan Chatfield in
his second Test; in each case the batsman is blindsided by the ball, as if it shouldn’t be there.
The most dangerous was probably Shoaib Akhtar’s, his extreme pace and hyper-extension doubling, tripling its
threat. It felled Lara. It felled Kirsten. It pinged Sachin. It cracked Nasser Hussain’s fingers. On November 1,
1999, he bowled one so quick to Matthew Hayden in a game against Queensland, Hayden had time only to
raise his bat in back-lift and perhaps see the first blurs of life flashing before him, before the ball struck his
right shoulder. Shoaib’s bouncer was so frightening he frightened himself – at least that is what it looked like
when he hit Lara and Kirsten.
There’s even a magnificent Mohammad Sami delivery to Sachin in Bangalore, rising into his left armpit, which
he fended straight to Asim Kamal at short leg, only for the chance to be dropped. It was thrilling and summed
up Sami’s life in two seconds.
But the Pakistani bouncer is not the weapon it is for others, because it is almost a counter-intuitive impulse. It
is impossible, for instance, to imagine a Pakistani fast bowler winning a series the way Mitchell Johnson did, or
West Indian bowlers used to. Pakistani fast bowling, of fuller lengths, is generally high art. It has been known
to beat batsmen for pace, sure, but it’s always accompanied by swing, some seam, and plenty of smarts. The
bouncer is something they reduce themselves to when they are bored of being highbrow and fancy (at one
stage, the Ws used to bounce only to make the ball older). Remember Indiana Jones resignedly taking out the
gun on the sword guy? That’s Pakistan and the bouncer, although it also works as a little reveal occasionally:
boy, don’t mess with us.
Wahab has a terrific bouncer, and right now his ability to consistently bowl a mean, quick one is worth as much
as anything else he bowls. It has a little to do with the air around us, heavy still with the feats of Johnson.
Who, after all, wouldn’t want a low-arm, left-armed seriously quick bowler who sprays it everywhere but also
gets it magnificently, unavoidably right?
I don’t think I had actually stopped believing in Wahab per se. It was just that it was easier to believe more in
others and, even, heretically, in other methods. Never has Pakistani fast bowling been higher art than in this
last decade. It hasn’t been so much about how fast they bowl – though the national obsession remains – but
how much they can do with the ball; Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, even Umar Gul were not
defined by the singularity of their speeds. Sami, in fact, did plenty on his own to shake the faith in pure pace.
Never has it been higher farce either; every new genius, new waif has arrived as a clown, made of glass, and
soon disappeared. Amid so many absences, and with smarter, slower bowlers around, Pakistan could do with
someone as uncomplicated as Wahab. He is an indulgence, sure, but also a reminder that it’s never ever a bad
thing to have a really, really fast bowler.
This, at least, was the rationale of Waqar Younis when he returned to coach Pakistan last year. He had a few
bowlers around, good ones too, but there was a kind of sameness, if not in method then in impact. These
bowlers could work out and work their way through batting orders rather than explode upon one. His first stint
as coach had produced a fairly productive period with Wahab, though Waqar’s worries over his wrist and
release were never erased.
But this time he stopped worrying excessively about the mechanics of Wahab’s action. Instead he chose to go
about him the way you imagine Imran would have with a young Waqar. He had a gut feeling this could be his
time. So he had a little life chat with him. He reminded him that he was 29 and that it was about time he
started bowling like he was the man, like he was the leader.
Perhaps in Wahab, Waqar saw a little of himself, the energy, the presence, the ability to strike. “For me, he’s
always been a match-winner, the go-to bowler who you turn to when things are down,” Waqar had said just
before the Australia series last year. “When you talk about having an X factor, he’s one of those. I haven’t
taught him anything, do this, do that. I just told him, it’s about time, get your act right. I don’t think you can
change much, but whatever resources you have – I mean he bowls 145kph and above, and he’s become
smarter as well.”