Breathe. Get a grip. Breathe in. Hold. Count to five. Breathe out. Repeat a few times.
I know. It’s so easy to get completely carried away, even if none of it meant anything in the end, not even the player award. Usman Khawaja was great but for scope this was no less a monument to its discipline. We’ve all gotten a little carried away before. Even though we’ve been here so many times before. So. Many. Times. And we’re not even fully over some of them. Or any of them.
A good way to deal with this, to dial your heart rate down, is to force yourself to go through all the ways this could end in tragedy. It’s masochistic and morbid but so what? Nobody can prove that it’s not cleansing for the soul. Before that, though, let’s agree to one thing: that we don’t take his name here. Like our own little pre-emptive anti-jinx; also, plausible deniability for later when it all hits the fan. This was never about him, of course it wasn’t. Nope, wrong guy.
So, what could happen? A doping ban. Mixing with the wrong guys. He could beat up on a team-mate. Get done for match-fixing. Probably spot-fixing. He could break a back. More to the point he could break his right wrist. He could look at somebody wrong. He could start getting picked for ODIs. He could be made captain. It could all go to his head. Test cricket could die before he really gets going. Duncan Fletcher could become coach and dump him because no pace. John Buchanan could become coach and teach him to bowl left-arm instead. Intikhab Alam could become coach. Ijaz Butt could return.
This is all very much in the realm of the possible.
But, if somehow none of this happens, then what are we looking at? What bounty? What riches? How many YouTube compilations of pads being rapped and bails being gently disturbed (because brute force, where toes are crushed and stumps shattered, is not the name of this game) are we looking at?
He’s breaking records nearly every Test he bowls. Had he taken one more wicket in Dubai he would’ve been joint-fastest to 50 wickets for Pakistan. He’s got the best average for any bowler to have taken at least 20 wickets since his own debut.
Wait. Don’t. Don’t go further. Watch the heart rate. Breathe. Prepare for the worst and don’t hope for the best. Best to not hope for anything: just watch.
Because just watching him bowl is its own reward, even if he never bowls again. Watch what he did in this last Test, where Mohammad Hafeez, Bilal Asif, Khawaja and even a not-right Yasir Shah were all bigger stories and got more attention. In Dubai. In near 40-degree heat where you’re lucky if your face doesn’t melt doing nothing outside in October, let alone running in for 46 overs over five days. At a ground where fast bowlers have collectively averaged north of 36 at a strike of 80 and this guy strolls up to his second Test here and ends with 7-85? And had his captain not held him back for 15 overs on that final morning, then… no, let’s not go there.
It’s not as if no fast bowler has bowled well on these surfaces. Junaid Khan always had an edge about him in Abu Dhabi, nothing short of miraculous given that pitch (this is Junaid and this is all fast bowlers in Abu Dhabi). Stuart Broad and James Anderson were good across the country. Dale Steyn scared the bejabbers out of Pakistan once when they were chasing 40. Umar Gul had a moment or two. Even Tanvir Ahmed has a six-fer here. But much of this is pre-2014 when pitches – and especially Dubai – could still give something to the fast bowler on the first morning. Since then surfaces have turned over and without protest died a little. Wahab Riaz turned a game in one epic spell, and he was fun to watch last year against Sri Lanka, but those were superhuman bursts and essentially in defiance of conditions.
Our guy in Dubai was different. He bowled well like he was entitled to bowl well here, with the assurance – it’d be arrogance if he had cooler hair – that his uncomplicated methods were good enough wherever he went, Dubai, Dublin, Dominica, London or Leeds. He wouldn’t have to hold the ball different, or shorten his run-up, or increase his pace, or change his lengths drastically. He wouldn’t have to do anything – the pitch would have to respond. He is, after all, the only bowler to average under 20 in the four countries he’s bowled in. It’s only nine Tests but some people still think he’s a conditions-only bowler – which ignores that six of those Tests have been in conditions more like this than what he got this summer.
If Glenn McGrath wrote the textbook for non-express fast bowlers on how to bowl on a pitch with some life (and I’m not saying he didn’t write other manuals for different circumstances) then Dubai was like the inverse: how to bowl non-express pace when slips and keeper are out of the game, where the ball is not bouncing, or doing much otherwise, and spin is the game.
Our man set the tone when Pakistan were floundering for a plan. Our man was confident in his strengths. Ignore pace. Don’t be flustered if, for example, they bat out of the crease to combat your lengths and movement. Think like a spinner. Definitely choke like a spinner. The spell to Aaron Finch in the first innings just before and after lunch that led eventually to his wicket, that is a ‘How to’ instructional video right there.
Be tight, at off stump and not a millimeter out. Don’t let him step into a drive, don’t let him step back and punch. Be at him like a dog with a bone. Peter Siddle had a higher percentage of balls delivered on that line and probably at slightly higher pace but Peter Siddle doesn’t hit the seam as cleanly or as often as our man and so Peter Siddle was manful but not magical.
Focus so intensely that a short mid-off and short mid-on right in your eye-line as you run in is not a distraction.. It doesn’t sound like much but it definitely is not easy to do. And be modern and multi-dimensional with the reverse. Show them you don’t need pace for it, that there are more lengths to hit than just the yorker, show them you can mix the ethos of new-ball bowling into the behaviour of a reversing ball.
Sorry. This is getting carried away again, isn’t it? Sorry. It couldn’t be helped. Too late. Hopefully this will self-destruct about five seconds after you finish. If not, then this has all been a perfect, and comprehensive, jinx. Expect him to be carted around Abu Dhabi and perhaps never to take a wicket again. Expect some tragicomic PCB press release banishing him to eternity in that darkest but well-populated corner of our head and heart where his kind remain.
Although, we can always say, we weren’t talking about him were we?