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Wahab Riaz: An unpredictable prodigy

One of Wahab Riaz's finest moments was his haul of five for 46 against India at the 2011 World Cup semi final at Mohali © Getty Images
One of Wahab Riaz’s finest moments was his haul of five for 46 against India at the 2011 World Cup semi final at Mohali © Getty Images

Wahab Riaz has been in-and-out of the squad since his debut in 2008. His career has been a mix of brilliant and dull patches, something which makes him a highly unpredictable choice for the Pakistani selectors. Umer Rana delves analyses the career of the left-arm seamer.

Wahab Riaz burst on the scenes back in 2008 in the low-key series against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Incredibly fit, brimming with energy, a bouncy run up and generated quite threatening pace, he had a plenty to offer from the word go. Though a likeable player, his consistency and control was in question for most of the time.

It was summers of 2010 in England in which Riaz hit the headlines again. With 0-2 down in the series against an almost invincible looking England, the batting devoid of any experience hardly lasted any length of time to gain from the spectacular fast bowling attack that Pakistan had assembled. As injured Umar Gul did not recover in time, Pakistan were forced to throw Riaz in the deep end of Test cricket at the Oval’s batting paradise.

There was a sea change in conditions to what they were in earlier Tests at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston. The much celebrated duo of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer failed to make any inroads on the batting beauty. In came Riaz at first change, running into settled Andrew Strauss, who promptly thumped Riaz down the ground for a delightful straight drive. Another one just straying on the pads, clipped away from Strauss to the mid-wicket fence. Straight away the comparisons were drawn from the subsequent summer with another touring left-arm pacer Mitchell Johnson. Sky’s commentators made the comparison due to his strong build, sling action and lively pace. In fact, his over was quite like Johnson of those days, erratic and inconsistent in lengths.

In the very next over, Riaz pulled his length back and found some extra purchase from the wicket to leave Strauss nicking to the keeper. Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen were undone by his extra pace and Eoin Morgan also found Riaz too hot to handle. In space of 9 overs, Riaz had knocked over 4 and Pakistan had a new fast bowler to celebrate. In his next 9 overs, Riaz went for 47 runs while achieving his maiden five-wicket haul on debut. He bowled on the both side of the wicket to Stuart Broad and Matt Prior with some generous width. His first show in Test cricket really summed up his career till now. While he was exceptional at times as some of the Pakistani bowling legends, he tended to be occasionally erratic.

In the One-Day International (ODI) series against South Africa, he unveiled his menace for the first time with reversing ball and toe breaking yorkers at tear away pace. In New Zealand, the fact reinforced that he isn’t the remotest what it takes to be a new ball bowler but quite handful with old reversing ball once. His two scintillating yorkers stood out, the first one to shock Jesse Ryder to fast track the Pakistani triumph in Hamilton Test and the second one was the corker to Jacob Oram under immense pressure to seal the ODI series but the love story, Riaz and reversing ball, had another gigantic crest  in stored.

For that he could not have picked a better stage for that even if he had the choice, the semi-final against India in Mohali, replacing Shoaib Akthar in the most hyped cricket game ever played on the planet earth. Amid obnoxious fielding and indifferent bowling from his fellow pacer, reverse swing was the language Riaz talked in. He hardly bothered the fielders to help him to get the wickets. His scorching yorker to Yuvraj Singh first up was surely the ball of tournament perching in the league of Wasim Akram’s screamer to Lamb.

Since then, world turned upside down for Riaz. Clearly, the two new balls in ODIs hardly affected any other bowler more than him in world cricket with his penchant for old reversing ball. With two of his resounding backers and fast bowling mentors Aqib Javed and Waqar Younis parting away, he lacked any sort of backing from Misbah. After the stellar show in Mohali and a decent trip to West Indies following that, he got to play just two ODIs for the best part next two years.

In South Africa in 2013, thanks to another Gul injury, Riaz came back into the mix. Clearly, he was short of confidence, and it felt as if he was holding himself back to search for the control but it never happened, similar sort of mental storms that Mohammad Sami has been going through for last decade or so.

In the Champions Trophy, amid the dark regression of the batting, Riaz was among a few blipping positive out of the absurd tour. Riaz charged his way in as always, but this time much more control and plenty of venom. His spell at the Oval against West Indies, when the bowlers were trying to force an issue, was the most hostile spell from a Pakistani pacer since Akhtar. He was really cranking it up, hitting regularly almost 150 km/h or so, he almost blew away Chris Gayle with his vicious bumper. His two wickets came of brute of the balls raising like spitting king cobra from the goodish length to make Ramnaresh Sarwan and Kieron Pollard hopping and fending off to the keeper.

In the West Indies, the sword hanging by the thin string finally fell on him. To be fair, he bowled well, apart from the lousy last over to Jason Holder that almost gave away the won cause but unfortunately, in these situations only final acts come to the limelight rather the complete picture. He did make another comeback against South Africa in UAE but that also lasted three games and 14 overs to be precise, in fact, he played more for his batting skills than bowling abilities. Riaz came back into the squad with return of Waqar in the management. That might be the spark that his career has missed in the last three years.

Riaz is a work in process but now the onus is on the captain that they keep on showing faith him too, with his action, he would have a shocker here or there but a left-armer rushing in at nearly 150 clicks is too tempting prospect to be ignored. Just nine months ago, Riaz was just a tiny fragment of Johnson’s career. Just like Riaz, Johnson always had pace but only direction and mental strength was missing. But with plenty of confidence shown in him by the new regime under Darren Lehman and relentless backing by Michael Clarke, he has risen to the pedestal of the most fearsome man in the cricketing world.

Sami has been spilled through the same channel and in this draught of out and out pace in the country, they can’t afford another one going through the same channel. Had control been the criteria for the young bowlers, we might not have known Waqar, who was obnoxiously wayward at the start of his career, though he was backed by Imran . Riaz is no Waqar, neither would Pakistan get another Imran but still there is lesson in it to be learnt.

(Umer Rana is an Electrical Engineer who graduated from NUST. A club cricketer from Islamabad, he fell in love with the beautiful game at the tender age of six. Wasim Akram’s Pakistan’s road to the marvelous triumph in the 1997 World Series, is his first cricketing memory. He is always up for a chat about cricket, captaincy and tactics)

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