Up until Thursday night, Wahab Riaz was not aware that he’d be taking the field against the West Indies the following morning.
He had a torrid time in South Africa - 163 runs off 21 overs, including a 10-0-93-2 in Johannesburg. Wahab was then a last-minute inclusion for the Champions Trophy and did not feature against Scotland and the first tie against Ireland. After giving away 45 runs off his seven overs in the second ODI against Ireland, and coming into bat at 133 for seven, Wahab was probably hoping he had sat that one out too. He defended apprehensively and slashed unconvincingly in what seemed a lost cause then. Until that late cameo that shocked all those watching.
A week later, Wahab, head still bobbling as he ran in, bowled with venom and purpose, eager to impress against the South Africans in the warm-up, trying hard to sneak into the playing-XI. He was fully aware that Ehsan Adil and Asad Ali remained ahead in the pecking order given that the team-sheet will already have two left-arm pacers and that the captain thought of Adil and Asad as better bowlers.
But Misbah’s decision to play Wahab alongside Irfan and Junaid brought to the fore – once again - the gaping hole left behind by Abdul Razzaq in his peak days – someone with the ability to bowl and slog towards the end. Wahab did bowl his heart out against the West Indies, reaching 92mph and bending his back consistently. But even he was aware that it was the long tail – especially since Umar Gul’s absent too – and Misbah not trusting his batsmen to come good that helped him get the nod.
“The Oval pitch had really good pace and bounce and it’s really handy to have someone bowl at 150kph,” Misbah had said after the two-wicket loss against the Windies. “Wahab showed us that he’s capable of that against South Africa [in the warm-up] and again against the West Indies. He’s also something special down the order as well. Having four tail-enders does become a problem for us in the later overs sometimes and he’s the one who can bat well. He gives us that balance which we need in the team.”
The search for an all-rounder is desperate – team manager Naved Akram Cheema even insists Umar Amin is the answer to the problem, despite limited experience and shot selection – and given Pakistan’s strategy of late, of a steady start and keeping wickets in hand for a late onslaught, the want becomes a need. The presence of four openers in the squad does not help though, taking up an extra slot that can be better utilised in the lower-order in the shape of a batsman with the ability to clear the rope and act as a sixth bowler if things don’t go to plan.
The need for an allrounder is dearly felt. But in the aftermath of the South Africa loss at Edgbaston, if the experienced six can’t do it, there is not much hope down the order. Shoaib Malik’s bowling graph had dropped shockingly and while Monday was slightly different for a change, he fails to bring much to the ODI squad except being a handy boundary-rider or in an occasional, successful dodgy run-chase. Shahid Afridi may make yet another comeback but his ageing back, and the ‘unwanted’ tag in the dressing room, may make things difficult for him, despite the reported political influence. Not to mention his form over the last twelve months. The only format where Razzaq can still make an impact is a Twenty20 and that’s more with the bat than both. It’s a big ask for Fawad Alam to clear the ropes consistently and he probably has hit the end of the road when it comes to white-ball cricket. But perhaps he can be relied upon with staying out in the middle. Hammad Azam continues to be confined to domestic cricket as the selectors and team management refuse to place their trust in the young allrounder’s abilities. The search continues. With Pakistan already out of the Champions Trophy, it will be interesting to see what combination Misbah goes in with in the highly-anticipated yet inconsequential encounter against India.
Wahab is not the ideal choice for the slot and may not even make it to the playing-XI when Gul returns. Bowling, his stronger suit, tends to get wayward and costly when that rhythm is not there. Pakistan’s bowling coach, Mohammad Akram, though, reckons Wahab, who has given over five runs an over 14 times in his last 23 matches, needs to be consistently in the playing-XI for things to improve. Wahab has 45 wickets and has scored 211 runs at a strike-rate of over 82 in 31 ODIs. He’s good when in rhythm – and that happens in patches. He did vindicate Misbah’s gamble in him in the warm-up and against the West Indies – with the ball, at least – but the captain’s decision to overlook Wahab’s economy-rate issues and opt for him over his preferred choices is a sign of desperation that the batting woes are not to disappear anytime soon – aptly displayed at Edgbaston.
It also tells a sorry tale that from the reported abundance of talent, Pakistan cannot find an allrounder worthy of a place in the eleven or are not keen on playing the ones they have.