It was a typically hot day in Karachi in 2006. Pakistan’s fielders were made to sweat as Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni smashed the ball all around the National Stadium, giving India an easy eight-wicket win and wrapping up the series 4-1.
Pakistan cricket’s many critics poured out of the stadium in dismay, talking about how India had finally tipped the balance of power, how Mohammad Sami and Rao Iftikhar were a lesson in mediocrity as Pakistan’s fast bowling legacy slowly approached death. The future looked grim.
However, once the stands were empty and the crowds outside, a calming whisper silenced Pakistan’s moaning fans. Suddenly, the words “9 for 6” were on everyone’s lips and Anwar Ali, unknown only seconds earlier, was ‘trending’ around the National Stadium.
In a matter of moments, Pakistan fans were transported to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and, as an audaciously nippy Anwar destroyed India’s batting line-up, the future looked bright, the legacy would continue. For this truly was the battle of the future, India v Pakistan for the U19 World Cup title.
“We didn’t really know the players then, but now they’ve become world famous, (Cheteshwar) Pujara, (Rohit) Sharma, (Ravindra) Jadeja, were all against us,” Anwar said, speaking to Dawn.com.
“It was the best moment of my career.”
Anwar was named man of the match for his 5-35 and Pakistan won the tournament in a stunning come-from-behind win.
Although his father never really appreciated him giving time to the game, Anwar played “a lot” of cricket at the school level, then club level, where he turned up with several other players, now on the fringes of the national team, for the Pakistan Cricket Club. It was after playing zonal cricket for Karachi, though, that he was spotted and brought into the U19 camp. He “gained success at every level” and is a product of the system put in place, coming through the ranks from his native Karachi.
“As a child, I always looked at Imran Khan,” but in more recent times, “I’ve been inspired by Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, and Umar Gul. Fast bowling was a hobby for me. And Imran and Umar also bowled inswing in the beginning of their careers, I looked at them and was successful at junior levels.”
In 2006, when the video of his wickets went viral on YouTube, the natural talent was there for all to see. Anwar himself said that through his younger years a lack of coaching benefitted his action: “My natural swing is inswing. When I began cricket no one told me how, but when I would throw the ball it would naturally come in. I then had to work on the ideal length to bowl inswing, that is what I worked on in the nets.”
However naturally talented the teenager appeared then, he ultimately failed to make the quick step-up to international cricket that was expected. Now at the age of 25, he’s had his big moments, like a match winning 8-16 in the fourth innings against State Bank in 2011, but is known as a consistent first-class cricketer who has often been picked for Pakistan tours but deemed not good enough to make the final cut. This has not affected his attitude though, and his ultimate goal is to don the whites for Pakistan.
“It’s every player's dream to become a Test cricketer, and mine too. Of course, I love T20 with big crowds, sixes, fours, quick wickets, it’s where I made my first appearance for Pakistan. But my favourite format remains Test cricket.”
Anwar is keen to learn from his more experienced teammates and live up to the hype that surrounded his earlier career. But he has also realised that he can no longer be a one-trick pony. Hence, the extra hours in the nets that are dedicated to batting and with a first-class average of 19.66, perhaps the young man can fill the role of a genuine allrounder that Pakistan is so dearly missing.
“It brings me happiness to share the ball with Aizaz (Cheema) and Shoaib Malik while playing for PIA, they’ve had great runs in the Pakistan team and it’s very helpful to learn from them. As for my own ambitions, this season I’ve worked extra hard, and I want to tell my fans that all my effort is going into making them see a different, a new Anwar Ali from now on.”
Anwar, who played for runners up PIA in the recently concluded Ramazan T20 Cup, also believes he and many others like him have suffered due to a stoppage of international cricket in Pakistan since 2009.
“It’s important that PCB brings international cricket back to Pakistan. That will attract crowds, rebuild interest, and give a boost to the entire domestic circuit. Having our own PCB-run league that could attract international players would help us a lot, we’d get to share dressing rooms with the world’s stars and our domestic cricketers can learn a lot.”
Anwar may never be the legend some expected him to be because, at 25, his best moment wasn’t still expected to be the memory from the U19s. For the selectors, it certainly begs the question why they would keep selecting a ‘talented’ player for tours but not pick him in the playing XI.
For now, Anwar’s focus is clear though, and the kind of work that he is putting in with both bat and ball, perhaps, a repeat of Colombo 2006, may just be around the corner.