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Surge of the southpaws

Updated September 15, 2013
Pakistan's new lefty arsenal: Wahab Riaz
Pakistan's new lefty arsenal: Wahab Riaz
Pakistan's new lefty arsenal: Mohammad Irfan
Pakistan's new lefty arsenal: Mohammad Irfan
Pakistan's new lefty arsenal: Junaid Khan
Pakistan's new lefty arsenal: Junaid Khan
Wasim Akram...taking advantage of his left-arm angle.
Wasim Akram...taking advantage of his left-arm angle.

The left-arm angle has always been much-coveted to have in the arsenal of a bowling attack. Captains just crave to have a left-arm pacer at their disposal to change things in a match. The natural swing of a left-arm pace into the right-hander makes him a devastating prospect for the batsmen.

Even if the ball is not doing much in the air or off the wicket, the angle, going away all the time from the left-arm makes the stroke harder. The most striking thing about left-arm bowlers is their scarcity; whether in domestic or international cricket.

Batsmen aren’t accustomed to facing them, which makes them ever-so-valuable. It was probably Alan Davidson who made the left-arm angle fashionable in the game.

In the 1950s, he cast his magic with big curving inswingers to right-handers at a threatening pace.

Then, it was left to the iron man of cricket to showcase his left-arm fast-medium skills in the 1960s and ’70s. Sir Garfield Sobers could have done just anything alluring with a ball or a ball in hand, like the so many fascinating things he did on the field, he gave a go to swinging it around while opening the bowling for the West Indies. But that was overshadowed by his exquisite batting skills and due to the fact that he bowled everything from left-arm finger spin to the chinaman alongside left-arm medium fast.

Lord of the lefties Still, cricket was lacking a poster boy in terms of left-arm pace that young southpaws could look up to. Enter Wasim Akram, and boy what a hero he turned out to be! He was discovered quite bizarrely, but then again, this is how things work in Pakistan cricket. For the next two decades, Wasim Akram flabbergasted the world of cricket with his talent. Starting as a reverse swing merchant, he did everything with the ball that one can imagine doing, scrambling in from a mere 12 paces. A quick whip of the arms, and there she went; defying all the laws of fluid dynamics, curling it either way to the shock of batsmen everywhere.

Over the years, he waylaid the batting orders, making mincemeat of them. Wasim took advantage of his left-arm angle with impeccable control with both new as well as old balls. He was a true protagonist for left-arm bowlers around the world.

Dead weight After Wasim, Pakistan found it almost impossible to resist the lure of having a left-arm bowler in its attack. Among the very few left-arm bowlers hovering around in the domestic circuit at the time, the selectors threw a young rookie, Mohammad Khalil, who had the experience of just six first-class matches, in the deep end of international cricket for the series against the touring Bangladesh in 2003. But he never got to play a game then. For the tour of Australia in 2004, he was in the squad again.

He had no ‘setting the stage-on-fire’ sort of record to show for his selection. However, Khalil found himself receiving the Test cap straight away in the first Test at Perth. It turned out to be an obnoxious debut as he failed to get any wickets on the lively Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) pitch. Ironically, he never looked like getting one, at any point in his spell. After the emphatic opening bursts of Shoaib and Sami on the opening morning to leave Australia reeling at 78 for 5, Khalil lacked both the penetration and the persistence to back them up. As a result, Australia were let off the hook and posted a mammoth total to squeeze out any chances for Pakistan in the game.

In hindsight, had the right-arm Mohammad Asif debuted on the bouncy Perth wicket, it could have been a different story altogether. As it turned out, Asif debuted at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), later in the series on a parched track to go wicket-less. He had to wait another year to play his next Test.

Out of sheer desperation of having a left-arm bowler in the side, Pakistan persisted with Khalil in the hope of better shows in the ODIs in Australia. He was much better than what he was in the Perth Test but still a long way from becoming the bowler desired by the Pakistan cricket team. Due to the injustices to key fast bowlers and absurd selections, he got yet another nod in Test cricket. But his lack of control and pace on the placid batting track of Eden Gardens in Kolkata, India, in 2005, was the last straw.

One-match wonder After another debacle in the 2007 World Cup, Pakistan cricket looked to pick itself up from the lowest ebb in history. Najaf Shah was one of the newcomers in the side in the series against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi. The tall left-arm quickie impressed one and all on his debut. He had a bit of pace and laudable movement and lift from a typical absolutely stale wicket in the desert. Ironically, he turned out to be a one-match wonder and never got a chance after that day.

A short stint Sohail Tanvir burst onto the scene in the inaugural World T20 in South Africa, with his peculiar action, he was in the limelight from the word go. Tanvir and his rollicking Yorkers have opened the flood gates for left-arm pacers in Pakistan cricket. We now have every type of left-arm seamer that one can imagine, with all sorts of actions. Even in height, they vary from short to the outrageously tall. The various breeds of left-arm fast bowlers here can be compared with the herds available in the goat, sheep and cattle market before Eidul Azha.

After early success, Sohail Tanvir now has a fading career due to wrong-footed action. He struggles towards steadiness. He was drafted into the Test side following the injuries to Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul back in 2008 but the lack of the extra wheels and the accuracy short-lived that stint. Now it looks as if he is only considered for T20 games.

A talent wasted Mohammad Amir made a dream debut in Pakistan’s World T20 triumph in 2009. He was a ‘once-in-a-generation talent’ and had just about everything in his armory that a fast bowler can crave for — raw pace, immaculate control, and most importantly the ability to swing both the old and the new ball — making him a perfect package. Pakistan has not had a better new-ball bowler of such a tender age. Even the great Wasim Akram took some time to come to terms with the new ball.

Amir was well on his way to greatness but the spot-fixing fiasco halted his surge and Pakistan was deprived of a great prodigy.

New hope Perhaps not as gifted as Amir, Junaid Khan has taken swift steps in improvement ever since his debut in 2011. At age 23, he leads Pakistan’s attack in Umar Gul’s absence. At the moment, he is the most complete package, moving the ball either way at quite a pace, and most importantly, he has wonderful work ethic. He has a very potent yorker at his disposal, still, he is a work in progress when it comes to bowling at the end of an innings in the limited overs.

The gentle giant, Mohammad Irfan kicked off his career following the spot-fixing saga in England in 2010. Pakistan was looking for a savior after the most potent opening pair of world cricket fell prey to the menace of ’fixing’. But Irfan failed to be that saviour. His huge crumbling and fragile structure is a problem, too. He had come straight from hot and humid Sri Lanka into the cold English conditions, and the two games there were too little to judge him given his low fitness level. Had it not been for coach Dav Whatmore, it would have been hard to imagine another Irfan comeback in international cricket. Whatmore had seen Irfan in his pomp in Sri Lanka for the trials for Knight Riders. Irfan’s fitness improved drastically from a man to hide in the field to a doing-the-job sort of fielder. But he is still not a good choice for the limited-overs game. Irfan is a late bloomer but he still has some yards in him. He consistently bowls over 140 km/h but to last longer he has to work hard on his fitness because of his massive build.

Wahab Riaz has been around the landscapes of Pakistan cricket since 2008. His career has been jittery to say the least. He swings between splendid to scrappy. His sling shot action halted the development of consistency and the crooked wrist position played a part in being a one-dimensional bowler, depriving him of the in-swing into the right-handers. His vigour lied in the reverse swing but with the change in the playing regulations, the reverse swing has almost gone out of ODI cricket while in Test cricket, he continues to grasp for a chance. Still, he is the quickest in Pakistan right now and even in the Champions Trophy, he ended up as the fastest in the tournament.

Rahat Ali had a sedate debut in South Africa but, luckily, he got another chance in the last Test to change that with six scalps. Ali has a natural incoming dip at quite a sharp pace in his arsenal but like so many bowlers coming from domestic cricket to international cricket, his control is an area to work on. Meanwhile, his six-wicket haul finds himself in Pakistan’s Test plans for the time being at least.

Pakistan fielded three left-arm pacers in the Champions Trophy — Junaid, Wahab and Irfan. Rahat Ali is in the Test squad and Sohail Tanvir made a comeback with a bang in the T20 squad plus Amir’s return in the game cannot be ruled out. So the stocks for Pakistan are brimming with prodigious left-arm quickies. Such is the domination that even in the absence of Gul hardly any right-arm fast bowler looks like fitting into the side.

It does not stop here. In domestic cricket, Sadaf Hussain’s huge stock of wickets keep on swelling and it would be hard for the selectors to ignore him for too long. In the junior ranks Zia-ul-Haq and Aftab Ahmed impressed even the master, Wasim Akram, in the camp.

The writer is a club cricketer.