Wahab Riaz was a last minute inclusion in the World Cup squad after Junaid Khan was short of fitness. — Reuters/File

Flawed yet fantastic — an ode to whirlwind Wahab Riaz

Go well in retirement Vicky, and thanks for the entertainment.
Published August 17, 2023

Career statistics can sometimes be deceiving in sport, such that while they do provide a good measure of how well a player has performed over a stretch of time, they often miss the essence of what made that certain player special.

Such is the case with Wahab Riaz, the Pakistani left-arm tearaway quick, who called time on his fifteen-year career in international cricket yesterday. A total of 154 matches across all formats, accounting for 237 wickets, doesn’t look all too shabby.

That said, when you break those numbers down by format, they don’t look particularly stellar either.

 Wahab’s career statistics according to <em>Cricinfo</em>.
Wahab’s career statistics according to Cricinfo.

There isn’t much to write home about in the average column, and the economy and strike rates aren’t otherworldly either, so is it fair to deduce that Wahab was a bang-average cricketer, at best?

The answer to that question is no. Absolutely not.

Sure, Wahab has the unwanted distinction of being the only Pakistani bowler to have conceded more than 80 runs in an ODI on three separate occasions — his worst excursion coming against England at Trent Bridge in 2016, where he leaked 110 runs without featuring in the wickets column.

He also could have become the only cricketer in ODI history to have conceded more than 100 runs twice, had he not hobbled off after injuring his ankle against India in Pakistan’s opening fixture of the Champions Trophy 2017, where he had given away 87 runs for no reward in 8.4 overs.

Yuvraj Singh consoles injured Wahab Riaz during the ICC Champions trophy match. —AFP/File
Yuvraj Singh consoles injured Wahab Riaz during the ICC Champions trophy match. —AFP/File

Do those outright horrendous outings define his legacy though? The answer to that, once again, is no.

And why is that? Well for context, Wahab may have the joint second-worst figures in ODIs, but he shares that despicable record with none other than Rashid Khan, who many would consider to be the greatest limited-overs spin bowler in contemporary cricket. That right there is proof that even the best can have an off day.

But by no means does it suggest that Wahab was amongst the best in his generation. Far from it, actually, if we are being honest.

Then what is it exactly that made Wahab Riaz special? He bowled turbo pace but had a tendency to be ridiculously erratic at times. Anyone who has seen that delivery he bowled to Steve Smith in the 2016 World T20 can attest to this statement. His wrist position meant that he could primarily move the ball away from the right hander, and had his limitations with respect to doing much else.

He had that reverse swinging skill in his artillery, in addition to a killer bouncer and yorker, but his bowling was more often than not quite wayward, lacking accuracy.

If you are still reading this piece, you must be thinking that I’m solely making a case for Wahab’s mediocrity at this point, identifying one flaw after another, but I would argue that all cricketers are flawed in some way, and that is what makes this sport beautiful.

Moving forward, I suppose we can all agree that one adjective that just does not fit Wahab’s profile is “consistent”, and that is completely fine. He was not consistent, and no one will ever remember him for his tight lines, which quite frankly were a rare sight in Wahab’s decade-and-a-half-long international career.

What he was, however, was absolute theatre. And not just some thought-provoking art-infused opera-esque theatre, but box-office action movie sharknado style theatre, that would keep you on the edge of your seat.

Wahab would walk out on the field with the aura of a fighter, which was routinely demonstrated by the hard yards he would put in during both cricket matches and training sessions.

In an era where a fair few Pakistani cricketers had protruding bellies, coupled with some lax on-field attitude, Wahab was, in stark comparison, the perfect specimen of what an athlete should look like.

Wahab was Rambo on Red Bull, with only one really good boxing arm, and the undying will to never give up.

Modern-day Pakistan cricket supporters shower heaps of praise on Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf for their robust fielding efforts but seldom remember that Wahab the fielder had already set the bar really high.

His wheels weren’t just restricted to the thunderbolts he bowled but also came to the fore when he would regularly throw himself around the field, attempting to stop or catch the ball, with zero regard for his body.

He was no mug with the bat either, and if you consider all the instances where Wahab bailed Pakistan out of tough situations with the bat — of which there are plenty — you will come to recognise him for the utility he provided across all facets of the game.

His Test record, one can argue, is substandard, taking into account his apparent quality. That is not a terrible take either, considering Wahab took 5 for 63 in his debut innings in the longest format at the Oval vs England, but still couldn’t quite cut it at the Test level.

All said and done, however, while he didn’t prove to be as incisive as some of the fast bowlers of his era, he was an out-and-out workhorse, who could bowl with steam for overs on end, without showing any signs of tiring.

It is important to note that 13 of Wahab’s 27 Tests were played on the placid tracks of Asia, which offer minimal support for fast bowlers. Yet, he took 43 out of his 83 wickets in these soul-sapping conditions, with his most memorable hour coming against England in the UAE in 2015, where he bowled excruciatingly long spells in the desert heat, taking 4 for 66 in the first innings of the 2nd Test, claiming the vital scalps of Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, and a well set Joe Root.

That was when Wahab the enforcer was at his devastating best with the red ball, and deservedly won the Player of the Match award, courtesy of his blistering spell that ultimately allowed Pakistan to win a high stakes Test.

In T20 internationals, Wahab was probably at his poorest, averaging less than a wicket per innings, which by his standards is well below par.

He did have his moments though, most notably in 2020 when he helped Pakistan draw a T20I Series vs England by virtue of some phenomenal death bowling, having removed the dangerous Moeen Ali in the penultimate over of the game.

Furthermore, Wahab, over the course of eight completed PSL seasons, is still the most successful bowler in the competition with 113 poles at an economy of 7.79, also having had the honour of getting to captain Peshawar Zalmi once age and fitness had caught up with Daren Sammy.

Wahab Riaz in a press conference for Peshawar Zalmi.— File Photo
Wahab Riaz in a press conference for Peshawar Zalmi.— File Photo

You could say that Wahab did not do justice to his talent in the shortest format in a Pakistan shirt, but he has managed to remain a sought after commodity in the franchise T20 circuit, which lays testament to the evident value that he adds.

Now then, on to ODI cricket, which is undoubtedly Wahab’s favourite format; one in which he has taken the most wickets, striking once every six overs with an economy of under 6.

He made his international debut in 50-over cricket as well, on a dead Sheikhupura surface against Zimbabwe in 2008, extracting a fair bit of bounce and pace to end up with figures of 2/19 in 8 overs.

He might have made an impression early on, but he had to wait three full years to finally make his mark in the format, on the grandest stage of all — the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

Wahab was not originally pencilled in as a starter for Pakistan in this edition of the World Cup, having played a solitary game against Canada early on, and made his way into the first string team in the latter half of the group stage, owing his inclusion to Ross Taylor more than anyone, who had blown an aged (but still very potent) Shoaib Akhtar to shreds in Pakistan’s previous fixture.

The somewhat inexperienced left-armer impressed with a string of decent performances, taking a wicket each against Zimbabwe and Australia in the remaining group games, both resulting in victories for Shahid Afridi-led Pakistan.

The win against Australia was particularly noteworthy, as it ended a 34-match unbeaten streak for Ricky Ponting’s men, dating all the way back to 1999, when Australia were defeated by none other than Pakistan.

Wahab went wicketless in the quarterfinal, but came up trumps in the semi-final vs India in Mohali, albeit in a losing cause, with what resulted in his only five-wicket haul in ODI cricket, across 90 innings.

He trapped Virender Sehwag LBW to kick things off, which in the context of the game was a much-needed breakthrough, considering Sehwag had scored 38 runs in 24 deliveries, before being dismissed on the 25th.

His next victim was a young Virat Kohli, and what followed was perhaps one of the most swashbuckling World Cup dismissals by a Pakistani bowler ever. A reverse swinging, toe-crusher of a yorker cleaned up the in-form Yuvraj Singh, who was also the eventual Player of the Tournament.

It was a seething delivery bowled at a rapid pace, which from the looks of it would have taken Yuvraj a good month to read, undone cerebrally by the hoop on offer. India’s star performer was bamboozled, sent back to the pavilion for a golden duck, having had his stumps disturbed by a pumped-up Wahab, who had given Pakistan fans a magic moment that is etched in their collective memories to date.

Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz celebrates the wicket of Yuvraj Singh (R) during their ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 semi-final match in Mohali March 30, 2011. — Reuters
Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz celebrates the wicket of Yuvraj Singh (R) during their ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 semi-final match in Mohali March 30, 2011. — Reuters

The wickets of MS Dhoni and Zaheer Khan ensured that Wahab finished his quota with figures of 5/46, but that was not enough to take Pakistan to the final, which meant that the express pacer would have to wait four long years to have another crack at cricket’s most coveted trophy.

Little would he have known that he would finish the 2015 World Cup campaign as Pakistan’s most valuable player, let alone a bowler.

Pakistan had travelled to Australia and New Zealand with arguably one of their weakest ever World Cup squads, losing Mohammad Hafeez to injury, and Saeed Ajmal to an ICC ruling that deemed his action illegal. Misbah-ul-Haq was without two of his key match-winners, and there was a massive void to fill in terms of star power.

Up stepped Wahab, delivering 16 wickets in 7 games at an average of 23, and 83 crucial runs in 6 innings at an average of 20.75, including an unbeaten half-century vs Zimbabwe which essentially protected Pakistan from early World Cup blues, and a potential group stage exit.

The Men in Green found themselves reeling at 5 down for 127 in the 34th over of the innings when out walked Wahab to score one of Pakistan’s most treasured rearguard knocks in World Cup cricket, whacking 54 runs off just 46 deliveries, consequently steering his country to a fighting total of 235 runs.

The Lahore speedster wasn’t done yet, as he went on to rack up 4 wickets for just 45 runs with the ball in hand, securing a 20-run victory for his nation, and becoming the only Pakistani in history to score a fifty and take 4 wickets in a World Cup match, in the process.

That is not what we remember Wahab for, however, when we jog our memories back to the 2015 World Cup. Pakistan’s frontline seamer Mohammad Irfan was out injured for the all-important quarter-final vs hosts Australia in Adelaide, and after opting to bat first, Misbah’s unit folded for a paltry 213 runs, leaving an awful lot to do for the bowlers.

This was the moment when Wahab, the now-experienced left-arm pacer from Punjab, captured the imagination of cricket watchers from all across the globe. Many amongst the Australian crowd, at the start of the second innings, would have predicted a comfortable chase for the home team, which turned out to be ‘anything but’.

Wahab had Australian batters dancing on their toes, as he bowled with serious heat in what was a bumper barrage for the ages. David Warner was baited into holing one to the third man fielder, whereas Michael Clarke was roughed up by a short ball which the Australian captain was probably glad to have not survived, judging by his late reflexes in the face of bone-shaking fury.

All of a sudden, Australia were 3 down for just 59, and what ensued was a battle which is now part of World Cup lore, clips of which circulate on social media on an annual, and sometimes biannual cadence.

The 2015 World Cup is remembered for a lot of things, but none of those things are quite as enthralling as Wahab’s breathtaking spell vs Shane Watson. It was an onslaught of chin music, and not just any chin music — heavy metal rock and roll chin music.

Pakistani cricketer Wahab Riaz (L) reacts after bowling to Australian batsman Shane Watson during the 2015 Cricket World Cup quarter-final match between Australia and Pakistan in Adelaide on March 20, 2015 ─ AFP/File Photo
Pakistani cricketer Wahab Riaz (L) reacts after bowling to Australian batsman Shane Watson during the 2015 Cricket World Cup quarter-final match between Australia and Pakistan in Adelaide on March 20, 2015 ─ AFP/File Photo

Every time you watch highlights of that storm of bouncers delivered by Wahab, you are forced to doff your hat to Shane Watson’s ducking ability, as copping one of those bad boys on his helmet could have resulted in a sure-shot concussion.

It was one ripsnorter after another, which had Watson in a never-ending body spasm, who also had to deal with a red hot Wahab clapping incessantly in his face, riling him on after having received a sledge or three by Watson himself when he was having a bat in the innings gone by.

The competitive nature of the duel, particularly Wahab’s boisterous energy, made for impeccable viewing, and the narrative could have been enhanced significantly had Rahat Ali held on to the top edge that came off Watson’s bat — a wicket which Wahab was robbed of, and one which he thoroughly deserved.

Alas, it was not to be for Pakistan’s lone warrior, as Watson had the last laugh, hitting the winning runs to end yet another World Cup dream for Pakistan, with their standout performer left in tears.

It was not the last World Cup Wahab would feature in as he went on to create shockwaves in the media when he replaced Junaid Khan in Pakistan’s 2019 World Cup squad, literally at the eleventh hour, after not having featured for the national team since 2017.

His inclusion drew some criticism as well, and many thought that his best days were behind him. If only they had known that World Cups bring out the absolute best in Wahab, who once again did not disappoint.

Eleven batters fell prey to Wahab’s left-arm pace across eight innings, as the veteran seamer delivered blows at critical junctures, which often helped sway the game in Pakistan’s favour, particularly in the wins against England and South Africa.

He nearly pulled off a heist vs Australia as well, scoring a quickfire 45, once again proving to the world that he was more than just a handy batter.

His lasting memory from what turned out to be his final World Cup campaign came in the game against Afghanistan at Headingley, in which he first recorded figures of 2/29, before doubling up that performance with a heroic batting effort, that too with a broken finger, slog-sweeping the mighty Rashid Khan for a maximum.

In this file photo, Wahab Riaz celebrates after the dismissal of Afghanistan’s Mohammad Nabi during the 2019 World Cup group stage match between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Headingley in Leeds. ─ AFP/File
In this file photo, Wahab Riaz celebrates after the dismissal of Afghanistan’s Mohammad Nabi during the 2019 World Cup group stage match between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Headingley in Leeds. ─ AFP/File

That six titled what was an extremely tight game in Pakistan’s favour, as Wahab took his team home alongside Imad Wasim, not out on 15, having once again played his part by seizing the moment when the chips were down.

He may not have played a pivotal role for Pakistan in the 2019 World Cup, but he did manage to plug a plethora of holes in Sarfaraz’s team, making sure that it was able to compete at the highest level, against the best in the world.

Pakistan missed out on a semi-final berth due to a poor net run rate, which brought about a premature end to Wahab’s poignant love affair with the 50-over World Cup.

While he could never lay his hands on that dignified trophy, he did end his journey as the second-highest wicket-taker for Pakistan in the tournament, having stockpiled 35 scalps across 20 innings, at an average of 26.45, which for the record is more than 8 runs less than his career average in ODI cricket.

The only bowler ahead of Wahab in World Cup cricket is the legendary Wasim Akram, who managed 55 dismissals in 36 innings, at an average of 23.83, which speaks volumes, really.

So what exactly is Wahab Riaz’s legacy, you ask? Wahab was an inconsistent cricketer who had extremely high levels of commitment, on both good days and bad, and spent every single ounce of his energy in contribution to the national cause.

His execution may not have always been on point, but he left it all out on the field every time he played for Pakistan and felt immense pride with respect to representing his nation on the international stage.

You can tell how much it meant to him to play for his beloved country when you watch the video of him choking up whilst announcing his retirement in a recent press conference.

Wahab wore his heart on his sleeve every time he took the field, and even though he will not go down as a great of the game, he will certainly be remembered as someone who always turned up for Pakistan on the big stage and gave it absolutely everything.

He could also perhaps be viewed as a World Cup hero who tragically was never bestowed with the glory of being crowned as a world champion.

A career full of crests and troughs, Wahab’s services to Pakistan cricket must be celebrated for what they were … a cacophony of beats both scintillating and pedestrian, depending on the day and occasion, which if nothing else, kept spectators completely captivated in the midst of high-intensity action.

Some franchise cricket awaits the 38-year-old fast bowler before he hangs his boots for good, who may well even have a future holding public office, given his recent exploits in the provincial government of Punjab as caretaker sports minister.

Time shall reveal whether Wahab remains associated with the game in future, but what is certain is that it sure as hell could benefit from his expertise and experience.

Go well in retirement Vicky, and thanks for the entertainment.

The author is a former IT consultant who currently works as a cricket correspondent and video content lead at Grassroots Cricket in addition to producing podcasts with renowned cricket journalist Jarrod Kimber, making frequent appearances on ABN news as a cricket expert and doing voiceovers and hosting Twitter spaces for GAME Sports Management. He tweets at @DeafMango