Pakistan’s Doosra

Abdur Rehman has become a key component of the Pakistani bowling line-up over the last fifteen months

Originally for Dawn.com

I must, humbly, admit that I was never a big fan of Abdur Rehman. Having grown up emulating the likes of Mushtaq Ahmed or been transfixed by the beauty of Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosras and Shane Warne’s flippers, Rehman just didn’t seem to make the cut. Maybe the sight of Sunil Joshi getting spanked over his head for massive sixes at the hands of Inzamam, or Aamir Sohail (with his indomitable chest-hair) making his way from between the stumps and the umpire to deliver the ball, contributed to the bias but it’s safe to say that left-arm spin never caught my fancy.

Watching Rehman from the stands in St Lucia in 2010, in the most painfully demoralising World Twenty20 semi-final didn’t change my perception either. And while he performed well against South Africa in the 2007 home series; routinely held up his end of the bargain in the T20s, he still appeared to be just another run-of-the-mill bowler who was riding the high tide of a few successful domestic stints, soon to disappear into oblivion.

That didn’t happen, of course, as the old chap kept chipping in with one or two wickets in every game and made a permanent position for himself in the limited-overs squad. Pakistan preferred to play the trio of Shahid Afridi, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez in most games but the addition of Rehman meant that the side almost always fared better. As the team began employing the ‘choke’ policy (which started in Younis Khan’s reign as captain) to good effect, Rehman proved crucial to the plan with his regular economy rate of under four runs per over.

Rehman’s stock ball, however, remained the golee – a flattish, skiddy, straight delivery; fired in at the fourth stump line; hard to get away but equally hard to get a wicket with, unless the batsmen loses his patience. In fact, thegolee became so effective that there came a time when the conservative captain-coach partnership of Afridi and Waqar Younis started to prefer Rehman over Ajmal in the playing eleven. A tactical blunder in my opinion, the policy remained in place until the loss at the hands of New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup, and served as one of the major reasons behind my prejudice against Rehman. Here was the management preferring their biggest wicket-taking option over a run-blocker when, Ajmal should have included in the team on merit and logic.

While Rehman had become a key component of the ODI side, his Test credentials remained unproven until Pakistan’s series against the West Indies. No longer the bowler of old, confined by the limitations of his limited-overs game, Rehman’s bowling had gained a freshness and creativity missing even in the reasonably successfulTest tour of New Zealand.

Maybe it was the confidence he had gained from becoming a permanent fixture in the Test side or the seemingly ‘weak’ opposition, but the ball was not just being fired in as usual. There was tempting flight on display as well as appreciative bounce, but more importantly, there was grip and turn. No longer was Rehman just bowling to dry out the runs and sneak in a wicket, but one could see him plotting the batsman’s demise as he drew them out and pushed them back with changes in pace and flight worthy of a true spinner.

The Carribean calypso was not just a flash in the pan as the veteran proved his worth once again in the solitary Test win against Sri Lanka, after having been dropped in the first Test in favour of three seamers. It was a tricky call, probably based on the traditional Pakistani obsession with pace and seemed like a noticeable deviance from the unassuming organisation that had become the hallmark Misbah-ul-Haq’s captaincy.

It is this organisation and planning – relying on a strong spin attack to strengthen a squad, which, barring Saeed Ajmal and Umar Akmal lacks any outstanding talent – is key to Pakistan cricket’s success in the last year and a half.

The traditionally ‘unpredictable’ Pakistan are no more an amalgamation of a few rapscallions – sparkling one day and fizzling out the other – but are a well thought-out puzzle that draws together to present an exhibition well worth the admission fee. Every piece of this puzzle has its part to play, and none in terms of importance are greater or smaller.

Abdur Rehman, as the second spinner, is one such piece. Like everyone else, he has found an indisputable niche in this team and has performed his duties to perfection. Almost in every innings, when a partnership starts brewing up and Ajmal’s patience starts to waver, Misbah turns to his second spinner for answers and Rehman obliges, almost always. The Sialkot Stallion is not just the team’s designated partnership-breaker; he also has an uncanny ability of dismissing the opposition’s star batsman. From Kumar Sangakarra to Kevin Pitersen, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shakib Al-Hasan and Jonathan Trott – all have fallen victim the left-armer. Rehman’s ability to get the scalp of well-settled batsmen is an enviable trait and one which has proved invaluable to Misbah, who is also among the rare breed of captains harbouring three quality spinners in the side since as successful spin partnerships remain a rarity in modern-day cricket.

Spinners work differently than fast bowlers. While fast bowlers generally remain unaffected by the nature of their partner’s style of bowling, hunting in pairs like a couple of hounds gaining strength from each blow inflicted by the other, a spinner’s effectiveness relies on the partner’s bowling style. Two similar-styled fast bowlers (Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie) can prove effective despite their similarities, but spinners of the same breed rarely perform at their peak when bowling together.

For Ajmal’s virtuosity to have its maximum glorifying effect, a hard working Rehman on the other end is essential. The last hour of the second Pakistan-England Test aside, the most compelling period of the match was the post-tea session on day two when England were threatening to run away with the game. Ajmal had proved ineffective and Misbah had persisted with Hafeez on the other end, disregarding the services of the ever-dependable Rehman.

When the old-gun was finally given a chance, the match turned on its head. Runs that had started to flow pre-tea were blocked out, Trott was bowled off an unplayable turner, and Ajmal at the other end returned to his destructive best. A cat and mouse game ensued, building breakneck amounts of pressure that despite the vastly different style of bowling was reminiscent of the two Ws toying with the opposition batsmen. The unrelenting Ajmal-Rehman partnership, just like in the final session of the Test, proved too much for the English top order as Pakistan clawed their way back into the game.

Rehman, with his inconspicuous nature, will never be the star attraction. His bowling will rarely outshine the artistry being dished out at the other end by Ajmal. Then again, he was never designed for it. Realising this ‘shortcoming’ and not looking for more could prove to be his biggest asset. It is time the man in the shadows was given his due share, for it is in his experienced hands that Pakistan may have found a left-arm spinner they can finally cherish.

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