Wahab Riaz, Pakistan’s brilliant fast bowler, sits down with Phil Walker to discuss the latest instalment in cricket’s grandest soap opera.
It takes no more than half a minute of our conversation with Pakistan’s charismatic left-armer Wahab Riaz to summon dark memories of what happened last time.
Riaz made his Test debut that summer, taking five first-innings wickets on debut at the Oval. An unloaded question about his recollections of that match draws a bashful smile and a look down at the tape recorder on the table. The implication is clear. No joy could be extracted from that win at the Oval, nor from any other aspect of that godforsaken tour. In the end, and the end is all we remember, everyone was sullied.
It would be astounding to think how far Pakistan have come since the summer of 2010 if it wasn’t entirely consistent with their story over history. Renewal flows from crisis as purely as the never-ending talent stream rolling from the hills of far-flung provinces onto the streets of Lahore and Karachi. They arrive here as the third-ranked Test team in the world, for a tour in which they will be guaranteed vociferous ‘home’ support, loaded with experience and sprinkled, as ever, with a dose of the unknown.
Riaz himself has been plying his particularly ferocious trade for Essex in Twenty20 cricket this summer and so hasn’t been a part of Pakistan’s pre-tour training camp, but the optimism is not misplaced when he talks of his side’s chances of beating England in their own country for the first time since 1996. He forms with Mohammad Amir, Sohail Khan and Imran Khan (not that one) the nucleus of a seriously good seam attack – supported by the most incisive wrist-spinner in the world in Yasir Shah and steered with debonair grace by the magisterial Misbah-ul-Haq.
“Right now we’ve got a good, experienced batting line-up and one that’s been performing really well for Pakistan in the last few years,” Riaz says, taking time out from a coaching session at a Chance to Shine event in east London. “From No.1 to No.7, everyone has scored a century and some have scored three or four each. They have played all over the world now in all conditions, so they know how to build their innings and coming over here early and getting used to the conditions – I think they will apply themselves really well.”
Should we expect a tasty series? “Being very honest,” he laughs, “it should be a tasty series. It will be really good if we win the first Test match and that can bring England fans and players under pressure, and that will bring much more excitement.”
It’s rare these days for a touring team to spend the best part of a month preparing for a Test series but Pakistan have been acclimatising over here since mid-June. They will have played 11 days of first-class cricket before the first of four Tests begins at Lord’s on July 14. It’s not quite what Misbah envisaged when he began his ultimately fruitless pursuit of a county contract for the first half of the summer, but it’s better preparation than many touring teams to these shores have enjoyed.
Riaz says it’s the Test series that Pakistan are here for. “It’s all about how focused as a Test team we are. Just coming early and getting used to the conditions will really help us in the Test matches. It’s not going to be easy to beat England in England but we know what capabilities we have as a team. We haven’t won a Test series here for so long. We want to win it here. That’s what we are here for now. Our main focus, our main aim, is to win this Test series.”
It may come as a surprise to hear that the five-day game is the priority for a team so often characterised for its short-form stylings, but Riaz has no doubt about the old lady’s primacy. “Test cricket is something,” he says. “It’s a very funny game. You never know what is gonna happen next. The first two sessions you could be dominating and suddenly after half an hour you lose all your wickets, just like that! Basically it’s the real cricket. That’s what it’s all about. The kind of cricket where your skills can be tested, your temperament is being tested, it shows how much you can take the pressure on.” Is it his favourite version of the game? “I love it, I love it!” he says, and then the pause. “At times I really love it… but at other times, if I have to bowl so long…”
It’s a mark of Pakistan’s attitude that Riaz – a fast bowler working in an age where his peers increasingly choose four-over spells over the toil of Tests – still leans towards the five-day game. “I look forward to playing the Test matches more. As a fast bowler it’s easier to play the T20s and the one-dayers, but in Test matches you always get a chance to make a comeback as a bowler, you can put on a good spell to put the other team under pressure. It’s a lovely game.”
Last time out, on those turgid slabs of misery in the UAE, Pakistan beat England 2-0, though the series itself was much tighter. In the first Test, England fell 25 runs short of an incredible win as the light deteriorated on the last day, before surrendering the second at the death (Cook: “We didn’t deserve to get out of jail”), and collapsing in the third.
Riaz was Man of the Match in the second Test for a series-changing spell on the third day that ripped out England’s middle order. “It was quite a healthy competition between the two teams because England played really well. From my perspective I still remember the day before [the spell]. They were batting really well, and hitting us all around the park, and then we had a meeting with [the then coach] Waqar Younis and he called us in and told us what we were doing wrong and what we could do better! And he really pumped me up, the way he used to do, and so when I went out I knew what my plans were, it was very clear, and it went my way. I suddenly changed the game.”
Game-changers. Pakistan’s story is laced with them. Holding the current crop together is a 42-year-old snooker fan (“It’s a thinking game”), the son of two teachers from the town of Mianwali in the agricultural Punjab north, part of the same Niazi Pashtun clan to which Imran Khan’s father belonged. Misbah-ul-Haq took an MBA at the Institute of Leadership and Management in Lahore, playing cricket in the gaps between studies and only becoming a serious concern in his mid-twenties. Thereafter he dominated domestic cricket.
Assuming the captaincy in the barren post-2010 landscape, and playing with a stronger hand for having missed that ugly tour, he injected fresh discipline and, with it, a degree of integrity back into a disfigured culture. Before the captaincy he averaged 33 from a handful of sporadic Tests spread across a decade. After taking the job, he averages 56 from 42 Tests, with 20 Test victories – the most by any Pakistani Test captain. He is the single most important figure in Pakistan cricket this century.
“I tell you!” says Riaz, “he’s the fittest guy in the Pakistan team! He is very strong. He never compromises with his fitness. He has built that belief, he has built that attitude, he has built that kind of energy about how capable we are. At times we don’t know when we are doing wrong, but then Misbah tells us to do something and it really works for us! So basically it’s a lot of experience behind him and he really takes the team up. He takes all the guys with him. That’s why he’s such a good leader and he’s got such a good record.”
Does he say much? Is he a big talker? A big Shakespeare orator, or just the odd word? “No, he’s not a big Shakespeare! He just comes in and tells us what we have to do, and what we should be doing. If somebody do wrong, he makes the other person realise in the funniest way, so they don’t get touched by that. He’s the kind of a captain who knows how to use each one of us.”
There was some talk that this may be a tour too far, but Riaz isn’t having any of it. “There’s no point in leaving the team when you are still performing really well and you are the fittest guy. We know that Misbah has performed really well in the last few years in the Test matches. We really wanted him to stay and as a team we never thought of losing him. And you can’t always believe what you read in the media. I don’t know whether it was right or wrong, that statement coming out in the news. It’s always fun, because sometimes out of Pakistan you hear that something has happened when it hasn’t happened! It’s all about what the media are saying. They say a lot of things!”
They sure do. But that’s the thing with Pakistan. There’s never too much to say.