Mohammad Nawaz trying to make a name for himself and Pakistan’s tribe of left-arm spinners

Beside the thin fence that cuts off the gallery from the ground at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, a group of fans are fervidly shouting the name of Mohammad Nawaz, who is being interviewed. Nawaz gestures to them to remain calm and he would talk to them after the interview is over. Nawaz kept his word, met the fans, thanked them with folded arms and waved a warm goodbye. One of the fans had a request: “Nawaz bhai, agli match mein bhi Virat aur Rohit ka wicket lena hain. (In the next game you must dismiss Virat and Rohit) ” Nawaz just turned back and nodded his head with a gracious smile.

After three wickets in both games, and showing the courage in the last over against India, Nawaz’s fanfare has swelled. “Usme himmat hain,” is a common refrain, with “Woh Pathan hain, usme dum hain,” references too. It’s the sort of glint-eye admiration the fans bestow on their fast bowlers, the sultans of swing and merchants of raw pace, or leg-break wizards or that off-break virtuoso, Saqlain Mushtaq, or the batsmen of gliding feet and whirling wrists. The finest of Pakistan cricketers convey in viewers a conviction that they are unreal artistes from an unreal world. A left-arm spinner is more the salt of the earth, humdrum, human even. They don’t stay in the mind or in the Pakistan team for long. In Tests, only Iqbal Qasim has played 50 games (and snared 171 wickets). In ODIs, no Pakistani left-arm spinner has picked up 100 wickets — part-timer Aamir Sohail helms the list with eighty five sticks.

The currency of left-arm spin is not much in circulation in the country. Most of them are converts—the lefties who dreamt to be the next Wasim Akram, hampered by injuries or lack of talent or their destinies twisted by chance encounters or events. As it was to Nawaz. A boy from Rawalpindi, his childhood imagination was fired by the exploits of local heroes Shoaib Akhtar, who made his debut for Pakistan when Nawaz was three. “Hamare bachpan mein woh hi tha hero, aur bachpan sein mujhe cricketer banena ki shauk tha (He was our hero when we were growing up and we wanted to be like him),” he tells the Youtube channel CricinMood.

Pakistan’s Mohammad Nawaz, front, celebrates after taking the wicket of Hong Kong’s Kinchit Shah during the T20 cricket match of Asia Cup between Pakistan and Hong Kong, in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

But he progressed in the trail of another luminous cricketer from Rawalpindi, all-rounder Azhar Mahmood. “Big shots came to me naturally but I always thought of myself as a fast bowler,” he says. He was not express quick, but medium pace. But one day during an U-14 game, his club’s usual spinner got injured and FG Boys School coach Ameer Akbar asked him to bowl a couple of overs of spin on a deteriorating surface. Much to the coach’s surprise, he not only purchased turn and bagged wickets, but also possessed a naturally-fluent action. But the coach couldn’t force him to switch, because he was determined to be a fast bowler. So he used a trick. “I made him bat more in the nets, and when he got tired I would ask him to bowl spin. After sometime, he quit medium pace and spent more time on spin bowling,” Ameer told Opoyi Sports.

You could comprehend what the school coach saw in him. Nawaz did not have the indomitable frame to an outright quick. But he had a natural left-arm spinner’s action, uncluttered and rhythmic, with a smooth transition from the load-up to the release.

Primarily, he has two chief variations—the away-spinner that is his stock ball and the arm-ball, both released without altering his action or release points. He floats the orthodox ball, usually from wide of the crease, to exaggerate the drift. The arm-ball is flatter and quicker, but often delivered from wide of the crease as well. He has few other variations—and in plain-sight, he is no magician or mystery-peddler. In his own description, “a simple bowler.” “ I work with my basics,” he once said in a PCB video.

His spells against India were instructive. In his first over, he pursued a flatter trajectory, knowing well that Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were plotting to target him after the pace barrage-induced choke. Then Rohit slog-swept him for a six. But rather than looking to bowl all the more flatter to cramp him for room, he tossed up the last ball, almost inviting him to have another crack. Rohit was lulled into a folly, as he looked to smear him over long-off. But this ball was slower, and turned a fraction more than Rohit had gauged.

A little later, Kohli committed the same error of judgement. The floated ball outside the off-stump dollied like a freebie, but the sudden dip resulted in Kohli not fully to the pitch of the ball and miscuing the shot to long-off. A flat and quick one, much like the brand Ravindra Jadeja trades in this format, accounted for Jadeja in the first ball of the last over. The over ended heartbreakingly for him when Hardik Pandya hammered him for a six to wrap up a thrilling chase. But Nawaz remained unshaken.

He has famously defended six runs for Quetta Gladiators against Peshawar Zalmi in a playoff game in the 2017 PSL game. Five runs were taken off his first three balls, before he dismissed Chris Jordan and nailed inch-perfect yorkers with a wet-ball for two dot balls that resulted in run outs.

Setbacks are nothing new for him. In 2017, Nawaz was suspended for two months after admitting to the charge of failing to report a suspect approach by a bookmaker in Pakistan Super League.

He was devastated, but he married a diagnostic radiographer Izdihaar who lives in South Africa of Saudi Arabia descent next year. Slowly, his cricketing life returned to track as he made his way to the Pakistan team in 2019.

Three years later, he is living up to the performing-in-big-games reputation.

He is the face of Pakistan’s renaissance in the tournament, and the Pakistan that India would encounter on Sunday would be very different to the one they had edged out last Sunday. Emboldened by the revival of Mohammad Rizwan, the continuing upward graph of Naseem Shah and Shahnawaz Dahani, the emergence of a new match-winner in Nawaz, who along with Shadab Khan would forge a mean spin-pair, Pakistan would be a different beast. And Nawaz would be hoping to grant the wish of his fans. That is to get Kolhi and Rohit out. Perhaps, the most dangerous of India’s batsmen too, Suryakumar Yadav. And in the process, he might be breathing life into unfashionable art in the land of Sultans of swing and merchants of pace and leg-break wizards.

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