Like many Pakistan cricket fairytales, this one too starts with a broken stump. About four years back, it was in the hilly terrain of village Matta in the Swat Valley that an indulgent Mamu was invited to watch his nephew bowl on a well-rolled pitch that had come up on the rocky bank of a cackling river for a tape-ball cricket game. That day, the speed-obsessed nephew ran in like the wind, splintering the wood behind the batsman. It was the moment the family was convinced that their boy was special and needed to be groomed by specialists.
The Mamu would convince his father who would decide to take the teenager to Pakistan Cricket Board’s Remote Area talent hunt trial in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Mardan city. The journey didn’t go as planned. The two-hour trek between mountains delayed their arrival at the ground. However, a considerate PCB scout gave the youngster a shot. The boy would whisper a ‘dua’ under his breath and give it his all. The speed gun showed 140 kph.
He would get shortlisted for the Stage 2 camp at Multan, where coaches would further refine his skills. On the final day, after weeks of training with the region’s fastest young jocks, he would face another speed test. The boy would again whisper a dua under his breath and give it his all. This time, the reading was 144 kph. Still, the boy from Swat Valley would remain one of the many, not even good enough to be part of the Pakistan U-19 team.
In a land blessed with perennial fast-bowling surplus, a mid-140 kph pacer doesn’t turn heads. But for a few die-hard pace nerds, no one would even call them fast bowlers. It was only now when the boy from Matta, while playing in the Pakistan Super League for Multan Sultans, shattered the stumps of the internationally-reputed power-hitter Iftikhar Ahmed with a 152.65 kph ball that recognition and stardom came his way. It was as sudden as one of his out-of-the-blue toe-crushing thunderbolts.
Finally, in conversations on stadium terraces, he wasn’t ‘this tall boy from Matta who bowls fast’. He was now Ihsanullah, just Ihsanullah. Even on his profile page on the PCB website, like those Brazilian footballers, he goes by the single name. If Pakistan has its way, his second name could well be ‘150 kph’.
Pace has given him identity and also all the modern-day digital trappings that come with fame. His celebration routine – after every wicket Ihsanullah fires an imaginary arrow, plucked from a quiver on his back – has inspired reels. In the last few weeks, he has been interviewed by popular cricket YouTubers – the Mamu story is from his chat with cricket statistician Mazhar Arshad. He is also a subject of memes. And in the ultimate digital salute, he also has a fake account, clearly a handiwork of a Pakistan speed fan since it is called ‘Ihsanullah.152.7’.
Later today as Multan Sultans plays the PSL final, Ihsanullah has the chance to realise a couple of dreams. At 21 wickets, he is just two short of current leader and Multan Sultans teammate Abbas Afridi, and wants to be the highest wicket- taker. His other big hope is to be PSL’s “tez tareen” bowler – translated as the fastest of this edition. Tearaways like Ihsanullah love the big stage. Chants from the terraces and millions watching on television can kick in the adrenaline inside an excitable young pacer. His teammates say, even a 160 kph ball is a possibility.
In his various online interviews, the newcomer, seemingly untouched by the PR machinery, shows the usual bravado and bluster of a cricketer equipped to terrorise batsmen. Since his PSL five-wicket haul, he has spoken about bowling faster than Umran Malik who clocked 157 kph during the last IPL, about making it to the Pakistan World Cup squad, making his debut against India, getting five wickets, and scalping Virat Kohli. He was asked the staple rapid-fire question: Which batsmen he fears the most? None, being the reply. Disclaimer: Ihsanullah is no Shoaib Akhtar, not yet. He is just a village boy thinking aloud, innocently voicing his dreams that he shares with others in his fast-bowling crazy nation.
The pundits and experts are drooling as well. Growing up, Ihsanullah’s pace guru was Waqar Younis. YouTube would facilitate his distance learning. Years later, he would meet his role model at a National Cricket Academy camp. Waqar would change his run-up, the update would add to his speed. In one of the many interviews, the Matta Express – that’s the working title his fans have given him – has narrated his second meeting with Waqar during the PSL. “He told me, ‘Beta, kabhi pace ko nahi chhodna (Son, never give up on pace)’.”
Former Pakistan captain Salman Butt, while assessing the new fast kid in pace town, is clear that those with speed should use it unabashedly. Butt can’t understand the overuse of slower ball variations by those blessed with pace. He is among the majority in Pakistan who want Ihsanullah to whisper a dua under his breath and give his all every time he runs in to bowl.
Rashid Latif, one among Pakistan cricket’s restrained voices of reason, spotted Ihsanullah much before the world. On his YouTube show, the host and Pakistan cricket’s old hand Dr Nauman Niaz recalls how some years back, Rashid, while watching the Kashmir Premier League, called him to say that he had seen a genuine fast bowler. Latif dissects the youngster’s 4-1-12-5 spell against Quetta Gladiators. “He has height plus his action makes it difficult for a batsman to judge the length. In the game, he bowled aage (up), peeche (back of a length), short, sub … game hi khatam kar diya (finished the game).”
Tough to counter
The action that Latif talks about also needs attention. The smooth approach to the crease and the power-packed loading is at the core of Ihsanullah’s bowling. Like a high-strung bow, the uncoiling of his hands and torso at the point of release makes him deceptive and also dangerously quick. It also helps him to lift the ball from a good length – the one delivery that sub-continent batsmen, used to playing on slow, low wickets, hate.
So how far is Ihsanullah from the Pakistan side? Mohammad Asif, arguably the wiliest and most skillful of pacers ever to play the game, uses the speed gun data to make his point. On a television show, he points that Haris Rauf’s pace is dropping in the PSL and he suggests that Ihshanullah can take his place. Batting great Mohammad Yusuf is also on the panel, but doesn’t quite agree.
Unlike the television studio, at Matta, the house is not divided. At Ihsanullah’s hometown, they appeal for his quick inclusion in the Pakistan team. In a ground report on Digital Pakistan, a reporter speaks to the pace sensation’s mamu, brother and a teammate. He also shows a roofless house with half-fallen walls. This is Ihshanullah’s home that got destroyed in the horrific floods that ran over Swat Valley last year. The family would lose their farmland too because of it. But still the family never compromised on cricket.
Mamu calls Matta’s star a role model for kids. But it’s his teammate who makes a vital point. “Yeh apne dum pe khela hai (He has relied on his own ability). We had heard that you get a chance in cricket by rishvat (bribe) or sifarish (recommendation), but this boy from Swat has made his place on his own,” he says proudly. Ihsanullah showed it was doable – by whispering a dua under the breath, and giving it his all.