Cricket World Cup: Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf, Shadab Khan – Pakistan’s bowling guns searching for form before India game

Couple of days ago, former Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi called his son-in-law Shaheen Shah Afridi. Shaheen has bled runs in the last couple of games, looked off-pace, off-kilter, and out of sorts. Pakistan has been fretting. The rest of the cricketing world has been puzzled. What has happened to the man who knocks out oppositions in the first round that he has been carted around by Shubman Gill in the Asia Cup, and by Kusal Mendis in this World Cup?

Afridi tells Samaa TV that he urged Shaheen to ask the performance analyst for his bowling videos. That the lengths and lines have been wrong – “not hit hard lengths,” and “too much room”. And Afridi says, Shaheen agreed with the assessment, and has promised that he would sort himself out in the couple of days leading up to the India game in Ahmedabad. In the studio, Mohammad Yousuf and Mushtaq Ahmed nodded sagely. A day before the game, in Ahmedabad, skipper Babar Azam would remind a questioner about how Shaheen is a “champion and a big-match player”.

All that is true, of course, and it would be silly of anyone to write Shaheen off – all it needs is a couple of near 140kmph rapid balls in the first over that just about tilt back into the right-handers and it can change.

For a team whose batting has often filled up angry airtime on the zany world that is Pakistan’s YouTube, the bowling is providing fodder these days. It’s a surprising turnaround. Usually, the batsmen get cussed at, and most, including Babar, have a less-than-flattering internet moniker – but not Haris Rauf, not Naseem Shah, not Shaheen Afridi. Not even Shadab Khan. Even the highly combustible YouTubers know where to draw the line. But that’s changing now.

A month ago, the India-Pak game had a different feel to it. Shaheen and Pakistan were on the ascendancy. India were fretting about Jasprit Bumrah’s comeback, lack of a quality third seamer, lack of a genuine off-spinner – in search of balance, they had seemingly lost their poise. The India-Pakistan match, as did the World Cup at large, seemed as if it would be about India’s batsman vs opposition bowlers.

The Indian bowling unit now looks more rounded – if they get the selection right and not panic and reach out for ‘balance’. More so after Bumrah’s fine comeback, Ravichandran Ashwin’s recall, and match-winning contributions from Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja. Mohammed Siraj is on song, and Jadeja, who had looked out of sorts not that long ago, is beginning to find his metre. Hardik Pandya can force OTT platforms to create bowling packages around him as he did when he knocked out Babar with a riveting nip-backer in the Asia Cup.

Suddenly, India, thanks to their bowlers, look more potent. If the pitch helps spinners, they have the men to sew up the middle overs. If it helps seam movement a bit, they have the pacers to tighten the screws. India’s weakness can re-emerge on a flat track, a paata. Then, old doubts can surface.

Pak look for answers

Festive offer

But, that’s for later. Right now, the tables have turned. The Indian bowling is at a level where Pakistan’s was before the Asia Cup. Pakistan are mirroring India’s recent-past woes.

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Prior to touching down in Sri Lanka for the Asia Cup, and particularly after the last T20 World Cup, Pakistan had seemingly owned their past: menacing new-ball bowlers, a smart leg-spinner for the middle overs, the pacers who know the soul of the old ball. It was the batsmen who sometimes played as if they weren’t in tune with modern-day white-ball cricket’s demands but as ever, with this team, they would somehow fall in line at the right time.

Individually, Pakistan still have a couple of seamers in Haris Rauf and Shaheen, who can tap into the junoon that lurks inside them. At the 2015 World Cup, Waqar Younis was sitting in the media box, fiddling with his phone, and giving life-advice to a young Pakistani lady journalist. The match was meandering on when Wahab Riaz bowled a couple of pearlers and Waqar jerked up, turned to the journalist, and announced: “On hai!” On hai is the moment when Pakistan bowlers snap out of their reverie to conjure something that didn’t seem possible until that second. As if they enter a portal where time and space is warped, and strange things began to happen. Waqar himself has had several ‘On hai” moments.

A month ago, they didn’t have to hope but would march on to the field knowing they could turn it on when they wanted. Now not just Shaheen, Rauf seems to be off-boil, Shadab, the leg spinner, is searching for his lost form.

Not many would have predicted the turnaround in fortunes, but suddenly Pakistan’s bowlers are yearning for their ‘on’ moment. India have, by quirk of events and last-instant u-turns as they did with Ashwin, suddenly find themselves already on and ready. Will this be the new normal or Ahmedabad, the city where their former board chairman didn’t want this game to take place, kick-start old truths?

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