A ball whistled past Shane Watson's ears. He could hear the screeching sound and smell leather as the ball barely missed the grille of his helmet and went through to the keeper. Watson seemed dizzy, nervous and dumbfounded. His swagger and long strides forward were missing as he hung back behind the popping crease awaiting another perfume ball. As his eyes adjusted to the Adelaide Oval ground and the cheering crowd, he could see a fiery face, smiling, clapping and encouraging him. No, it wasn't his teammate at the non-striker's end.
It was Wahab Riaz, that monstrous, merciless fast bowler who was running in to smash his head in.
On another day, Riaz would be spraying the ball around, conceding a number of wides and going for over six an over. But on that day, he was fired up. He wasn't fired up the moment he entered the quarter-final match of the 2015 World Cup. He was provoked by Mitchell Starc's taunt when he came out to bat. That anger seeped into his bowling and Riaz was bowling corkers at stunning pace, leaving the Aussies clutching at thin air.
It was some sight. A fast bowler running in, blood boiling and his muscular shoulders itching to land the ball in his own half and threaten the batsman's head; there is no better sight in cricket.
On that day, Riaz epitomised the mindset of every quick bowler that ever played cricket. Fast bowlers were designed to be angry. They were devised to invoke fear in the batsman's mind. And there, on that day, Riaz was unleashing the fury of all stored up vengeance on the hapless Watson.
But since that eventful match, the terrifying blood-seeking Riaz had gone missing. In 25 ODIs since then, he has just 25 wickets at an average of 47.08 and an economy almost touching six per over.
This has been the story of Riaz's career. He made a scintillating start to his Test career grabbing a five-wicket haul on debut at The Oval in 2010 where he scythed through the cream of England’s top order with his raw pace. But since then, he has taken just one five-wicket haul in Test cricket in seven years.
The seamer has been a symbol of inconsistency and has personified every other bowler out there whose talent remains unfulfilled. Riaz's isn't a case of Pakistan having a number of options in the squad over the years. In fact, if they had many more heads to scout through, Riaz wouldn't have played 26 Tests to date. While injuries have played a role in Riaz's stop-start career, he hasn't made use of the opportunities that have come his way over the years.
A Test record of 83 wickets in 26 Tests at an average of 33.53 does not do justice to his ability as a quick bowler.
Riaz being selected in the Pakistan squad for the Sri Lankan Tests brought with it huge uproar and he seemed to justify that hullabaloo when he ran in and missed his run-up five consecutive times at Dubai during the second Test. Mickey Arthur looked furious while the skipper, Sarfraz Ahmed, looked on in disbelief.
Wahab Riaz misses his run-up " FIVE TIMES " in a row
— Ahsan. 🇵🇰 (@iPakistaniLAD) October 7, 2017
Wahab Riaz's 19 over lasted 7Mins&30Secs.Thats Twice more time than Rohit Sharma spent on the crease against Amir from 2016to2017😂😂@ImRo45
— Hasan Raza (@hrjaf) October 8, 2017
This was an international bowler with close to seven years of experience at this level, running in as though he had forgotten how to bowl. Interestingly, this wasn't something new. He has had issues with no balls in the past, delivering as many as 98 in 16 Tests in 2014.
But when he ran in to bowl in the second innings of the day-night Test, there appeared to be a spring in his stride, and sure enough with his first ball he had Sri Lanka's centurion in the first innings, Dimuth Karunaratne, chopping onto the stumps. In the next over, he delivered a cracker of a bouncer to debutant Sadeera Samarawickrama, who pulled at it feebly and edged through to Sarfraz.
With the day almost ending, Riaz ran in and used his extra pace and zip to angle one into Dinesh Chandimal's pads and trap him in front to leave Sri Lanka at 34/5 at stumps on Day 3.
Fiery spell by Wahab Riaz, Sri Lanka 34/5 in second innings, lead 254, get remaining wickets in 40/50 runs & comeback with solid batting.
— Faizan Lakhani (@faizanlakhani) October 8, 2017
It wasn't a game-changing spell by any stretch of the imagination. Sri Lanka still managed to set Pakistan a 300-plus target. Pakistan may not win or even draw the Test match, but what it revealed is the sort of mindset Pakistan's mercurial fast bowler carries. If the same Riaz had turned up in the first innings, Sri Lanka wouldn't have run away with the game. The jeers that he faced from Twitterati, media, fans and coaching staff spurred him on the next time he came in to bowl.
Riaz is no Mohammad Amir. He is no Mohammad Abbas either. But what he has is this innate ability to charge up a game and bring that competitive spirit in much akin to the most fearsome Pakistan fast bowlers. Remember his fiery spell against India in the 2011 World Cup? Even when the Indians carted around every other bowler, Riaz remained unscathed and picked up a five-for. Although yet again in a losing cause, that fire in his belly is something Pakistan cherishes. Over the years, there has been talk of him going backward in terms of achievements, but he quashes all such rumours.
“In my nine years I have seen ups and downs, but I admit there is a lack consistency,” Wahab Riaz had said after the 3rd day's play at Dubai as quoted by Wisden, “And then competition also comes in the shape of new bowlers. They have the ability to seam and swing. I have learnt a lot and will learn more and more. I will be better and better, but the conception that I am in reverse gear is not correct.”
So what makes him threatening? Is he worthy of being picked in the Pakistan squad? A mere glance at his numbers and you are more than likely to blurt out a big 'no’, but Riaz isn't the everyday fast bowler who runs in and bowls line and length stuff all day long.
He is your Mitchell Johnson of 2013 that wrecked England in the Ashes or the Kagiso Rabada that left England spellbound at Centurion last year.
He is a bull — one who when charged up, demolishes the opposition in the blink of an eye. He might disappoint his captain, infuriate his teammate or upset the coach, but on his day, he is a beast. A beast that roars, fights, wounds and wins over the enemy.
The question is how do you charge this bull up? Sarfraz seems to know the trick and if he does, Pakistan have finally unlocked the demon in Riaz. "He’s a better bowler than a two-three wickets guy," Waqar Younis had said of Riaz once.
That is what the left-arm seamer will look to correct in the next part of his career. He has pledged himself to all three formats at the moment and if he can steam in and bowl with purpose, there is no reason why the second half of his career cannot turn out much better.