Earlier this year in February, I officially retired as a fast bowler. More accurately, I stopped publicly calling myself a fast bowler as I had done whenever asked what it was I did from about the age of 12 onwards. I was playing a game in Karachi for a club a few friends have set up, my first game of any kind in almost a year. I was saved until the 13th over (of a 20-over innings), or what we might call the (2007) Umar Gul stretch of a Twenty20. Bowl fast yorkers, keep runs down, the unspoken commandment. Wickets, I self-advised, get wickets.
It was a beautiful morning, deep clouds passing by overhead, drizzling on us occasionally and the kind of Saturday in which everything about Karachi - or any city unused to rain - feels light, like home, and cricket merely the start of a day of homeliness; a nice brunch later, some tea, cigarettes and an evening’s spill into cricket talk.
I had turned 36 months earlier and woke up that morning exactly the opposite of what was described (by Christian Ryan) to be Jeff Thomson’s ideal state for a day of fast bowling: I was cheery, but tight (as opposed to cranky and loose) and creased, like an old, crumpled piece of paper that has been straightened open but not smoothed out.
I bowled three wides down the leg-side, unable to control the drift (a career leitmotif this), one outswinger that was so floaty it could’ve been an off-spinner’s arm ball and was hit for a couple of boundaries besides. My back felt coiled shut, fielding and a casual pre-match jog not opening me up. My run-up has never been long, smooth or particularly well-planned. Roughly 14 steps, a procession of shuffles turning into longer strides, a look down at the crease and whang. (I won’t describe my action except to say that when I saw it in photographs for the first time ever I was shocked at how ugly it was, how much it resembled Ata-ur-Rehman’s.)
This day I scuttled in, small, arrhythmic steps, not helped by boots too big, hamstrings too tight and feet too heavy. And I just didn’t feel any pace, because whatever level you play and speed you bowl at, bowling fast (or at least a little quicker than those assembled around you) is something you feel. On good days pace comes without strain and you are quicker than you think, the delivery itself a digestif to your action and follow-through. This day it didn’t happen. This day the time it took for the ball to get to the other end was a tangible measurement. I could look up from my follow-through and digest both what the batsman was planning to do and then do what he did do. None of my deceptive skid, none of the quick-arm hurry. At the end of the over, for the first time ever, I asked not to be given another, no doubt preempting my forced exit from the attack anyway.
I realised then that I could no longer call myself a fast bowler. I could get fitter, do some yoga to keep looser, bowl more regularly, find a quicker pitch, and in a couple of weeks get some rhythm going. But at 36, the pace I had at 16, or 18, or even 26, was long gone. It had gone gradually but it felt as if all of it went in one go in that one over. It was an incredibly melancholic moment because understanding that you can no longer bowl fast is like a compelled migration, as wrenching as leaving home for another country except that it has imposed an exile - or maybe tyranny - of age upon you. You leave something behind, something that, over time, will come to seem better than it ever was; or, in this case, quicker than it ever was.
To not bowl fast anymore was also to lose something of being Pakistani. Not everyone who is Pakistani and plays cricket is a fast bowler but as a Pakistani there feels no more natural a cricketing act than bowling fast. When I’ve asked Pakistani fast bowlers why they bowl fast, why they didn’t take up batting say, mostly they’ve looked a question back at me, without verbally asking it. Why are you asking? What do you even mean? It’s like asking the son of a doctor why he also became a doctor.
So I’m not sure why. It is the question that underpins the question that is always asked of Pakistan: Ask not how Pakistan keeps producing so many fast bowlers, ask why Pakistan bowls fast. I’m not sure but I’m pretty sure the question should be contemplated sociologically.
Many turned to bowling fast because Imran Khan did it. Imran began bowling fast because bowling in-slanting medium-pacers bored him and, he’ll have us believe, that there was some proud, warrior Pathan gene that compelled him to do it. Maybe. Then many more did because Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis did. And then Shoaib Akhtar, and years from now we’ll probably be saying the same of Junaid Khan and that can be packaged into a neat self-perpetuating myth about traditions and legacies.
I’ve always found it telling that around the time Imran really began his rise as fast bowler, cultural heroes in other Pakistan spheres started vanishing. Suddenly Imran wasn’t just a fast bowler. He was a chocolate boy hero of all women’s dreams. He was a pop star with the guitar and long hair. He was a fashion icon. He was an ambassador. He was, to use that absymal PR-ism, a soft image (which, given his political leanings now at least makes it funny). Without perhaps meaning to, he came to represent everything Zia-ul-Haq made you feel guilty about: a nightlife, a good time, sex. Kerry Packer’s ‘Big Boys Play at Night’ t-shirt was perfect on Imran. ‘Bowl fast, die young’ could’ve been equally so.
But it can’t be just Imran because that doesn’t even touch on the impact of tape ball cricket, itself rising as forcibly as a phenomenon as Imran at around the same time. Because to bowl fast with a taped-up tennis ball is to have power and emancipation. At the lowest - and thus most critical - developmental stage a tape ball is an uncomplicated weapon. Its bounce is not reactive and apologetic like that of a simple tennis or rubber ball. It means something. It is a threat, zipping off the road. And to bowl full with a little bit of tape peeled off on one side to generate late reverse is one of life’s great discoveries, up there with beginning to walk, having sex and moving into your own place. It is in this unsupervised juvenile center that you begin to understand fast bowling as a kaifiyat, a condition of the mind. The irony is that tape ball cricket emerged in Karachi mostly to counter the rule of the finger bowler on the street circuit (the tennis ball equivalent of the carrom-ball spinner only more dangerous because a tennis ball can be squeezed and compressed before delivery).
So far we’ve been modern and a little ignorant, sidestepping everything that went before Imran. There must be some reason for Fazal Mahmood after all. Maybe he is the reason. Or Khan Mohammad, or Mahmood Hussain, or the first two prominent Karachi quicks, Mohammad Munaf and Mohammad Farooq, the former a cult heartthrob of his day, the latter the quickest in the land. Or before them all, Shahabuddin, a terror on the Lahore club circuit who taught Abdul Hafeez Kardar how to play bouncers.
Even in the bad days Pakistan had teeth in Salim Altaf, who may not have had the pace but had the default setting right: right-arm, anti-establishment. What if concerns over Majid Khan’s action hadn’t turned him into a batsman? He loved being quick and bowling bouncers. And then, before we know it, we find ourselves back to Sarfraz Nawaz and Imran, now and the future. And - my apologies - we’re still no nearer to really knowing why.
Osman Samiuddin is a sports writer with The National and editor of The Nightwatchman. This is the first of a (hopefully) regular series on the fast bowlers of Pakistan