It’s not the kind of serependipity you expect in Pakistan cricket. A fast bowler being transformed into a spinner, and him coming good. Few other nations in the cricket world after all have encouraged their youngsters to run in as fast as their legs can carry them and hurl thunderbolts with the same passion.
Karamat Ali too grew up dreaming of knocking batsmen’s heads and stumps off in that order. And the youngster too like many of his peers would try to emulate the feats of his fast-bowling heroes on TV while playing endless tape-ball cricket matches on the congested by-lanes of Lahore. The Pakistan U-19 star even insists on having begun his junior cricket career in 2006 with the sole goal of becoming his hometown’s most feared pacer. Fate, however, had other ideas and Ali would instead end up as a leg-spinner, a potent one at that, leading his country into the World Cup final solely with the trickery produced by his wrists. The unlikely transformation transpired on an unremarkable day at Lahore’s P&T Gymkhana ground. One that the 17-year-old remembers fondly.
“There were no spinners that day and my coach had already told me that with my height (five feet six inches) fast bowling would be a difficult thing to master. He told me to bowl spin and the first ball I bowled, I beat the batsman. Next ball, the same thing happened and since then, beating batsmen is something that I just love doing,” he says. Over the last three weeks, Ali’s not just beaten a lot of batsmen he has left many of them flummoxed and befuddled.
Though it might not compare with the joy of seeing fear in the batsmen’s eyes like many of his countrymen have in the past—and continue to do so—the youngster does insist on deriving a lot of joy by seeing his opponents in a state of absolute shock after having been undone by his guile.
“The transformation wasn’t all that easy. My idea of bowling spin was flighting the ball. I simply tossed it up and in a week’s time, batsmen were hammering me to all corners. It was here that my coach stepped in, telling me to economize my use of flight and at times think like a fast bowler. Try and work a batsmen out,” he recalls.
While he’s been a thorn in the opposition’s flesh througout the tournament, he reserved his best for England in the semi-final, even if he only finished with two victims. The first was with a regular leg-break, which pitched on middle and then broke away viciously, leaving batsman Ryan Higgins stranded miles down the wicket. Joe Clarke was next, bowled through the gap by a googly that would have put a smile on Mushtaq Ahmed’s face.
The third of five sons of an electrician with a small shop in one of Lahore’s bazaars, Ali dropped out of school in the eighth standard. His father was understandably displeased with his son’s decision. But luckily he found support from his mother.
Though it was the likes of Wasim and Waqar whose posters occupied Ali’s walls in his childhood, they have since been replaced by Shahid Afridi.
Lefties have a mind of their own, I’m a different kind of Haq: Imam
Imam-ul Haq laughs when that familiar question arrives. One of Pakistan’s biggest legends, the single-minded aggregator of runs renowned for his lazy elegance, Inzamam ul Haq, is Imam’s uncle. How big a role does the famous uncle play in his cricketing life?
“Its quite funny. Ninety per cent of people bring out my Chachu in their very first sentence to me. It is of course a very proud thing that he is my uncle. He does talk to me, but honestly, it is not like he assesses the way I play minutely,” he says. “He never talks to me about technique. He was always so calm and relaxed when he plays and is the same with me. The biggest lesson that he has taught me, is to not ease up. On 10 or on 100, you have to concentrate on the ball and do your job,” he says.
The bespectacled Imam, blessed with the same silken sense of timing as his uncle, is the second highest scorer of the U-19 World Cup. With 382 runs in six outings to his name, the 18-year-old Imam is the fulcrum of the Pakistan batting. He already has 1106 runs to his name in 28 international under-19 matches, and he is slowly navigating his way through First Class cricket.
However, it is Imam’s consistency at the World Cup that has fetched him praise. Whether it was his flowing 133 against Scotland, or a dogged 28 in the tense semi-final against England, one where he batted through the pain of a pulled hamstring, scoring runs is a constant for the boy from Lahore.
Son of a property dealer, Imam took to cricket only four years ago. In 2009, at the insistence of his father, he accompanied his elder brother to a cricket camp. Those two hours at a dusty Lahore ground were enough. “Earlier, I was more interested in studies, I love reading. But that day, I suddenly realized that I liked cricket too and I was pretty good with a bat in my hand,” he says. He started off, progressed gradually, and then found himself in the Pakistan U-19 team for the 2012 World Cup, aged just 16. Though he didn’t set the edition on fire, he says the experience has helped.
“Earlier, it was about hitting the ball hard, slashing away at anything outside the off-stump. For a while thing went to plan. But as the bowling got better, I started losing my wicket to such shots. I went back to my coaches, made some technical adjustments. The biggest was leaving well. After that, I played three First Class matches and playing against Mohammed Irfan, Umar Gul and Junaid Khan. It teaches you a lot. The more First Class you play, the learning increases,” he says.
Asked about whether he shares his uncle’s personality, Imam disagrees. “We are so completely different. I am a very desperate person. I just want to score no matter what. Chachu has always been calm, not really affected by things. Also lefties have a mind of their own, they don’t copy anyone and that’s why I am different. However, Inzaman chachu, having played international cricket for so long, he has some great friends who help me,” he says.
One such meeting with a great friend was instrumental in Imam’s development. “I met Saeed Anwar at my uncle’s house and I had nice chat with him. Anwar, a left-hander himself, spoke to me about my problem with playing spinners. He didn’t tell me anything complicated. He just told me to trust the shots that I was confident of pulling off and not manufacture any stroke,” he says.