Wahab Riaz visits his two-day old daughter at the hospital. She is bleeding internally and has problems in the lungs. The doctor says she has to be put on the ventilator and tells Wahab to be prepared for the worst. Wahab walks towards the newborn and whispers to her: “Meri aukaat itni hi hai. Mujh-sey jo ho saka, mein kar diya. Baaki Allah key haath mey hai (This is all I can do, I have done what I could, rest is up to God).” He then tells the startled doctor to put the ventilator on. Are you sure, they ask? “Yes”. For the next 6 days, she is on the ventilator. Eyes taped. One day he tells her, “Open your eyes, I want to see you.” She does. “Fully, properly”. She does again. “Ab so jao”. She does.
“I have videos of that interaction,” Wahab says in a remarkable television interview with Samina Peerzada. He is in control and speaks matter-of-factly, as if reading out a Wikipedia entry about his life. He prepares his wife for the worst, but she obviously resists even the thought. On the eighth day, the baby breathes normally and a day later, she is conscious. Next day, Wahab flies to India for a cricket tour. A couple of days later, he learns she isn’t passing stool and could be paralysed for life. She beats the doctor’s diagnosis, turns out to be healthy, and now is his life. Wahab’s Twitter feed has heart-warming videos of her — feeding goats, doing this and that. For a father who has been through all that, what is a piffling cricket game?
Wahab dawdles to his fielding position in Taunton. He walks like a schoolboy, short dragging steps, hands hanging loosely by his hips and head down. Captain Sarfaraz Ahmed calls him to admonish him for bowling on the legs of David Warner. He gestures that the ball should be coming in from off stump. Wahab nods and resumes his childish gait. “Koi masla nahi, agle over mey wicket pakki (No problem, next over wicket for sure),” yells someone from the crowd. Wahab smiles. Next over, he kicks up a ball from back of a length, startles Aaron Finch into a poke, but Asif Ali drops it at first slip. “Koi masla nahi,” screams the same man. Wahab doesn’t smile this time.
Masla toh hai — you cannot unsee the problem. There is something about his cricket that makes him one of those about whom you aren’t sure when they are switched on or not. He could shock the living daylights of batsmen with snarling bouncers, like he did famously to Shane Watson at the last World Cup in Austrlia. Or he could just amble in and bowl tripe.
When he is switched on, he is a sight to behold. The run up still doesn’t always tell it, but it screams out as he reaches the umpire. That left hand springs over his shoulder — a fluid jerk-less movement that can be insipid on his bad days — and then blurs down as he flings the ball across. Unlike a few others, you don’t really notice what he does with his fingers on the ball. It’s not the leg cutter or whatever it is that you are anticipating from Wahab — it’s that rhythmic sling of the arms. If he ticks that, he is usually okay. Presence of an annoying batsman helps. He then unleashes hell.
Wahab likes banging the ball short, preferably a bouncer and once he exhausts the quota in the over, he settles for the back-of-a-length screamers. Against Australia, Mohammad Amir had turned in a lovely first spell, but Pakistan were let down by Shaheen Shah Afridi. While Amir was fuller — and it seemed that full-length was the way to go —Afridi bowled too short. Wahab sneezed at that wisdom, pouncing at the batsman from short of length — so much so that David Warner would repeatedly tap a spot on that length, hammering his bat as if he had sensed an offending piece of soil that was helping Wahab. Tap, tap, tap. Another ball would land there and fly into his ribs. But Wahab’s wasn’t a hostile performance. Which, in fact, should please Pakistan. It wasn’t Warner or some Australian that annoyed him into the zone. He was composed, calm, collected — almost just-another-day-in-the-office kind, but he kept it tight in the middle overs, across a couple of spells, forced mistakes but the catches were grassed.
As a kid, Wahab had to deal with a strict father: Riaz senior didn’t like him slipping out of house for cricket. Once he asked his mother for rickshaw money so that he could go and play cricket, but when she refused, he walked to the ground. When he returned late in the evening and offered salaams to his father, he was met with a resounding slap. Then came the stick. A beating ensued. “Never again did I venture out like that,” he says.
In the years to come, Wahab’s father would go on to support his cricket. As an obedient son, Wahab would marry a person whom he saw only after engagement. When cancer hit the father, the duo became real close. When Riaz senior’s organs started to fail and the situation became critical at a hospital in Qatar, Wahab was in Sydney, on a cricket tour.
“Vicky, tell the doctors, mujhe chhod dein (ask them to let me go),” the father said. Wahab requested him to wait for a day, and he managed to get there. He died that day. “There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought about Walid sahab,” Wahab says.
His father, apparently, liked to see Wahab bat. As a kid, he used to fool around with his cousins, pretending to bat like Javed Miandad or Imran Khan. Australia saw the Imran version of it at Taunton.
Wahab isn’t an all-rounder or a tailender, of course, but someone who gives you the impression that he could bat way better than he does on occasions. But if he gets out cheaply, you aren’t surprised. It’s his thinking that stood out against the Australians on Wednesday. He didn’t do a Hasan Ali, didn’t swing his bat around. At the start, he had to face four overs from Australia’s two best Mitch Starc and Pat Cummins. Bouncers, yorkers, back-of-a-length and good-length stuff arrived, but he tapped them around pretty securely. He picked his bowlers, like Kane Richardson and Glenn Maxwell, and utilised the short boundaries well.
The noose slowly tightened around the Aussies. The largely Pakistan crowd went berserk. The crescent moons swirled around in the chilly wind. Hope floated. Just another day in a Pakistan fan’s life. But with Australia, and more importantly with their own team, they must have anticipated some anti-climax. Starc dug one in and it sprang up at Wahab who pushed his hands out at it. Poke and a miss. Or so everyone thought, but Steve Smith, at backward point, was almost adamant. He must have heard some noise. When the big screen showed the ball passing the bat, there seemed like a gap and they yelled in joy. Even Wahab, who was standing with his captain in middle, turned and began to walk towards his end. As if he thought the jail-break was done, he could walk scot-free. But, the Snicko flickered life into the Australians and darkness descended on the Pakistanis. As Wahab trudged back, the fans recovered from the sucker punch, stood up, and cleared their lungs in admiration. No masla, only love.