The World Cup, which is now 40 years old, has seen its share of great fast-bowling spells. Two of them have come in finals. Few, though, have provided the visceral thrill that Wahab Riaz did for six overs of this quarterfinal at the Adelaide Oval. Genuinely quick bowling is thrilling in itself, but when that velocity is directed at the batsman’s body, it acquires a macabre quality that makes it compelling viewing.
Shane Warne called it the best ODI spell he’d seen from a fast bowler in many a year. Michael Clarke said it was “as good as I’ve faced in one-day cricket for a long time”. Kevin Pietersen reckoned it was the best a visiting player had bowled in years on Australian soil. Allan Border was inclined to agree with him.
There is nothing about Riaz’s bowling that would make you recall Joel Garner or Wasim Akram. Those were two of the giants of the game, men with such skill that they could pretty much make the ball do their bidding. Riaz lacks the consistency of the truly great, but the erratic nature of his bowling makes him doubly dangerous when the mood takes hold of him.
It may have been Mitchell Starc’s barbs about a white object that he needed to try and hit that fired him up. Whatever it was, for half an hour, he had Shane Watson contorting his body like a marionette. Riaz’s bouncers sneak up on you like the nighttime tide, and it’s testament to Watson’s quality as a batsman that he somehow avoided grievous bodily harm.
Instead, the pain was all Pakistan’s. If Rahat Ali had held on to a straightforward chance at fine leg when Australia were 83 for 3, the game could have taken a vastly different course. Instead, he opened and shut his palms like a slowly yawning hippo, and the ball popped out. You didn’t need a pitch microphone to hear Riaz’s anguished scream.
His second spell of three overs went for 30, with both Watson and Glenn Maxwell pulling him square of the wicket. But even that wasn’t without its share of drama, as an attempted pull from Maxwell with the bat angled like a tilting submarine periscope, flew to deep backward point where Sohail Khan never looked like making ground and holding on. This time, Riaz’s reaction was more a hurt shrug.
Back in the 1979 final, Garner took 5 for 4 in 11 balls, as England went from 183 for 2 to 194 all out. Four of his victims were bowled, with Bob Taylor caught behind. Years later, at the MCG, with England needing a further 109 from 16 overs with six wickets in hand, Imran Khan threw the ball to Akram. Allan Lamb was deceived by an inswinger that left him unsure of whether to play forward or go back. The next ball, Chris Lewis chopped on one that had been pitched wider of the stumps. England would eventually reach 227, but the chase was effectively scuttled by two moments of bowling mastery.
ODI bowling highlights tend to be of that variety, of batsmen being unable to cope with fast, accurate yorkers or wickedly swinging full deliveries. The bouncer has usually been seen as a surprise option, a change-up to keep batsmen on their toes. It has seldom been used as often and as effectively as it was in Adelaide on Friday (March 20) night.
Garner had a magnificent fielding side backing him, most notably Viv Richards, whose three run-outs were instrumental in ensuring a West Indian victory in the first World Cup final. Had Riaz enjoyed even a fraction of that support, this game wouldn’t have ended in such tame fashion.
Years from now, someone might look at figures of 9-0-54-2 and just shrug. But no one who saw the first spell will ever forget it. “I loved it,” said Michael Atherton, the former England opener. “It’s what I always enjoyed the most – playing or watching fast bowling of that quality.”
He certainly wasn’t the only one.