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Third Man Forever

Ghalib Malik

Pakistan’s cricket history is spiced with the joys of celebrating shows of individual brilliance. More often than not it would happen in dire situations. More often than not these situations would be products of Pakistanis’ own doing. Slightly less often, someone would stand up and put up a show to snatch a memorable victory, sometimes from the jaws of defeat and at times just like that. And it would launch careers too.

Aqib Javed did it once. Way back in 1991. Almost two dozen years ago. Not Wasim or Waqar, but the eternal Third Man of Pakistani bowling attacks: He was that when he started bowling behind Imran Khan and Wasim Akram. When Wasim got injured a month or two later, he now performed the job for Imran and Saleem Jaffer. Whatever come may, he was the Third Man. Or the Fourth Man. Not until that day anyway: When in the Final of Sharjah Tournament against India, the recipe for instant fame at the time, that boy from Sheikhupura, did quite a lot of things: A hat-trick of LBW that left Henry Blofeld appealing for the dismissal at the mic even before the bowler himself turned around for the shout and a host of other wickets. Soon he had seven and had bettered the world record.

There was always something low-key about Aqib. Here too, Pakistanis were not exactly facing defeat. Behind Imran and others for a while and the behind the Ws, he was the Third Man. The unsung workhorse who was not supposed to pick a lot of wickets or perhaps he could not get them anyway. At times, it was to give others rest. At times, it was to make the new ball old, especially when Wasim and Waqar would be returning after an injury which meant reduced effectiveness with the new ball. It helped that he was a highly skillful bowler and not just bowled the outswinger well but also knew what advantages it had over the incoming ball. But then again, he was the Third Man.

When Wasim Raja saw him, he was 15. Three years before that, he, as a 12-year-old had been asked by some seniors to play a “hard-ball match in a white cricket kit”. That was to be his first-class debut, something he himself did not know perhaps for two or three decades. Lined up for one of those trials, he saw others bowl and felt he was better. Fortunately, Wasim Raja was around, then trying to make one last (and ultimately failed) comeback bid trying to fill the all-rounder’s role in the Pakistani line-up following the retirement of Imran Khan in 1987. And so. as Aaqib thought that he was better than all the bowlers in the camp, he confidently asked the former Pakistani batsman to have a personal look at him. He bowled a few deliveries, all of them outswingers, straight away impressing the veteran who tipped him as the most talented player hence sending him to an Under-19 pre world cup camp after which he went to Australia to play the McDonald’s Bicentennial Cup (Actually the first Under-19 World Cup and early following the pattern of the 1992 Senior World Cup). Not much happened there but it must have pleased the 15-year-old to see himself in the centerfold of the April 1988 issue of The Cricketer (Pakistan). There were some other boys too: Inzimam, Mushtaq, Basit Ali and others. Zahoor Elahi was the captain. Also among them was Shakeel Khan, a medium-pacer with a thick mustache who ran in like Imran but everything after that was different. He had already played a one-dayer for Pakistan and had clean-bowled Chris Broad. Good enough.

During the fall of 1988, in another world, Wasim Raja tells Imran about a 16-year-old who is quite good for his age. Imran is interested, takes a look at him and takes him to India for some exhibition games where he impresses the Pakistani captain not because gets Sunil Gavaskar out but when given a field to bowl with, he asked a stunned Pakistani captain to make some changes since he an outswing bowler! Sweet sixteen was meant to be silly or so supposed Imran. But now he was convinced and Aqib replaced a domestic first-class stalwart in his squad for Australia. The Cricketer (Pakistan – December 1988) had this to say:

“Imran’s objection was to Wasim Haider and his preference was Aqib Javed, an unheard of medium-pacer who had not been in the stand buys: could this be a chance or an arrangement?”

Slowly, things started to happen. Three years later, Wasim Haider would play with Aqib for the Pakistanis in the 1992 World Cup but would be completely out of depth.

As for Aqib, Australia was a success: He played in all of Pakistan’s matches and took 10 wickets at 33. And in Pakistan’s win over Australia at Perth, he had three for 28 – the openers, Marsh and Boon and then Steve Waugh. Not bad for a 16-year-old.

After Australia, came New Zealand and a wicketless debut in what was officially the second test (but practically the first after the first was completely washed out).

Things continue to happen: By Fall, Imran had spotted Waqar Younis and was working on him, Aqib and Wasim preparing them as his replacements. In came the Nehru Cup final, where, in a high scoring game, he bowls a spell of 0 for 26 in 10 incisive overs all bowled on a trot. It was a wonderful spell during which even Desmond Haynes, the century-maker was all at sea… not one of those defensive shows where a bowler puts one ball here or there to get some dot balls and no boundaries and hopes for the batsman to charge and get caught in the deep off an attempted hit for six or a top edge.

A year later, with Wasim Akram out and Pakistanis playing five bowlers, the Third Man produced a withering new ball burst: Three wickets came in no time, including that of Mark Greatbatch bowled for a duck (averaging 54 before the series) that ultimately set up a close Pakistan win.

Then came Sharjah: First the West Indies – a withering spell that got him three wickets seemed to have put Pakistan on course for a win. It seemed all over for the West Indies when there was a run out and Waqar struck with his first ball but then Wasim Akram, having a horrid match, dropped Richardson, off Aqib. Richardson went on to score a hundred and murdered Aqib and Wasim along the way and the match went right down to the wire.

And then came India and with them, Aqib’s signature performance: Sidhu tickled an early outswinger behind to the wicketkeeper before Aqib struck over and over, thrice in three balls as Shastri, Tendulkar and Azharuddin all played back to fuller lengths zeroing in on the stumps. It did not take long for him to realise that he could do more against India: Three out of his four five-wicket hauls have come against the arch-rivals.

Over to Australia and the World Cup – with Waqar gone and Imran injured, Aqib had to step up: Pakistan were famously dismal at the beginning until Imran came up and delivered what was according to some was a speech, to others a one-on-one pep talk and yet, many believed it never happened.

Aqib went against Australia in a familiar no-second-chances situation and bowling at genuine pace with test match fields, bowled lovely outsiwngers to dismiss David Boon and Tom Moody and later dismissed Ian Healy to rack up figures of 3 for 21 in 8 overs. Pakistan had won and would win everything from now on.

Auckland 1992 and the semi-final against New Zealand: Mark Greatbatch doing what he was doing so well put Aqib under the radar hitting him for a six. The fast bowler, however, kept his cool and responded beautifully, delivering two slow off-breaks: The first one was so slow that Greatbatch virtually watched it before somehow managing to smother it down. The second one was slower: Greatbatch watching over it like a little girl overlooking her baby kitten without touching it ended up seeing it touch the stumps and dislodge the bails: It was one of the impact moments of the game. His spell in the final too was telling: Lovely outswing bowling with the new ball and stingy with the old and understated but superb figures of 2 for 27 in his allotted quota of ten overs. And then there was that small matter of grabbing Graham Goochs top-edged sweep: Aqib ran in, seemingly not even looking at the ball and dived forward and somehow the ball stuck and then he took off, unstoppable. Next time, if someone asks you, who started his career at 16 and became a World Champion before he turned 20, you’ll know the answer.

Aaqib’s test career never took off as his limited overs one. Perhaps he wasn’t given a sufficient enough run at the highest level of cricket. Perhaps he was under bowled as the W’s were busy tormenting batting lineups. He was the third seamer though, the Third Man, and he had play the role of a stock bowler. His numbers in test cricket were decent for a support bowler. In 22 games, 54 wickets at 34.70 are adequate for a second-string bowler. His solitary test five-wicket haul and his best match figures (5 for 84 and 8 for 118) both came in same match. Although Pakistan lost the game to give Sri Lanka their first ever win in Pakistan, Aaqib in the second innings took the role of the lead bowler and scalped 5 for 84 in the absence of injured Wasim Akram, who had pulled a muscle in the first innings. Waqar also wasnt missed the second and third test in order to regain full fitness.The home side also lost the third test to give Sri Lanka their first ever victory on Pakistani soil, Javed, nonetheless, finished his best series with 16 wickets at 19.56 in 3 tests. Ironically, he would play just one wicketless test after three years as Wasim Akram chose to dump him in favour of a Muhammad Akram in his debut season in Australia in 1995 – predictably with catastrophic effect. This, at a time, when Aqib had picked up 29 wickets at 22.75 in 6 matches was shambolic to say the least but then this is how things work in Pakistan. Aqib’s career was over at 26.

He left his mark in the limited overs format wherehe always felt comfortable bowling 10 overs. Perhaps it gave him a sense of justice: Bowling an equal number of overs as Wasim and Waqar but here too, he was the Third Man: Those bursts against India aside, he usually provided steadiness and control without being spectacularly great. In 1997 and 1998, leading the attack in the absence of Wasim and Waqar in the Saraha Cup in Toronto, he bowled beautifully but only had 8 wickets to show for in the two series. Especially in 1998, he sensed something: Muhammad Zahid bowled Navjot Sidhu twice with blindingly fast deliveries angled in (no swing). Aqib, never as fast as Zahid, wanted his share too and in the crucial third game, with the series tied 1-1, he made a subtle change in his delivery stride, going a bit open-chest to deliver a perfect inswinger to get him out leg-before.

Aqib’s father loved cricket and then Aqib loved it. An early memory was following the 1980/81 home series against West Indies. Malcolm Marshall left an impression on him and Aqib wanted to emulate the West Indian’s bowling action. So much so that when he played for the Sheikhupura Gymkhana, he told them that he bowls like Marshall and ended up bowling a 22-ball over.

He could be mean too as his run-in with Roy Palmer in 1992 showed when Aqib was questioned for bowling bouncers at a tail-ender and well, he could coach a bit too: After successful stints with various Pakistani teams, he is now the coach of UAE, helping them get a first qualification since 1996.

And when his team played his former team, Pakistan, there were at least two in the Pakistani contingent for the 2015 World Cup who knew him well – a bit too well perhaps: Waqar, his bowling partner and fellow coach and Muhammad Irfan, whose late development owed everything to the Third Man.

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