Of the dozen Pakistani bowlers who began their Test career with a five wicket haul,or a ‘fifer’ as it is now called, very few had careers of any substantial impact. Most fizzled out, unable to sustain their early promise.
In the long history of Test cricket there have been 159 instances of bowlers taking five wickets in an innings in their opening Test. In twelve of these cases the successful bowler was a Pakistani.
The first Pakistani bowler to open his Test career with a five wicket haul was Arif Butt. In December 1964, Pakistan were touring Australia for the first time and played a solitary Test match in Melbourne. The 20 year old Arif Butt was a tall fast-medium bowler who was making his Test debut for Pakistan after playing successfully for the Railways team in domestic tournaments and even representing Pakistan in an unofficial test against a visiting Commonwealth team the previous year. Brought on as a first change bowler, Arif made an early impact by clean bowling the Australian captain Bobby Simpson. He also accounted for Bill Lawry and Brian Booth, finishing with figures of 6 for 89. Despite this wonderful start, Arif played only two further Tests for Pakistan, both on the New Zealand leg of their tour. His final Test career figures were 14 wickets at an average of 20.57. Many feel that he deserved a longer run in the national side. In first-class games Arif took 201 wickets costing 26.74 runs each.
New Zealand toured Pakistan in 1969 for a three Test series. Mohammad Nazir was a prodigious off-spinner who was selected for the first Test at Karachi. He was an instant success, snaring 7 New Zealand batsmen for 99 runs. Nazir’s career progressed in stops and starts over the next fourteen years. He played a total of 14 Tests, picking up 34 wickets at an average of 33.05. He continued to be a prolific wicket-taker in first-class cricket ending with 829 wickets at just 19.26 apiece. After saying goodbye to playing cricket he became an international umpire.
In October 1996, Shahid Nazir became the third Pakistani bowler to pick up a five wicket in an innings in his debut Test. Playing against Zimbabwe at the Sheikhupura Stadium he took 5 for 53, including the wickets of Andy Flower and Craig Wishart in consecutive deliveries. A fast medium bowler Shahid represented Pakistan in 15 Tests, obtaining 36 wickets at an average of 35.33. In all first-class matches his tally was 458 wickets at 21.17 each.
The following month another fast bowler, the twenty-year-old Mohammad Zahid announced his arrival onto Pakistan’s Test cricket stage with an outstanding performance of stellar quality. Making his Test debut against New Zealand at the Rawalpindi cricket ground in November 1996, Zahid scythed through the New Zealand second innings taking 7 wickets for 66 runs. Added to his first innings tally of 4 for 64, this gave him match figures of 11 for 130. Zahid thus joined an exclusive group, becoming the seventh bowler in the history of the game to have taken 10 or more wickets in his debut Test. He is the only Pakistani bowler so far to achieve this rare distinction. Zahid was a bowler of exceptional pace; the great Brian Lara reckoned he was the fastest bowler that he ever faced. Even his famous contemporary Shoaib Akhtar has conceded that Zahid, at his peak, was a yard faster than him. Just when it seemed that he was ready to take the cricketing world by storm, Zahid’s promising career was tragically cut short by a vertebral stress fracture and he played only five Tests for Pakistan, capturing just 15 wickets at 33.46 runs per scalp. An injury plagued first-class career netted him 128 wickets at 26 runs apiece. Zahid was arguably the fastest bowler that Pakistan has ever produced but because of poor handling and injuries was never able to demonstrate his full potential for the country.
In October 1998, the enigmatic Shahid Khan Afridi made his Test debut for Pakistan versus Australia at the National Stadium Karachi. Having already entered his name into the record books with a 37 ball century in his first ODI batting stint two years earlier, Afridi now recorded his name as a bowler in the Test match register. He took 5 invaluable wickets for 52 in the Australian first innings, including both the Waugh brothers. With his fastish leg spin and a lethal top-spinner delivered at a pace bowler’s speed, Afridi took 48 wickets at 35.60 runs each in his short 27 Test career. In first-class matches the tally was 266 wickets at 26.88 runs per piece.
Mohammad Sami is another Pakistani speedster who made a dramatic entry into Test cricket. Pakistan were playing New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland in March 2001and had set the home team a target of 441 for victory. Test debutant Mohammad Sami, who had turned twenty just a month ago, completely decimated the New Zealand batting line-up.
Bowling consistently at speeds around the 90 mph mark, he took 5 for 36, including three wickets in his final over. The last eight New Zealand batsmen could manage only ten runs between them, with five failing to make an impression on the score board. New Zealand were shot out for 131 losing the match by 299 runs. Sami generated considerable skidding pace from a fast run-up, but his lack of control over line and length made him expensive. He played a total of 36 Tests for Pakistan grabbing 85 wickets at a high cost of 52.74 runs per wicket. He was more economical in his first-class career, where his 611 wickets cost 27.30 runs each.
The lanky Shabbir Ahmed made his Test debut against Bangladesh at Karachi in August 2003. Playing as the third pace bowler, backing up the opening attack of Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Gul, Shabbir’s height of 6 ft 5 inches allowed him to extract steep bounce on an otherwise lifeless wicket. He troubled all the Bangladeshi batsmen taking eight wickets in the match including 5 for 48 in Bangladesh’s second innings. Shabbir’s Test career was limited by doubts about the legality of his bowling action. He played only Ten tests for Pakistan, collecting 51 wickets at 23.03 runs each. In all first-class matches he took 406 wickets at an average of 22.32.
Yasir Arafat was a fast-medium bowling all-rounder who had a brief Test career in the Pakistan national side. He made his debut versus India in the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore in December 2007. In India’s mammoth first innings score of 626 all out, Yasir took 5 wickets for 161 runs in 39 expensive overs. Yasir played two further Tests for Pakistan, both against Sri Lanka. In each of these Tests Sri Lanka ran up scores of over 600 in their first innings. Yasir thus has a dubious distinction, that in every test that he played the opposition team made at least one score of over 600. Yasir in his 3 Tests for Pakistan took 9 wickets for 438 runs at an average of 48.66. His first class-career brought him 790 wickets at 23.99 runs a wicket.
Wahab Riaz made his Test debut versus England at the Oval in August 2010. Joining Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif in a formidable pace attack, Wahab Riaz’s blistering pace accounted for most of England’s top order, giving him figures of 5 for 63, including the wickets of Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Eoin Morgan. Unable to command a regular place in the Test side, Wahab’s last appearance in a Test for Pakistan was in October 2018. He has represented the national side in 27 Test matches, taking 83 wickets at 34.5 runs each. In first-class matches he has 441 wickets at 29.12 apiece.
Three months after Wahab, another Pakistani paceman joined the list of bowlers who have taken five wickets in an innings on their Test debut. The Kuwaiti born Tanvir Ahmed was just a month short of his 32nd birthday when he got the opportunity to play for Pakistan against South Africa in Abu Dhabi in November 2010. In South Africa’s huge first innings total of 584 for 9 declared, Tanvir had figures of 6 for 120. His Test career lasted for five matches in which he totaled 17 wickets at 26.64 runs each. In a long first-class career he took 517 wickets at the cost of 27.52 runs each.
The last two names on this selected list are both spinners. Bilal Asif must have abandoned all hope of national selection when he was surprisingly drafted into the Pakistan team at the age of 33 to play against Australia at Dubai in October 2018. In reply to Pakistan’s first innings total of 482, Australia made a solid start with Usman Khwaja and Aaron Finch adding 142 runs for the first wicket. Bilal now took over. Notoriously susceptible against quality off-spin, Australia stuttered to 202 all out with the last nine wickets adding merely sixty runs to the total. Bilal’s analysis were a remarkable 6 for 36 from 21.3 overs. Bilal has so far played 5 times for Pakistan gathering 16 wickets at an average of 26.70 per wicket. His first-class wicket tally is 124 wickets at 29.98 runs each.
The latest Pakistani entrant to this list is the left arm spinner Nauman Ali. In January 2021, Nauman Ali got a call up to play for Pakistan against South Africa at Karachi. Aged 34 years and 111 days he became the fourth oldest cricketer to make his Test debut for Pakistan after Miran Bakhsh (47y 284d), Zulfiqar Babar (34y 308d) and Mohammad Aslam (34y 177d). Bowling a disciplined line and length Nauman created problems for the South African batsmen taking 7 wickets in the match for just 73 runs from 42.3 overs. This included a haul of 5 for 35 in South Africa’s second innings, placing him in this select list of bowlers to open their Test careers with 5 wickets in an innings. Nauman has all the necessary requisites to be a regular feature of the Pakistan test side for some years to come. He has so far taken 16 wickets in just four Tests at a meagrely average of 19.81 runs per wicket. As a consistent performer on the domestic cricket scene for many years now he has 301 first-class wickets at 23.76 runs per piece.
Of the dozen Pakistani bowlers who began their Test career with a five wicket haul, or a ‘fifer’ as it is now called, very few had careers of any substantial impact. Most fizzled out, unable to sustain their early promise. Eight out of the twelve in this group are pace bowlers, with at least three, Zahid, Sami and Wahab falling into the genuinely fast category. There are two off-spinners, a single leg spinner and a solitary left arm spinner. As a parting anomaly the last three debutants to make this list all began their Test careers after thirty, a distinctly unusual feature in a country that is renowned for often blooding it’s talent precociously young.
Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.