Mohammad Rizwan was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the 2021 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Osman Samiuddin profiled the Pakistan wicketkeeper.
A little like goalkeepers and the Ballon d’Or, it isn’t often wicketkeepers are Wisden Cricketers of the Year. Since the first players were chosen in 1889, they have accounted for only one in 15. And many of those were chosen for their batting as much as their glovework.
There is a paradox here. Like goalkeepers, the less attention wicketkeepers attract, the better we imagine they have performed. And there is a theme among some of the Almanack’s recent wicketkeeping winners: Mark Boucher’s “unpretentious” style, Matt Prior going “unnoticed”, and the same adjective for Jack Russell, “until the rare fumble”. Even a purist such as Chris Read might have missed out had he not led Nottinghamshire to the Championship.
It says something about the modern accent on a keeper’s batting that Mohammad Rizwan’s work behind the stumps last summer was noticed, precisely for its expertise. Few wicketkeepers emerge well from an England tour, because of the late wobble, the often low bounce, the murky light. And Rizwan’s five catches and a stumping in three Tests does not sound like a rich haul; his England counterpart, Jos Buttler, caught nine. Yet there was an adroitness to Rizwan’s work. Those numbers hide more than they tell.
His grab to dismiss Ben Stokes on the final day at Old Trafford was spectacular: Yasir Shah’s googly, from round the wicket, pitched in the rough, spat at the batsman, brushed his glove and climbed further, so that Rizwan parried it from around his left shoulder, before recovering to complete the catch. Then there was his balance while pulling off a diving take in front of first slip to dismiss Joe Root at Southampton, possible even after a step to leg because the ball was so straight. And the anticlimactic end to the monumental 267 from Zak Crawley, who fell to Asad Shafiq’s part-time off-spin, dimmed a sparkling leg-side stumping.
There were runs, too, harking back in manner and tone to a pre-Gilchristian age. Scored in a crisis, of course, but nuggety; malleable enough to accommodate the strengths or limitations of the partner; sensitive to the need of the hour. Wicketkeeping, though, was Rizwan’s superpower, all the more remarkable given he had done the job only once before in England – the most difficult country, he says, for keepers. But he was well prepared, thanks to years of practising when he had least motivation.
“I believe I have a few things in my control, one of which is how hard I can work,” he says. “Work that, deep inside, I don’t want to do. I would wake up very early, right after Fajr [dawn] prayers, when you really don’t want to wake up, and then do two hours of keeping. In Ramadan, I would practise at noon for a couple of hours before a game.”
Beyond that, beyond tips from mentors such as Rashid Latif and Steve Rixon, and beyond the conditioning work of Grant Bradburn, there was an unshakable resolve. “My attitude was, I don’t care where the ball hits me: it can’t go past me. The pain from being hit will go away. But the pain of letting through four byes will never go. Those runs will never come back. You can break fingers or your mouth, so my aim was: ‘OK, break them, but just don’t let it get through you.’”
MOHAMMAD RIZWAN was born in Peshawar on June 1, 1992, the middle of three brothers among six siblings. His father, Akhter Parvez, didn’t approve of his cricket as a child, though his grandfather was greatly encouraging. In early tape-ball games, Rizwan – honing his reflexes and wit – became known as “Jonty” because of his willingness to dive on any surface. He had no wicketkeeping hero, but he does remember wanting gloves when others wanted bats and pads. He became so renowned that teams would call him up to keep in one-off tape-ball finals. But it was when he joined the esteemed Islamia College, and Shama Club, one of the region’s best, that his rise acquired a sharper gradient. By 2007, he was playing for Peshawar Under-19.
Thereafter, Rizwan’s progress slowed a touch, partly because Pakistan’s cricket gaze was only just starting to spread beyond Karachi and Punjab. His first-class debut took another 18 months, but the grounding was useful: in 2008-09, he hit five fifties (four unbeaten) in his first seven innings. Yet had it not been for a finger injury to Riaz Afridi – elder brother of current Test seamer Shaheen Shah Afridi – Peshawar might have remained Rizwan’s ceiling.
Against Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited, the scene’s dominant side, in 2011-12, Rizwan came on as substitute, and took a spectacular catch at third slip, attracting the attention of Sui Northern coach Basit Ali. When, a few weeks later – against Sui Northern once more – Rizwan held eight catches and scored a vital 46, Basit had seen enough. A formal offer followed. Worried about breaking into such a strong XI, Rizwan prevaricated; but once he understood how much he could learn from being around Test cricketers, he made the move. In his first first-class game for his new side, he made 68.
If it took him a while to break into the Pakistan team, it was because of the omnipresence, until 2019, of Sarfraz Ahmed. A few white-ball internationals here, a lone Test in New Zealand there (playing as a batsman at Hamilton, he was bounced out first ball by Neil Wagner). But Sarfraz’s demise changed Rizwan’s fortunes so much that, when Azhar Ali was removed as Test captain late last year, Rizwan was one of two candidates to replace him. Ultimately, the job went to Babar Azam, but the selectors had been taken with Rizwan’s pristine 37 and 95 at the Gabba in 2019-20, his second Test, three years after his first. Two fifties in difficult conditions in England sealed his standing. And when Babar was injured in New Zealand at the end of 2020, Rizwan took charge, scoring 71, 60 and 61 in a 2–0 defeat.
In an era of terrible, underprepared pitches in Pakistan, he had a first-class average of 43, displaying cussedness all the way. “This England attack, they have swing and pace, and I got hit by Jofra Archer. I was nervous until then, but once I got hit, I thought: ‘I’m set now.’ Nothing worse can happen.”
In fact, only good things did.
This piece was first published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021.