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‘Leg-spin is in my blood’: Usman Qadir and the search for identity

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim meets a leg-spinner with big shoes to fill.

Usman Qadir is sat in his hotel room and, to my eye, at ease with the world. We’re speaking a day on from Pakistan’s T20I defeat at Headingley to an England side that opted to field two specialist leg-spinners. The visitors played it safe and picked just one, Shadab Khan, with Qadir left on the sidelines, the wait continuing for his first appearance of the series. Is there any frustration that his assortment of leg-breaks, googlies and sliders weren’t called upon on a dry, turning pitch?

“There is no frustration,” he tells Wisden.com. “I am just waiting for my turn, waiting for my opportunity. Hopefully, once I get the opportunity, Inshallah, I will prove myself.”

Such patience hasn’t always been present in the Lahore-born Qadir. “When I was younger, my father always gave me coaching on our terrace with a tennis ball. Once he said to me: ‘You are not ready for hard-ball cricket, so you don’t go for trials.’ I asked him and insisted that I go for under-15 trials, but he said I was not ready. He was sleeping in the morning, and I went to the trial and I got selected as well. I came back and he said: ‘Where were you? I told you you are not ready.’ After 30 minutes he asked: ‘What happened there?’ I said I got selected. He was shocked and said: ‘No, you are lying to me.’”

The father, in disbelief, calls the team selector, who confirms that his son is about to take the same path he once took. The father is, of course, Abdul Qadir, the man who resuscitated leg-spin in the Eighties: the legs would bounce in, the arms would whirl spectacularly and where-is-it-gonna-go turn would follow off the pitch. From 67 Tests, he claimed 236 wickets – only four men have taken more for Pakistan. Before the legend of Warne, there was Qadir.

To follow that and carve out your own identity is no easy feat – it gets even harder when you too, just like your old man, are beholden to the most difficult art the game has to offer. “My father didn’t tell me to bowl leg-spin, nobody told me. It’s a natural thing I have in my blood.”

The youngest of four sons, Qadir represented Pakistan in age-group cricket and played alongside Babar Azam at the 2010 and 2012 Under-19 Cricket World Cups, but opportunities at senior level in domestic cricket proved harder to come by. After making his first-class debut in December 2013 for National Bank of Pakistan, Qadir played seven more red-ball matches the following year. Across those eight fixtures, he bowled just 85 overs, took seven wickets at an average of 49.14 and that was that – his next first-class appearance in the country would take place in November 2019.

In 2016 ESPNcricinfo reported that Qadir was contemplating a move to either Australia or South Africa to reignite a career that couldn’t escape his lineage. “People didn’t look at my performances, or even the stats, just my name,” he would go on to tell Athletes Voice in 2018. “As soon as people saw ‘Qadir’, they would know I was the son of the great Abdul Qadir. People would talk behind my back and it was hard to see how that could change.”

Australia, where he’d impressed in club cricket as a teenager, was the answer. “[Abdul] said to me: ‘You are still young, you can fight here in domestic cricket.’ But I said to my dad: ‘I don’t want to spoil my career, I want to go to Australia.’” Abdul eventually relented and higher recognition would come Usman’s way in late 2018, when he represented Western Australia in both first-class and List-A cricket, and Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash League. He even got a game against the touring South Africans for the Prime Minister’s XI, taking 3-28 in a 50-over game. The goal, one he stated publicly at the time, was to play for Australia at the 2020 T20 World Cup.

Yet Abdul remained romanticised by the prospect of his son wearing a Pakistan shirt. “One day, I was sitting with my dad and he was saying: ‘I know you are playing in Australia at the moment but my wish was that you play for Pakistan and have a star on your chest – it’s a dream for me.’” In September 2019, Abdul Qadir suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away in Lahore at the age of 63. “What he said to me stuck in my head,” Usman says. “I can’t tell you about that feeling.”

Everything changed. A month on from the loss of his father, he featured for Central Punjab in the National T20 Cup and days later he was selected in Pakistan’s T20I squad for a tour of Australia. The wait for a game would go on, but Qadir impressed when the opportunity finally arose: eight wickets in three T20Is at home against Zimbabwe in November 2020 resulted in him being named Player of the Series. An ODI debut followed earlier this year and only Haris Rauf has taken more T20I wickets for Pakistan since Qadir’s debut. A spot in Pakistan’s squad for the World Cup later this year beckons even if Shadab is the more established leg-spinner. He doesn’t want to stop there either: “My major goal is to play three World Cups in a row. This is my ambition. Inshallah, if I work hard, I will make it.”

Beyond the influence of the late Abdul, the wily Imran Tahir – an old family friend – is cited as Qadir’s “guru” and “big brother” and familial ties continue to crop up in our conversation. Tying the knot in 2018 is cited as not only a turning point in Qadir’s life, but in his career too: “Once you get married, you are straight on the road. You don’t need to go left or right, you are very straight and on the track. Before I got married, you can see my cricket and where I am. After I got married, you can see where I am now. There is a big difference.”

The 27-year-old, weeks away from turning 28, seems well settled, but just as we’re about to wrap up there’s time for a story of boyish wonder. “I always watched my father’s videos of him bowling, but I only watched him once live, when I was very, very young. A veterans’ cricket team came to Pakistan from India.” Having heard plenty about Abdul’s many tricks, Usman sets his father a challenge: “I want to see how you are going to get someone out at silly point.”

Sitting in the stands, the boy receives a cue from the old magician. “He said to me, from the bowling end: ‘Third ball, silly point.’ Third ball, my dad bowled a wrong’un, and [the batsman] stopped the ball and was caught at silly point. I was shocked… He’s a miracle, he’s a legend. I think Allah gave him a big heart, big confidence and he was on some other level.”

To watch Usman bowl is to be reminded of Abdul, the action not too dissimilar, the googly a key part of the armoury. But he remains his own man. “Before I played for Pakistan, I had big, big responsibility on my shoulders… Whenever I bowled to batsmen I was thinking: ‘You have to bowl like your dad.’ I think now I don’t have any burden on my shoulders. I know what I can do.”

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