“I take pleasure in bowling on dead wickets,” Pakistan's 25-year-old tearaway Mohammad Talha says with the confidence of a man who seems to have banished all memories of the injury that put him out of cricket briefly.
It is a surprising statement coming from an express paceman but it signifies how Talha has programmed his mind into doing what he does best: going all out with ball in hand. Most importantly, though, as the lanky bowler puts it, he is now a more clever operator, something which he made a conscious effort at after returning from the spinal disc injury that he suffered ahead of Pakistan's Test series against England in the UAE in 2012 for which he had given a perfect audition.
Talha has been regularly bracketed with some of the rising young pacers in the country and experts acknowledge that as far as the speed gun is concerned, the Faisalabad-born fast man is a few clicks ahead of the lot. His domestic record is not too shabby either with 259 wickets in 67 first-class games and 87 scalps in 53 domestic one-day fixtures at an average of 27.83. “I have seen him operating, his speed touches 150kph and I think he is the fastest in the current lot, yet he has not been given any worthwhile chance to show his mettle by the selectors. He is being wasted which is very unfortunate,” former Test paceman Sarfraz Nawaz says.
Talha, however, remains optimistic and says his domestic performances will eventually pique the interest of the national selectors.
"I was a member of the side that played against England in a three-day warm-up game in the UAE, in the lead-up to the Pakistan-England Test series early last year. On a flat wicket, I dismissed a number of major England batsmen in that match. After this warm-up, I suffered from a back injury, and was sent back home. However, I had recovered fully within around ten days and took part in a competitive domestic one-day match claiming five wickets,” Talha recalls.
His notable performance for the PCB XI side in that tour match against England had come after a largely inconspicuous Test debut in 2009 against Sri Lanka in Lahore, which was unfortunately cut short after the terrorist attack on Sri Lanka's team bus.
“It was my first match at the top international level. The wicket at the Gaddafi Stadium was flat and we were bowling against the likes of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera. Although I claimed only the wicket of Muttiah Muralitharan for 88 runs while delivering 17 overs, the outing gave me the opportunity to learn from that very brief yet important experience. Unfortunately, the match could not continue.” That harrowing experience, the back injury and the struggle to breakthrough onto the international scene has only made Talha a wiser, settled person and cricketer.
“Three, four years ago I was excessively belligerent, seeking to trouble batsmen primarily with my pace. However, now I employ 'mind games', backed by speed, to influence batsman. And I believe a quick, timely bouncer is very dangerous even for the very best batsmen.”
“I think all pace bowlers, including those with extra speed, need to have a certain plan. One should not expect an express bowler to come out and just bowl as fast as he can, hoping to disrupt the opponent's batsmen; it is simply not possible. Playing conditions, quality of opposition and match situation are the factors which makes a bowler devise a specific strategy against various batsmen at different times,” he elaborates. “Bowling according to set plans in domestic cricket, I have dismissed a number of batsmen currently playing in the national team.”
Out-and-out pace bowlers seem to have lost favour with current captains, who tend to go approach the game in a more formulaic manner. Greats like Imran Khan, Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall and Waqar Younis may never agree fully to the logic and neither does Talha. But the young bowler also believes that a good captain should be aware of how best to employ his spearhead.
“Fast bowlers, particularly those possessing extra pace, must make sure that they manage their workload according to the level and requirement of a game to avoid major injuries and burnout. For instance, [former Test captain] Rashid Latif who is team coach of the Port Qasim Authority (PQA), for which I also play, has been using me selectively in demanding four-day first-class games, including those of the ongoing domestic season. This prudent use by the coach has helped me avoid major injuries so far,” he says, immediately bringing to mind the case of Mohammad Zahid.
“If anyone deserves to be picked [in the national team] then Talha in my view should be the man forefront in the selectors’ radar when they sit down to choose the squad for the Sri Lanka series,” Latif says.
Former stars Latif, Aaqib Javed, Ijaz Ahmed and Shahid Nazir have all been instrumental in Talha's progression but the bowler himself credits one more person who set the wheels into motion.
“I feel I had the passion for fast bowling right from the beginning, and my brother's assistance added skill to that passion. Then at the age of around 13, 14, I represented my school cricket team as pacer.
“Afterwards I also featured in club cricket, and was part of Faisalabad's Combined Cricket Club side who performed magnificently at a national-level event in 2007,” Talha, who looks upto Shoaib Akhtar and Dale Steyn, recalls.
It was after that tournament that Talha made his first-class debut, representing Faisalabad against Multan in a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy match. It was a season in which he picked up 18 wickets in the eight matches that he played. But according to Latif the paceman has improved vastly since then and can play in all formats of the game.
“In the past few seasons, Talha would get irritated and lose his focus when things didn’t go the way he would have wanted. But now he is composed on the field and waits for his opportunities simply because he’s an experienced player. Importantly, Talha is a genuine wicket-taker."
So, why has he not been able to get the selectors' nod for international cricket as yet?
“I do not know and have no idea. At my end I have been trying my best to excel in domestic circuit, my first-class is a clear evidence of it. I am ready and willing to continue to perform, hoping that I will finally catch the selectors' attention. There is always hope. God willing, I will emerge in international cricket soon on the basis of my performance. And I hope the cricket-loving people would give me genuine support in my endeavors,” Talha says.
“Yes, as a young aspirant I am definitely eyeing the next  World Cup which is the most prestigious contest in world cricket.”
It could make for interesting viewing if the 6ft 2in Talha partners Mohammad Irfan at the World Cup in Australia where pitches will be more than conducive to the kind of firepower that the youngster possesses.