November 9, 2012

When a sportsman has a particularly unique and world-class skill, it’s never easy to forget. To know that one day you’ll never see it again is a depressing thought.

When Wasim Akram rose to the top of the cricketing tree thanks to his vicious in-swinging bowling, it captivated even those who weren’t supporting him and bedevilled those who had to face it.
One of the most iconic cricketers of his time, Akram was a delight to watch the same way Shane Warne was; you always felt the next ball would produce a wicket.

Sadly, “it’s gone now” was what Akram had to say about his ability to put a perplexed look on the face of a batsman who was expecting the ball to sail wide to the wicketkeeper.

While Akram is considered the first great practitioner of reverse swing bowling, it wasn’t until legendary captain Imran Khan got his hands on the prodigious Akram that his talent began to flourish.

“I knew how to reverse swing before [I joined the Pakistan team] in the nets, but every bowler in Pakistan knows about reverse swing and how to look after the ball. It’s an art,” Akram told Sport360°.

“It was showed to me when I was playing club cricket, that’s how I knew it from the beginning. But it wasn’t until I met Imran Khan that I mastered reverse swing.

“When I first learnt how to do it, I used to alternate: one ball in swing, next ball out swing and so on. Imran taught me to bowl three or four outswing or even six outswing, then come in the next over and go in on the first ball.

“Mix it up a bit, because if you bowl (alternately) your length won’t be there and the ball will go wayward. He used to stand at mid on or mid off and I would be constantly asking ‘Do I go in, do I go out, do I do a yorker?’”

Khan’s advice paid off and then some as Akram went on to have one of the finest bowling careers of all-time, taking 414 Test and 502 ODI wickets. Akram was the first bowler to take 400 wickets in both forms of the game, an achievement that only Muttiah Muralitharan has equaled. He was no mug with the bat either, hitting 257 in one Test, a record for a No8 batsman.

Excellent in both formats, Akram has a particular fondness for the shorter form. “I enjoyed ODI. It was more fun and was over more quickly,” Akram said. “And if you weren’t a batter, you had a chance at man of the match [award], so that was a motivation.” A career with few regrets, Akram did however seem genuinely miffed that he was never able to enjoy the frantic Twenty20 game, a form perfect for his aggressive, wicket-taking bowling.

He does, however, have reservations about how players of the T20 generation play the game. “I know I would have enjoyed T20 as well, my sort of cricket suits it so well – bowl a couple of overs with the new ball then come back in the middle and the end. License to kill.

“Test is longer, more mental, Test is about quality and [shorter forms are about] quantity,” he said. “Nowadays players look for quantity not quality, they don’t want to be the best at what they do – that was my aim, to be the best I could be. For me in T20, it doesn’t matter how good you are, no one will remember you for [being the best T20 player].”

Interestingly, Akram found that he played well in ODIs partly because the game went so fast that there was little time to over-think things, instead playing on instinct and momentum.

Much has been made and studied about the benefits of acting quickly rather than thoughtfully, without much concrete evidence either way. Akram believes that that decisive way of acting would help the Pakistan team.

“The countries we come from, yes [would benefit]. Different areas have different mentalities, the sub continent, England, South Africa, Australia wherever. The less we think the better it is for us as it gives us less time to clutter our heads, so you have to be straight forward.

“Whoever is coaching Pakistan should tell them – meetings should be 15 minutes because if you let it run for 16 minutes they’ll forget the first 15. These details are important.”

Pakistan, while maddeningly inconsistent, still prides itself on the deadly bowling the “Two Ws” (Wasim and Waqar Younis) dealt out in the 1980s and 90s, while their batting has come under scrutiny, particularly that of Shahid Afridi.

“(Pakistan) need a batting coach to teach these young kids [the fundamentals of batting]. You used to see batsmen going onto their front foot to hit their shots, when you see Pakistani players they [don’t do that]. They don’t seem to have the confidence to come out.

“I look at the batsmen like a bowler: ‘how can I get them, where are their weaknesses’, and see someone look Mohammad Hafeez, who isn’t a front foot player, as a target. What they need is confidence, the talent is there.”

Described by Brian Lara as ‘definitely the most outstanding bowler I’ve ever faced’, Akram had few peers – apart from his bowling partner Waqar – but he can see bowlers in the game now that resemble him.

“In terms of left-arm bowling, I think Mitchell Starc is a top bowler,” said Akram. “He’s tall, has a beautiful in-swinger and he pitches it up, which I think is the secret.

“Also Dale Steyn. I think he is the best. He has the whole attitude and the whole package of a fast bowler. You don’t want him to run in on you. He runs in every ball on every wicket against any team and that’s what makes him so dangerous.”

Steyn and Starc may come close, but one can confidently say there will never be another Wasim Akram.


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