June 4, 2013

Wasim Akram, born June 3, 1965, was — to put it simply — a magician with the ball. Pakistan’s most successful bowler in both Tests and One-Day Internationals, he is perhaps the greatest left-handed paceman of all time, and one of the best among all fast bowlers. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the craft and career of the legend.

During the mid-1980s, the West Indian pace machine mowed down opposition after opposition with mind-numbing monotony. The key word is indeed ‘monotony’. The fields remained the same — men crowded in an arc from wicket-keeper to gully, sometimes with a fly slip behind them. And then there was a short leg and, at times, a leg gully. The balls were often short, hostile and at the rate of knots.

Yes, there were tales of the one-off bravery — some excitement surrounding blood on the pitch and cartilage on the ball. But, cricket was mostly one sided when the Windies fast men were on rampage, with tame surrenders and a hint of ennui. Malcolm Marshall did have plenty of variations to liven things up, and later Courtney Walsh approached fast bowling with a leg-spinner’s finesse and guile, but mostly body blows and perfume balls were the order of the day. There were perhaps only Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee, and to a lesser extent Kapil Dev, who sustained the art of pace bowling as a finely crafted weapon rather than a brute battering ram.

And in such circumstances there ran in a tall, handsome young man with wavy hair, a frantic, angular approach and infinite potential. In the close to two decades of international career, he would go on to enrich the art of fast bowling with sparkling and almost infinite artillery.

The rare left-handed fast bowling great

Yes, Wasim Akram was fast as well. He could be hostile, with the ability to hit the deck and make balls rush to the chin of the hapless batsman. But, with time, his many-splendored weaponry ensured that he would use the short ball as it was supposed to be used — sparingly, in odd, occasional, surprising manoeuvres intended to confuse rather than intimidate and maim. A short ball was almost an overhead for this magician with the leather. Pitched up, it could do so much more, according to the whims of his will and the immensity of his skill. It could swing — early or late, seam prodigiously, cut away and back, hang in the air or dart through. He could produce more than one vagary at the same time in the same delivery. The ball which bowled Rahul Dravid at Chennai in 1999 during that fascinating last day was one such; it dipped in and swerved away to take the off bail past his wall-like willow.

Sarfraz Nawaz had pioneered the art of swinging the old ball, and Imran had enhanced it. Akram took the fledgling art and built it into a full-fledged course in sorcery. And when he pitched even fuller, the ball thudded unwaveringly into the block-hole, with a wicked dip, often veering inwards, at the last moment. With every year that passed, he became better, craftier and more complete, and the deliveries cut through the opposition with the added edge of experience and wisdom.

What made him even more exciting was that he was a left-arm fast bowler obviously touched with a generous portion of greatness. This breed had been seen few and far between in the history of the game. Great established names were very rare, with Bill Voce of the Bodyline fame, Ernie Toshack the wet-pitch master, Trevor Goddard the South African economist and Alan Davidson, the magnificent Australian making up a motley crew. Perhaps, Frank Foster of the early 20th century would squeeze into the list. Most of the others the world saw were honest trundlers, without aspiring to sublime highs. Ian Meckiff, Richard Collinge, Bernard Julien, John Lever, Geoff Dymock, Karsan Ghavri, Mike Whitney Azeem Hafeez were all left-arm fast bowlers, but none were names to capture the imagination with their bowling feats.

And now, suddenly, Akram came in, angling the ball at awkward angles and making it talk in cryptic tongues. Close at hand, at mid-off or mid-on, stood his mentor, the great Imran Khan. With time, each approach of Imran towards his protégé as he walked back to the bowling mark seemed like a master pouring all his knowledge into the pupil. Akram of the mid-80 struck one as moulded from the cast of Imran, a mirror image who bowled left-arm. It was Imran’s astute guidance which prompted him to aim for the top of a single stump, and resulted in those yorkers of dead-on accuracy.

Some of the lessons filtered into the batting as well. Akram was nowhere the polished wielder of the willow as Imran, but he could hit it a long way. Especially down on his knees to the spinner and slogging over mid-wicket, he could turn a game on its head with a few meaty blows. As time went on, his batting remained unpredictable but dangerous, and resulted in three Test match hundreds, one of them a mammoth 257 against Zimbabwe. Even if we look with disdain at the exploits against minnows, let us not forget that his first Test hundred had come against Australia at Adelaide, scored with his captain and mentor at the other end, rescuing Pakistan from a certain defeat — six runs ahead with five wickets down in the second innings. In the end, he scored 52 and 123 and took six wickets in the match. And much before that, in the early promising days of his career, had come the match-winning 66 against the dreaded West Indies attack at Faisalabad in 1986.

Yes, there are quite a few batting displays which we remember — the murderous assault on the Australians at Melbourne for his career-best ODI score of 86, the lofted six off Viv Richards which won the Nehru Cup in 1988-89, and perhaps his best ever innings — the unbeaten 45 at Lord’s which won the Test for Pakistan in 1992. While playing the drive he sometimes looked classy, and with the slog-sweep destructively lethal. However, he was never quite there as the genuine all-rounder. He did not need to be. The world was in awe of his skills with the ball.

Hard work pays

True, Akram the bowler was supremely gifted — Imran considered him the most natural cricketer he had ever seen. His enormous potential was evident from his First-Class debut, when, as an 18-year-old, he took seven wickets for 50 against the touring New Zealanders at Rawalpindi. The Kiwis had quite a few stalwarts in their midst, including John Wright, Bruce Edgar, John Reid and the Crowe brothers.

The promise was on conspicuous display during his very second Test at Dunedin, when he took 10 wickets in a match for the first of the five times in his career. It was more than palpable a month later when he took five for 21 in the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup match against Australia, his victims being all the top order — Kepler Wessels, Robbie Kerr, Dean Jones, Allan Border and Kim Hughes.

However, his rise to the pinnacle of his profession — way above the furthest fancies of lesser mortals —was a reward of his hard work. Again, it was a principle driven home by Imran. And Akram was receptive and complied. He worked hard, at training, at the nets, at the gym, in the county games he played for Lancashire. Besides, he lent his mind like a vessel for the greats to fill up with their wisdom. Marshall taught him the in-swinger, Hadlee much about variations, Franklyn Stephenson the slower ball. And each time the batsmen had pretensions of having deciphered the Akram code, there was a new refinement added to his arsenal that pierced through the opposition.

With Imran retiring, coming back, leading the side to World Cup triumph with his wits rather than his once lethal deliveries, Akram took on the mantle of the spearhead by the late 1980s. Soon, it was the deadly combination with Waqar Younis that would torment the bravest of batsmen. Imran bowed out with the World Cup under his belt, Akram winning it for him with a spell that still chills the heart of Englishmen, mainly Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis. And after that it was Akram and Younis who became perhaps the greatest fast bowling pair of the nineties — and these were the days when cricket was blessed with fast bowlers hunting in two, with Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, and Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie.

The dream phase

How good was Akram? From 1990 to 1997, Akram captured 240 wickets at 20.05. Ambrose did take seven more, but played nine more than Akram’s 48 Tests during the period and had a fractionally higher average. During this phase, Akram was undoubtedly the best fast-bowler of the world, with Younis not far behind. Akram took these wickets at a spellbinding strike rate of 46, and they included 16 five wicket hauls and three 10-fors. In 12 of those Tests , he was the Man of the Match. By this time in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) he had almost all the bowling records under his belt, including two hat-tricks in 1989 and 1990, with all six wickets obtained by rattling the stumps.

He was a phenomenal performer even before this phase, and remained so after it. However, this was the period that saw him at his sublime best. And this despite his initial failed stint at the helm of a rebellious team, the game of musical chairs for Pakistan captaincy, the controversy surrounding his pull-out of the World Cup quarter-final at Bangalore and his constant tension with Waqar Younis, even as they conquered side after side in tandem. And of course, there were the enquiry commissions, betting scandals and all that we have come to identify with cricket in the sub-continent. Finally, he was confronted with the added tragedy of being diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 30. Akram took all this in his stride.

His leadership matured with time. He led successfully in England in 1996, held his nerve during a nail-biting classic at Chennai in 1998, won the Asian Test Championship for Pakistan, contributing to the cause with two Test match hat-tricks against Sri Lanka in back to back matches. He was never quite near Imran Khan or a Javed Miandad when it came to tactical acumen, but did show an uncanny knack for keeping the opposition on the edge. His field-placements were marked with men hovering in front of the wicket close to the bat, in the line of vision of batsmen, ensuring the required stress on the nerves in pressure situations. But, more than his on-field strategy, the growing sophistication was evident in his post-match conduct, and the dignity and poise with which he carried himself in the diplomatically-combustible tours of England and India.

He also enjoyed the high of leading Pakistan to the final of the 1999 World Cup in England, a great run sullied by a disastrous loss in the title round.

The brilliance was dimmed for a while, but Akram remained the great bowler in both formats. He completed milestones of 100 Tests, 400 wickets in Tests and eventually 500 wickets in ODIs. Even when he appeared in the 2003 edition of the World Cup, playing with obvious discontent under Waqar Younis, he emerged as the best bowler for Pakistan in the tournament. However, with the team failing to qualify for the Super Six, Akram was sacked from the side. That was the end of his international career.

The net result

Akram’s supreme feats glittered with enough resplendence to dazzle most eyes and relegate the match-fixing scandal to obscurity. However, it did take some sheen off a magnificent career. A tally of 414 Test wickets and 502 ODI scalps, at identical averages of 23, is bound to have that effect. Almost exactly half of the Test wickets, 211, were taken on the unresponsive surfaces of the sub-continent, at 22.67 apiece. Akram could do so much in the air that often the pitch did not matter at all. He scored 2898 runs in Tests and 3717 in ODIs for good measure, and although averages of 22 and 16 were not really very flattering, they spoke of his value as a lower order hitter.

There are many who have seen him run up with his brisk, quick steps and send down the late swingers, with the new ball and the old; and others who can go back further in time and recall him coming round the wicket during the ‘slog-overs’ of the 1980s, pitching every ball on the block-hole. All of them will prefer to remember him for those spectacular memories rather than the murky association with bookies.

He has turned out to be one of the established commentators in the game. It has been quite a journey for someone who as a teenager, when embarking on his first tour, had asked Miandad about the amount of money he was required to carry. Nowadays, his insights into the game and the depth of knowledge are invaluable, but there is the propensity to indulge in crudeness every now and then. Filler programmes such as “Shaz and Waz”, that he co-hosted with Ravi Shastri, are about as inane and cricket-agnostic as can get during the course of a game.

However, in cricketing terms, Akram remains a legend, perhaps the best left-arm pace bowler ever — unquestionably the best after Allan Davidson — and one of the greatest of all times among all fast bowlers. Certainly, he was the most versatile of them all. Brian Lara considered him the most difficult bowler he had faced in his career, and Ricky Ponting agreed, bracketing him with Ambrose as the best of his time. With dashing good looks and charisma to go with it, Akram still remains the poster-boy of Pakistan cricket for many. The man himself had a whale of a time during his days, and if we ignore the Qayyum Report for a while, he played a brand of cricket that encapsulates all that is great in this noble game.

As he put it when he called it a day in 2003 — “There are no regrets. There have been ups and downs, but I would not have changed it for anything else.” Neither would most of the admirers who have revelled at watching him play.

By: Arunabha Sengupta

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