I have often battled with myself to figure out exactly how I want to remember Wasim Akram.
He is the best left-arm pacer to have played the game but there were the dark days of match fixing too.
Last week marked the anniversary of when he reached 400 ODI wickets. And for the occasion, I am going to set the heartbreak aside and think of the joy that Wasim Akram brought into our lives.
It pitched short of length, on or around the off stump. What was Allan Lamb supposed to do? Come forward? It wasn’t that full. Stay back? It wasn’t that short either. He was done.
The next delivery pitched way outside the off stump. Chris Lewis brought his front leg forward but he was too late; the ball never really stopped coming back in. Two in two. Game, set and match.
If there was ever any doubt in anyone’s mind about Wasim Akram’s class, these two deliveries dispelled them forever.
He is one of the finest cricketers ever and perhaps fate had wanted for him to make this announcement at the biggest stage of all.
He scored 33 from 18 balls and Pakistan closed their innings at 249. With England looking comfortable at 141 for 4, Imran Khan threw the ball to Wasim Akram. In front of a record crowd of 87,000 fans, first with the bat and then this trickery with the ball. Superhuman stuff?
I was too young to experience the high of 1992, but my love affair with Pakistan cricket began during the 1996/97 Carlton & United series in Australia. I was five years old and remember waking up early in the morning during an unusually cold winter to watch the matches.
Wasim was the new Imran. I had only seen footage of Imran lifting the Waterford crystal trophy at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Wasim was lifting a trophy at the same ground and I was watching it live on TV. His victory speech also had a reference to the month of Ramazan. I was completely sold .
We are back in Australia. Wasim is now a 36-year-old wise fellow who has weathered many storms. He had multiple captaincy stints and is now aspiring to be captain one last time. He survived a match-fixing investigation, and battled diabetes for close to seven years.
The ball pitches on off stump, slightly short of length. Adam Gilchrist doesn’t quite know whether to push forward or stay back. The ball moves away from him after pitching.
You might need a magnifying glass to notice the movement, but it is very much there. This was classic Wasim: tease the batsman until the very last second. Gilchrist tries to play with a straight bat and edges it to the keeper.
Ricky Ponting is the next man in. Every left-armer dreams to bring the ball back into the right-hander; Wasim can bowl it blindfolded.
He doesn’t have the pace of 1992 but this one comes back, kisses Ponting’s pad, strikes the bat and balloons in the air. Then Wasim dives to take the catch like a 20-year-old Shahid Afridi. Game, set and match.
You might watch an old clip of Wasim Akram bowling and use it as an example to define flawlessness and perfection. How could something so casual – he ran from what looked like 10 steps – in its formation and so uncomplicated in its execution lead to such magic?
It wasn’t just carefully planned smart tricks to entice batsmen though. There was pace and intimidation, enough of it to crush Brian Lara’s toe and to send Lance Cairns to the hospital.
By the time his age set in and the pace went, Wasim had mastered his swing enough to continue the magic.
Basically, everything about the way he bowled was the definition of what you had imagined bowling to be about.
Fast-forward another nine years. He is 45 years old, working as a bowling consultant for Kolkata Knight Riders. England’s Eoin Morgan is asked about the toughest bowler he has ever faced. His response:
Wasim’s career, like that of most other young cricketers in Pakistan, started with tape-ball cricket.
Mastered in the streets of old Lahore, his skills caught the attention of a local cricketer who took Wasim to the Ludhiana Gymkhana.
Here, a certain Lahore cricket legend named Saud Khan took Wasim under his wings. But Saud, who has spent his career coaching the city’s Under-19 and college teams, can claim little credit.
After all, Wasim developed as a person, bowler, and leader largely due to the great Imran Khan. Wasim has often said in interviews that Imran used to guide him on every ball of every over.
To a certain extent, bowling did come naturally to him but this notion ignores another important aspect of Wasim’s career: he was a hard worker through and through.
He spent hours in the nets, often trying to perfect just one delivery. How else could he bowl these three unplayable balls in one over against South Africa with such perfection?
Ask the old administration stalwarts at the Qadhafi Stadium and they will tell you that he literally never stopped bowling.
His mantra – as simple as his action – was to get overs under his belt. This explains why he is not a fan of modern-day bowlers spending time in the gym as opposed to practicing in the nets.
But that was not all. Apart from being the greatest left-arm fast bowler, he was a fine captain too. Though captaincy did not come naturally to him, at least at first.
His first tenure, brought about by a rebellion against his predecessor Javed Miandad, lasted five Tests and 23 ODIs only. Perhaps that is why Wasim wants Azhar Ali to get a longer run with the current ODI team.
By the time he was in his last stint as captain, there was little doubt over his ability to marshal his troops. Over time, he developed the statesmanship and self-assuredness that came so naturally to Imran Khan. Just like his mentor did with him, Wasim always backed key match-winners and they delivered.
A spinner as a death bowler? Wasim obviously saw something in Saqlain and made him do it, almost with perfection. Abdul Razzaq flourished as an all-rounder under Wasim’s tutelage. Shahid Afridi, Azhar Mahmood, Shoaib Akhtar are others on the list.
Pakistan were touring India for a Test series after 12 years in 1999. India needed 231 runs to win the first Test with 8 wickets in hand and two days remaining. As the team gathered in a huddle before the play began, Wasim Akram chose very few words to tell his team what he wanted them to do:
Boys, aik baat important yaad rakhni hai ke girna nahiN hai.
Boys, it is important to remember that we are not going to back down!
Could there really be a more apt pep talk? These words, in many ways, encapsulated his own career as well. Player revolts, match fixing, diabetes – he had seen it all and, yet, he continued to weave his magic.
His words galvanised the team as Pakistan survived some tense moments to win the nail-biting match and go 1-nil up in the series.
Comparisons with Imran Khan were inevitable but he doesn’t enjoy the same status as Imran – he fell agonisingly short of winning the world cup in 1999. Nonetheless, Wasim did manage to give his team a sense of invincibility.
At Lancashire, Wasim’s county club for close to 10 seasons, he was known as King.
David Lloyd, former England player and coach, and a popular TV commentator for Sky TV, narrated that in his first game as captain, Wasim asked the team to gather in the dressing room. His words: “Come on. I have dream.” Make of it what you will.
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