Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Left-arm Genius

Dated 1st June 2003, The New Sunday Express

Wasim Akram was a wonderful competitor.  But he will never be the ultimate role model, says   V Ramnarayan

When Wasim Akram first played at Chennai, way back in 1986-87, he was a wiry, excitable young fast bowler with seemingly inexhaustible energy. He charged in and delivered the ball with an arm speed rarely seen before or since in the Test arena. His captain and mentor, Imran Khan, who came to India with a huge reputation and a past record to defend, had dis­covered his raw talent when he was barely 18 — give or take a couple of years to make allowances for regional varia­tions! — and believed his young protégé would one day be acknowledged as a phenomenon.

How prophetic he proved to be, with the young tearaway developing, in a career span­ning 18 years, into the most complete left handed purveyor of speed, swing and seam the game of cricket has known!

Neither the ustad nor the shagird had much success with the ball in that Chepauk Test, though they were far more productive with the bat, involved, as they were in a century partnership for the eighth wicket, with Imran Khan making an impeccable, unbeaten 135, and each batsman smashing five huge sixes.

Wasim had already shown evidence of huge natural abil­ity with the bat, but in the years that followed, he pre­ferred to concentrate on domi­nating batsmen with pace, though he was still some way yet from 'making the ball talk' as he began doing in his mature years.

He remained a genuine quick for most of his career, sacrific­ing only a little of his pace as he added a whole range of deliveries that no batsman could honestly claim to decode from his action or his grip before the ball was upon him, hissing and spitting fire, swinging one way and seam­ing another.

The speed with which he brought his arm down at the start of his career hardly diminished nor did his bustling run-­up slow down with advancing years, while his wrist stayed supple and strong, changing the angle of delivery and degree of deviation ever so subtly and causing havoc in the minds of unsuspecting batsmen.

Wasim never did make the transition from a fierce, versatile pace bowler who could also on his day demolish most bowling attacks with the power and sweep of his bludgeoning bat into a consistent all rounder in the mould of an Imran Khan, an Ian Botham or a Kapil Dev.

Like that other modern master of fast bowling who found greater meaning in perfecting his bowling craft than in occupation of the crease, Sir Richard Hadlee, Wasim chose to express his genius rather more through the seemingly infinite variety of tricks he played on the best batsmen of the world, than harnessing his explosive batting talent to the prosaic task of building innings.

Yet his immense batting potential flowered occasionally; he is that rarest of bowlers whose batting average column reads 22.64, followed by a highest score of 257 not out!

Indian batsmen seldom enjoyed the prospect of facing Wasim in his prime, or even in the twilight years of his career.  The younger Wasim tended to thud into their rib cage, find the outer edge of their dangling bat or have them scrambling for cover or mishooking, rarely giving them the width or length to score off him.

The older version drew them more often on to the front foot, but the invitation to drive was generally treated with suspicion and rarely accepted with confidence. It needed the genius of Sachin Tendulkar and all the courage of his colleagues to survive his torrid opening spells when he toured India last as captain of Pakistan.

If he continued to bowl with relentless aggression, constant­ly probing batsmen's weakness­es, he captained positively, never giving up a game as lost until the last ball was bowled. An electrifying example was the victory he and his men, led by off spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, fashioned at Chepauk after Tendulkar, in the company of Nayan Mongia, brought India to the doorstep of victory.

If the three Ws, Weekes, Worrell and Walcott dominated the West Indies batting of the 1950s, captivating enthusiasts with both wristy elegance and sheer power, the nineties belonged to Pakistan's two Ws, Wasim and Waqar, two dreaded fast men who perfected the art and science of reverse swing, first unveiled to the world by Sarfaraz Nawaz and Imran Khan in the seventies.

Much praise has been show­ered on the pair and their inventive skills, but equally substantial has been the criti­cism of their methods. Ball-tampering and scuffing up the cricket ball selective­ly to make it do unexpected things when it is old, is perhaps as ancient a prac­tice among weary bowlers doing the county cir­cuit as English cricket itself, but it is the Pakistanis who succeeded in adding a new genre of bowling to the game, a contribution to cricket that rivals the googly and the leg glance for sheer originality.  This they did by teaching the old ball new tricks.

What Wasim and Waqar achieved in the course of mastering reverse swing was to shorten Test innings forever. For nearly a decade they dis­missed an incredible number of batsmen in the lower order for negligible scores. No longer could nine, ten or jack plonk his front foot forward and hope to survive by offering stout resistance. An amazing number of batsmen were out bowled or LBW to Wasim (53 per cent), his partner, Waqar Younis (57 per­ cent) being the only bowler to send a greater percentage of his victims to their doom by the same route.

There are many who believe that Wasim was the greatest left arm pace bowler of all time, even better than Australia's Alan Davidson or Sir Garfield Sobers. Even dissenters will concede that he has been quite the best bowler of all time in one-day limited overs cricket. His 500 wickets in that form of cricket at a miserly rate of under four per over is a monu­mental achievement, and com­ing on top of his 414 Test wick­ets, is unlikely to be bettered by any bowler.

In one-day cricket, Wasim and Waqar were responsible for attracting a new breed of spec­tators to the ground: those who came to watch their bowling in contrast to the usual crowds assembled solely to cheer fours and sixes. At their best, they made the first 15 as well as the slog overs completely irrelevant. Invariably, Wasim man­aged to prise out early wickets and often came back at the death — to spell just that to batsmen hoping to launch an offensive towards the end.

A cricketer of such surpass­ing accomplishments should have been the recipient of the highest accolades, but there's a question mark over Wasim's conduct off the field, as is well known by now. Though charges of abetting match fixing were never conclusively proved, he did not come out of the scam with his reputation untar­nished. And, unlike his mentor Imran, who unearthed and nur­tured some of the best young talent Pakistan has produced, Wasim has not played elder brother to aspiring fast bowlers, nor has he always given 100 per cent to the cap­tains who replaced him. History will remember him as a great competitor and a genius of a bowler, but he will never be the ultimate role model.

V Ramnarayan is a former Ranji Trophy player who bowled off spin for Hyderabad between 1975-80


Born: 3 June 1966, Lahore, Punjab;
Major Teams: Pakistan Automobiles Corporation, Lahore Cricket Association, Lancashire, Pakistan International Airlines, Pakistan, Hampshire;
Batting Style: Left hand bat;
Bowling style:  Left arm fast;
Test debut: Pakistan v New Zealand at Auckland, 2nd test, 1984/85;
Latest test: Pakistan v Bangladesh at Dhaka, 1st Test, 201/02;
ODI debut: Pakistan v New Zealand at Faisalabad, 2nd ODI, 1984/85;
Latest ODI: Pakistan v Zimbabwe at Bulawayo, World Cup, 2002/03;
Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1993.

1 comment:

arshed said...

I agree 100%. I observed the same throughout his career.