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Like a wildfire spewing flames towards the sky, it erupts uncontrollably when the mix is right. All you need are a few passionate and opinionated Pakistan fans, an atmosphere of spirited contention, and someone willing to light the match. As you can imagine, in Pakistan this isn't asking for much, and so the great debate erupts frequently and fervently.
Most people know instinctively which side they are on, and positions are staked out right away. The few, who start out genuinely neutral, discover very soon they are anything but. Before long, emotions rise to a crescendo and tempers begin to simmer. The exchange becomes intense, headed towards intractability.
The opening gambit is almost always the same, namely that Wasim Akram, who was once described as possessing the left arm of God, could move the ball both ways, sometimes in the same delivery. Footage of Akram swinging it like a yo-yo has left legions speechless, so this point is naturally impossible to refute. It can only be countered by a parallel argument which, if it is to survive the heat of debate, must be based on hard data.
This is usually the time for Imran Khan loyalists to respond with a trusted opening move of their own. Imran finished his Test career with a better bowling average than Akram - 362 wickets at 22.81 compared with Akram's 414 at 23.62. It's not a huge divide - Imran only gave 0.81 runs less per wicket than Akram - but over careers spanning two decades, such a sustained separation becomes significant. Imran's Test strike rate (53.7) and economy (2.54) are also better than Akram's (54.6 and 2.59); again, not by much, but Imran does come out ahead.
Akram's supporters know they cannot win if the battle moves to statistics. Although Akram's ODI figures (502 wickets at 23.52, SR 36.2, econ 3.89) are better than Imran's (182 wickets at 26.61, SR 40.9, econ 3.89), Imran's career was already half-over before ODI cricket at the international level really took off. Akram, by contrast, arrived when the ODI circuit had come into full bloom.
The argument for Akram's supremacy needs a visceral approach. In Pakistani cricket gatherings, it doesn't get more visceral than evoking the memory of March 25, 1992. Everyone who saw those two deliveries that castled Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis were astounded, and even today, if you watch them on YouTube, you cannot help shaking your head. Timing adds to the mystique - the two best deliveries of Akram's career, and what a moment to produce them.
Imran's camp fully understands the emotional weight of this appeal. They reach deep into their arsenal and come up with Christmas Day 1982. This is no ordinary reference: late afternoon in Karachi; the ball begins to reverse as the breeze blows in from the sea; Imran takes five Indian wickets for three runs in the space of 25 balls; which included Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Sandeep Patil, and Kapil Dev. It's a formidable counter-response, but it can only go so far. A Test match (even one against India) is not the same as the final of the World Cup.
Some friends and I once had the opportunity to ask Javed Miandad where he stood on the great debate. Miandad's initial response was to insist on framing the question narrowly. So we did: Let's say you're having a net facing Akram and Imran, both of whom are at their peak; who would trouble you more? Miandad closed his eyes and for several seconds and appeared deep in thought. Then he gave his verdict: Akram. Why? Because he could move it both ways with greater skill than Imran. Of course, there's more to bowling greatness than bowling well in the nets, but Miandad wouldn't be dragged into the larger debate.
On another occasion, my fellow Cricinfo blogger Kamran Abbasi and I once found ourselves in the company of Sanjay Manjrekar and Ramiz Raja. This was in Multan during a Pakistan-Bangladesh Test that happened to be going through a rather dull period. Sure enough, someone lit the match, and arguments came pouring forth. Ramiz was championing Akram and his view ultimately prevailed, but it wasn't pretty.
It is probably true that Akram die-hards outnumber Imran's supporters in the great debate, and they also tend to be more passionate. Those who argue for Imran tend to be more clinical and academic, probably because the arguments in favour of Imran are themselves rather clinical and academic.
Most people acknowledge that Imran was a more committed bowler, who never gave less than 100%. Akram, for better or worse, is still remembered as the kind of guy who could pull up with a side strain on the morning of a World Cup quarter-final. Imran bowled many overs through a stress fracture of the shin. For about a year and a half - the second half of 1983 and all of 1984 - this injury robbed him of his best bowling days. Who knows how much more he would have achieved without this unfortunate interlude.
There is also the matter of opposition quality. Imran didn’t play any Tests against the likes of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and played a total of only two ODIs against them. But in Akram's case, 47 of his Test wickets (at 22.36) and 42 of his ODI wickets (at 20.92) have come from these teams.
For an amicable end to the great debate, you need a few people around who are willing to accept that the question of whether Akram or Imran was the greater bowler is complex and many-faceted. I was recently at a dinner party where the mood was right and the debate was kindled yet again. Arguments followed a predictable trajectory, and before long the dialogue had become intransigent. Our host, a moderate cricket follower skilled at diplomacy, brought closure when he said Akram was the greater bowler, but Imran was no less. I have memorised that line for the next iteration of the great debate.
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