March 20, 2014

The what-ifs of Wasim Akram's captaincy

His stats, and the list of great players who flourished under him, indicate he ought to be up there with Imran and the rest. But is he?

Wasim Akram enjoyed tremendous success as Pakistan captain but was a dictatorial and divisive leader Saeed Khan / © AFP

Last month I wrote of the Mount Rushmore of Pakistan captaincy, and the obvious question asked was who would be the fourth face carved upon the mountain. For all that Miandad, Misbah and the others have done, the logical choice for that fourth name was, of course, Wasim Akram - a name that brings with it baggage and question marks.

The story of Pakistan cricket, especially in the '90s, is one of what-ifs, and probably the greatest among them is: what if Akram had been the captain for an extended period of time. Under Akram that generation came possibly the closest it ever did to reaching its potential. Between April 1992 and April 2003 their win-loss ratio in Tests was 1.50 under Akram, and 1.21 under other captains. In ODIs the difference was even starker: 1.60 under him and 1.15 under everyone else. Quite simply, he was the best captain that generation had.

It's not just that he was so much better than his contemporaries, his numbers also speak loudly across generations - he has better win percentages in both formats than any other Pakistani captain about whom a case could be made for his being on the Rushmore, although that may have a lot to do with the fact that he also had the greatest collection of talent playing for him that any Pakistan captain has ever had.

But it wasn't just the results that formed his legacy; he also had an Imran-esque ability to develop youngsters who could then take the world by storm. Shoaib Akhtar's coming-out party in Kolkata comes to mind, and Abdul Razzaq's leap from bits-and-pieces to genuine allrounder (Akram gave him responsibility from the 1999 World Cup onwards). Shahid Afridi's Nairobi epic may have come under Saeed Anwar, but Anwar was only the acting captain; Afridi had come into the side with Akram as captain. And then there is Saqlain Musthaq, whose rise - particularly as a death bowler - was basically Akram's doing. Apart from Mohammad Yousuf, all those who left a mark on the Pakistan team, having debuted in the second half of the '90s, had Akram to thank for their careers.

And it's not just the stats that help his case but the results Pakistan achieved with him at the helm. They won seven of the 12 tournament finals they played under him during that period and won only nine of the 24 finals that he didn't captain. Most significant among them might be the Carlton & United tri-nation win in 1996-97 against West Indies and Australia when those two and South Africa could conceivably have called themselves the three best sides in the world. Add that to all the Sharjah wins, a Test series win in England, and the 1999 tour of India. When a Pakistani of a certain age gets nostalgic about the team of the '90s, it's the one with Akram as captain.

Akram was a very good captain, just not a great one like Imran; he created great players, just not a great team like Imran did; Imran the captain was beyond reproach, Akram was anything but; Imran won his World Cup final, Akram didn't

Yet that only tells half the story. Akram had at least four tenures as captain, none which lasted more than 20 months; and even those were often interrupted by injury, an apparent preference for county over country (as per the allegations of the local press at the time), and various other reasons. In his second tenure, from November 1995 to May 1997, he played only 43 of the 61 ODIs Pakistan played in this period, all 43 of which he captained.

His first tenure was cut short because of his supposedly dictatorial ways. It sowed the seeds for a disunity (and subsequent mutinies) that lasted a decade within that group, and the revival (if not birth) of a culture that continues to eat away at the Pakistan dressing room more than two decades later.

Of course, the PCB had an important role to play in all this; Pakistan had ten different captains, most with multiple tenures, in that decade - which is, quite frankly, ridiculous. But it was Akram and Waqar Younis who sowed the seeds for a culture of egos at loggerheads back in 1993. There was also a rivalry between the two that may mean that one of the greatest partnerships in cricket history might actually have underachieved. And then there is the small matter of match-fixing - whether that be via the findings of the Qayyum report, or the thousands of theories that floated around in every Pakistani cricket conversation - which continues to raise a question mark among even those who consider Akram the best they ever saw. When he missed the 1996 World Cup quarter-final against India due to injury, his house was stoned, effigies of him burnt, and he ended up needing a police escort after Pakistan's defeat. Not since OJ Simpson has a man never found guilty been presumed guilty by so many. And yet, a decade after his retirement, Akram might just be the most popular sportsman in the country, as evidenced by his presence in nearly every other advertisement on Pakistani television.

In the end, Akram was always destined to be Imran 2.0, and that was what he ended up being. He was the Walter White to Imran's Atticus Finch. While he surpassed his mentor to become the greatest bowler in the country's history (if not the greatest the world has seen), in everything else (from batting to captaincy) his career is marked by what-might-have-beens. He fell short of the insanely high standards Imran had set; he was a very good captain, just not a great one like Imran; he created great players, just not a great team like Imran did; Imran won his World Cup final, Akram didn't. Perhaps he never had a deputy, like Imran did in Miandad; perhaps he never had the authority that Imran earned, or was provided, in the dressing room and by the board; perhaps he would have been better served if he didn't have so many egos to deal with.

Or perhaps, rather simply, he tried to follow Imran's preaching rather than his practices. Even in his later stints he was seen by many younger players to be trying too hard to be Imran and not getting there. He was more aggressive than any other captain in Pakistan's history. Imran has a higher percentage of draws than all but one (Intikhab Alam) of the nine Pakistani captains with more than 15 Tests as captain. Imran preached for the power of one man above all, but coexisted and consulted with Miandad. Akram tried to be less diplomatic and often ended up being the deposed dictator.

Gods are infallible but uncomplicated; heroes are complex but flawed. Imran ended up being a cricketing god, and enjoyed the mythology that comes with it. Akram had immortality within his reach but ended up being just a hero. Heroes are relatable, imperfect, undeniably human; and Akram was the greatest hero there ever was.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here