Style over statistics
Some players capture our imagination through their statistical brilliance. The name Bradman is still synonymous with batting genius right around the cricketing world, even though he played his last Test match well over 60 years ago and there are now very few fans around who would have seen him play in person.
Other cricketers, however, are able to inspire and thrill crowds through their attacking approach to the game without regard to opponents' reputations or preservation of their own averages. There are many batsmen who are said to have "wasted" the natural talent bestowed upon them by failing to score big centuries consistently. Usually it is the highly attacking players who wear this tag - their desire to dominate the bowling leading to relatively early exits from the crease.
Wayne Prior, the former Australia opening bowler, disagreed with this argument by commenting that the expectation and sheer sense of excitement that flows through fellow players, umpires and spectators when such a batsman arrives in the middle is in itself sufficient justification for the supposed squandering of their talent.
Wasim Raja was one such player.
His Test record is surprisingly mediocre when you just consider the raw numbers. He played 57 Tests but only scored four centuries, with a batting average of 36.16. Nonetheless, I will always remember Wasim with extreme fondness, for he was a man whose Test batting record does not reflect the anticipation of the crowd, and the anxiety of the bowlers, when he strode out to do battle.
Wasim was born in Multan, a large city on the Chenab river in central Pakistan, on July 3, 1952. His father, Raja Saleem Akhtar, was employed as a civil servant. While this job was important in providing his children with the opportunity to receive quality schooling, the fact that Saleem played first-class cricket for both Multan and Sargodha as a right-hand batsman and legspinner ensured that Wasim was also exposed to expert cricket coaching from an early age.
Like his father, Wasim bowled legspin, however he batted left-handed. His skill as a batsman was clear from a young age, and he debuted in first-class cricket at the precocious age of just 15 for Lahore Green against Karachi Blue in 1967. This match was not overly successful for either Wasim or Lahore Green, with Wasim scoring 11 in each innings as Lahore slumped to a ten-wicket defeat.
During these early years, Wasim failed to secure his place in the team as a top-order batsman. He would often make a brilliant 20 or 30 before getting out. In fact, it was his handy bowling that probably kept him in the Lahore team: Wasim regularly contributed three or four wickets.
Wasim first came to the attention of the national selectors during the Pakistan National Under-19 Championships in 1970-71, in which he captained Lahore. Against Sargodha he scored 126 in Lahore's innings, and then took 2 for 44 while his side pushed for an outright victory on the final day of the three-day game. He followed this with six wickets and a score of 70 against Karachi in the West Zone final. In the final against East Pakistan Sports Federation, Wasim failed with the bat, but he took 5 for 85 and 4 for 29 in a match that Lahore dominated. These performances saw him being named as the captain of the combined Pakistan U-19 team.
It was not until the following 1971-72 season that Wasim scored his first first-class century. Representing Punjab University against Rawalpindi in the final of the Punjab Governor's Gold Cup Tournament, he smashed 151 and also took seven wickets in his team's victory by an innings.
He followed this with 80 and 57 against a Pakistan XI and it was clear that Wasim was starting to be considered for national duty. In a brilliant all-round performance for Pakistan Universities against the Public Works Department in December 1972 he scored 117, took ten wickets and was duly selected for Pakistan's tour of New Zealand.
In his first match for the senior Pakistan side, Wasim top-scored with 86 against Canterbury. His form wavered over the next few matches but he made enough useful contributions with bat and ball to be selected to make his Test debut against New Zealand in the first Test at the Basin Reserve in February 1973. The match was drawn, with Wasim making 10 and 41 and bowling four unsuccessful overs on the final afternoon as the match wound down.
Pakistan dominated the second Test, with Wasim making a largely meaningless 8 not out and bowling just two overs as his side won by an innings and 166 runs on the back of a double-century by Mushtaq Mohammad and 11 wickets by Intikhab Alam. The third Test was drawn; Wasim made 49 and took four wickets including the only three wickets to fall in New Zealand's second innings.
Wasim had made a promising start on the Test stage, but unfortunately the inconsistency he showed in this series continued throughout his career. He was a brilliant strokemaker who could make batting look easy. However, he was then subject to criticism that has since plagued players of a similar ilk, such as David Gower, Mark Waugh, and Carl Hooper.
Whenever Wasim got out, it was often claimed that he had thrown his wicket away, and he seemed to be a regular target for Pakistan's selectors whenever they were looking to make changes. He was first dropped from the Pakistan team after the first Test against England in 1973, when he made 23 and 6 not out. Wasim was still chosen in the touring party to go to England following that series, and returned to the Test arena for the second and third Tests. He scored a solid double of 24 and 53 at Lord's in a drawn match badly affected by rain. Alan Knott and Mushtaq were the only other players from either side to pass 50 in the match. The wet pitch played right into the left hand of Derek Underwood, who was unlucky not to bowl England to victory after taking 5 for 20 and 8 for 51 before seeing the final day washed out.
The fact that Wasim performed well at Lord's under such difficult circumstances suggests that perhaps he found batting too easy at times and lost concentration against lesser opposition. This premise is certainly supported by the fact that Wasim's best performances were undoubtedly against West Indies. During the two-match home series in 1975, he scored his first Test century. West Indies' four-pronged pace battery had not yet formed at that point, but Wasim's undefeated 107 in the second Test came against three fairly handy fast bowlers - a young Andy Roberts, Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder, who were well supported by Lance Gibbs. However, Wasim's next appearance against West Indies would be even more impressive.
By 1977, Clive Lloyd's desire to play a truly fearsome fast bowling quartet had started to come to fruition. The West Indies team for the first Test against Pakistan at Kensington Oval featured Roberts, Colin Croft, Joel Garner and Holder. Against this attack, Wasim played arguably his greatest match. In the first innings he scored an unbeaten 117 with 12 fours and a six, and then an equally fine 71 to guide Pakistan from a very precarious 126 for 7 through to 291. This recovery nearly resulted in a famous victory, as Pakistan were within one wicket of a win when stumps were drawn on the final day, with West Indies' last pair of Roberts and Colin Croft just managing to hold on. While West Indies ultimately went on to win the series 2-1, Wasim could hold his head high. He finished the five-Test series with 517 runs at 57.44, which was the best average for the tourists.
Wasim's career thereafter was expected to flourish, but he never again quite reached those same heights. He had some other fine series, including 450 runs at 56.25 in six Tests against India in 1979, and 246 runs against West Indies at an average of 61.50 (which is slightly inflated by three not-outs) in 1980-81. However, there were too many series interspersed between these successes in which he averaged well below 50. He played his final Test series against New Zealand in 1985. After scoring just 29 runs in the first two Tests, he was dropped for the final time.
Wasim settled in the homeland of his English wife, Ann. He undertook further studies at Durham University and then taught at Caterham School and Haslemere Preparatory School. He wasn't totally lost to cricket, however, and he had roles as both an ICC match referee and as the coach of Pakistan, both at age-group and national levels. Wasim continued to play cricket and it was sadly on the field that he suffered a fatal heart attack aged just 54, playing for the Surrey Over-50s in 2006.
Wasim's numbers indicate a poor return for a player capable of the most breathtaking shots against the fastest bowlers, but he is still remembered with great satisfaction by anyone who saw him bat. His numbers against the benchmark West Indies Test attack are worth considering one final time: he played West Indies 11 times and passed 50 on nine occasions, averaging an amazing 57.43.
Quite why he managed to average nearly 20 more runs an innings against the world's best bowling attack when compared to his overall career average is now mere speculation. And ultimately it doesn't matter, for Wasim's batting was greater than any numbers can tell. He will remain in the memory of those who saw him play, long beyond many more stolid batsmen with far superior statistics will.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow