January 31, 2000

Wasim's record - a remarkable feat

There is, first of all, the matter of Wasim Akram's 400 (plus) wickets in one day internationals. It is a monumental achievement considering that no one else has even crossed the 300 mark. The closest is Waqar Younis with 290 wickets. This is one record that is not likely to be broken in the foreseeable future, if ever. And it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Wasim Akram has had to put up with a lot of aggravation. He has been vilified, his name smeared, accused of being in league with bookies in match-fixing. He has been captain of Pakistan, removed, re-instated, removed and re-instated again. A lesser person would have packed it in or become a nervous wreck. Yet none of this seems to have affected his bowling. He remains, at both levels of the game, the world's best bowler. Not even his health, he is diabetic, has stopped him getting wickets, nor indeed from enjoying his cricket and getting those under his command to do the same. Of his 400 wickets, two that I remember the most were those of Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis in the World Cup final in Melbourne in 1992. That was the defining moment of that final, England's hopes dashed and the Cup Pakistan's.

The achievement must be seen within the constraints of the one-day game. A bowler is only allowed ten overs and there are fielding restrictions and the umpires are severe on wides. And most of all, a fast bowler, is not allowed to bowl the bouncer. In the circumstances 400 is an awful lot of wickets. In the period that Wasim Akram has played his cricket there have been some great bowlers. That none of them are even close is a tribute of its own. In the same period, there have also been some great batsmen and none of them could or can truthfully say that they have been able to master Wasim Akram and this would include Sachin Tendulkar who is in the high summer of his cricket while Wasim Akram can be said to be in his autumn years. Wasim is not done yet. He will add to his tally. He is pretty close to reaching 400 test wickets. It will be a unique double. Imran Khan was among the first to congratulate him.

Imran could rightly claim a share in the record for Imran who has been his mentor and he inspired him and guided him and allowed him full rein. "Don't worry about wides and no-balls. Get me wickets," he told him during the World Cup final. But that's the advice Imran always gave him whether in tests or one-day internationals. Wasim improvised on this. When he was not able to get wickets, he was able to close shop and keep one end sealed. It is this quality that makes him a complete bowler.

Much praise is being showered on Hansie Cronje and Nasser Hussain for making a match of it when rain washed out three and a half days play in the Centurion test match. I regret that I cannot join in the praise. What happened was a travesty of test cricket and an extremely dangerous precedent has been set. I know that I am old fashioned and probably out of step with the times. But I'm not particularly bothered about being considered a fuddy-duddy. It was my expectation that one-day cricket would gradually be brought in line with test cricket, that it would cease to be a tamasha. But we seem to be going the other way. By no definition can such a contrived match be considered a part of a test series. Never forget that this same England refused to play under lights when it was suggested that they do so. They took the view that test cricket was played under certain rules and how could one play with a red ball and a white sight screen under lights? Two down and the series lost, they agreed to "continue" the test match by forfeiting their first innings.

As I understand the rules, a first innings can be declared but not forfeited, and to declare, England had to bat, if only for one ball. But that is a technicality. The argument given is that the spectators were owed something. Fair enough. A one-day international could have been played. If entertainment is the primary consideration, I wonder why streakers are bundled out of the ground and prosecuted. We should be encouraging them for a streaker running on the field invariably produces much merriment. Entertaining the crowed, the poor chaps and chappies who sat through the rain for three and a half days was too high a cost to pay for devaluing test cricket. South Africa lost the contrived match and looked crest-fallen and England were jubilant that they had something to show, escaping with at least one test win. Whose kidding who?

I certainly feel that the spectators are entitled to entertainment. But I can remember engrossing test matches, played with deadly seriousness that gave a great deal of entertainment to those who watched them. I was once asked to compare test cricket with the one-day version. I said that both were works of art, one was a ballet and the other belly-dancing. When I went to a test match, I knew what to expect and when I went to a one-day international I also knew what to expect. Now I am not so sure. I may set out to watch a ballet and may end up seeing belly-dancing.

Many extest cricketers have appreciated this contrived test match but most of them are television commentators and they could be said to have a vested interest. Only Sunil Gavaskar has expressed some misgivings. Not for the first time I agree with him.