King of swing falls for the girls
For the last fortnight, the king of Pakistan cricket has been striding around North Sydney Oval, looking predictably suave in well-fitting shirts and purple-tinted sunglasses. Wasim Akram is in Australia to commentate on the Women's World Cup for ESPN Star Sports and, ever too cool for school, he refused to do his homework.
He arrived here not knowing the names of any players, realising that his co-commentators would give excellent assistance. He notes that he never even studied his opposition when a player, then again when forming a powerful alliance with Waqar Younis, he didn't have to.
Now he knows all the top women and their world rankings. "I've been impressed by the standard of the cricket ability, the standard of the fielding, the standard of the talent - they've got every shot," he enthuses. "The fielding was phenomenal. For England, New Zealand and Australia, the fielding was mind-blowing, I was amazed."
It didn't even take a fortnight for Wasim, who had never seen women's cricket before - unless you count a brief hour at the World Cup final at Lord's in 1993 - to become a big fan and an important, if unofficial, ambassador.
From the moment he began commentating on the opening Australia-New Zealand match, it was obvious he was impressed, and perhaps even surprised. As Karen Rolton smoked a bullet through point, Wasim asked his co-commentator: "Is Karen mainly an off-side player?"
That instant she cracked a sweet pull to square. Within overs, Wasim was confidently announcing, as if he had always known, "Karen, of course, can play shots all round the wicket." He was smitten.
His favourite players are Rolton, Mithali Raj, Suzie Bates, Claire Taylor, Laura Marsh and Holly Colvin - notably all batsmen or spinners. One thing he would like to see is batsmen going after the slow bowlers. "I haven't seen anyone attacking the spinners, playing with the spin, using their feet, apart from a few of the seniors."
The absence of pace bowlers in Wasim's list of notables is attributable to the fact that they could be even stronger, and so have more speed. "They're not genuinely sharp, but they can become sharp if they play a longer version of the game - at least two-day cricket where they can bowl a lot more overs and, by doing that, their bowling muscles will get strengthened and their pace will increase.
"That's what happens with fast bowlers. If you've got to play one tournament in two years or five one-day internationals, you're not going to improve your pace."
But his dream is likely to remain such. If anything, more one-day and Twenty20 cricket is being played than ever before - with no winds of change on the horizon. For years the only country to play two-day domestic cricket, Australia finally wound up playing such long matches a few years ago, while Tests have been waning.
I turned briefly to Wasim's fellow commentator Belinda Clark, the manager of Australia's Centre of Excellence, for her comments. "As a player, I think that developing that opportunity to play in all forms of the game is really important," she agreed. "I think, really, in terms of international exposure, it's going to come through one-day and Twenty20 cricket for the girls.
"I agree with him that [longer cricket] plays a very important role in developing not only bowling skills but the ability to bat for long periods and actually learn the game is done in the longer form of the game. The harsh commercial realities are that that's going to be difficult to do going forward."
Finances have played a pointed part in this World Cup. The best-funded team, England, won the US$45,000 prize fairly comfortably - sending a clear message to other boards.
But as well as monetary assistance, the game needs prominent advocates such as Wasim. Australia has an official ambassador in Ian Healy, a perfect fit, as his niece Alyssa is a junior Australia player, and he even flew himself in for the final. More big names actually discovering the game is a big aim, however, which is where Wasim's opinion really counts.
So impressed has he been that he is keen to spread the women's word among the male bastions. "Of course I will be saying the standard is really good and we should support it - and I will support it all the way.
"They just need to play a bit more cricket to get more exposure and then they'll improve as players as well," he says. "I think that women's cricket has a future for sure."
Jenny Roesler is a former assistant editor at Cricinfo