Gideon Haigh on cricket's most influential players

Wasim Akram

The wonder that was Waz

Despite struggling against injury and illness for much of his career,Akram went on to bring about a seminal change in the way cricket was played

Gideon Haigh

October 17, 2009

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Wasim Akram is on fire as he takes Allan Lamb out, immediately before taking Chris Lewis' wicket, Pakistan v England, World Cup final, Melbourne, 25 March, 1992
Batsmen small and great often lost their toes or wickets to Wasim Akram © Getty Images
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Wasim Akram played cricket like there was no tomorrow. And at times it felt like there wasn't. He retired from cricket more than once, was hectored to do so on several other occasions, and suffered the sack as captain and cricketer perhaps as often as any player in history. He was accused of cricket's most heinous crime and escaped the supreme sanction only because of his accuser's equivocations.

Then there were the injuries and infirmities. Shane Warne likened his life to a soap opera; Akram's was more like a medical drama. At one time or other, every pivotal point in Akram's body buckled: groin, intercostal muscle, shoulder, pelvic bones. Then there were the hernias, appendicitis, and diabetes leading to deteriorating eyesight. The money in Akram's family came from a business in spare parts; over the years he could have done with a few himself.

Few careers have been clouded by so many intimations of mortality. But few will have such ongoing impact on the techniques of the game: Akram was the most accomplished practitioner of a skill that is probably older than imagined but has been formally acknowledged for about two decades.

The development of reverse swing, as much as the renascence in wrist-spin, was the headline trend of the 1990s. Most cricket fans now have the gist of reverse swing, if not a grasp of its arcane physics: how ballast and wear on one side of a cricket ball achieve, in reverse, effects like those of protection and polishing. But they underestimate its subversiveness. Like the googly, BJT Bosanquet's jeu d'esprit a hundred years ago, reverse swing was an act of counter-intuition, requiring dry, not overcast, conditions; extreme pace, not "time for the ball to swing"; and the ball's deterioration rather than its preservation.

It has permanently altered the Test-match ecosystem, emancipating the fast bowler with the old ball in the overs of an innings previously the preserve of slow and medium-pace bowlers, and encouraging speed at a fuller length than was popular in the nasty, brutish and short 1980s. Particularly altered was the predator-prey relationship between pace bowling and tail-end batting. It seemed 25 years ago that with the opportunities afforded by professionalism to rehearse secondary skills and the enhancement in protective gear, including the helmet, tail-end batting would probably improve in the long term; certainly the real duffer became a comparative rarity. Helmets, however, afforded no protection from late-swinging deliveries speared at the crease line, an art with which Akram is synonymous.

Cricket writer Scyld Berry's theory is that reverse swing, by shortening the average duration of tail-end innings, has been decisive in reducing the proportion of Test matches drawn since 1990. The view is persuasive, though hard to test. What can be demonstrated is Akram's departure from earlier conventions of pace bowling. A greater share of his wickets, 53%, were bowled or lbw, more than for any fast bowler of the last 30 years, save his great rival Waqar Younis (57%). For the purposes of comparison, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh obtained only a third of their wickets without the aid of a fieldsman or keeper, while the figures of Dennis Lillee (33%), Richard Hadlee (40%) and Malcolm Marshall (40%) imply the different devices of an earlier generation. That 29% of Akram's wickets were lbw is freakish, considering the onus on a left-arm bowler seeking an umpire's indulgence from over the wicket.

Akram did not design his action with reverse swing in mind but it proved close to ideal, with the fast arm and firm wrist imparting the necessary pace and the 17-pace approach allowing him to sustain the effort involved in maintaining a consistently full length. No left-arm pace bowler since Garfield Sobers varied his angles as resourcefully, and not even Sobers was as skilful from round the wicket.

The technique itself was actually one of cricket's great wonders, defying all the usual injunctions of coaches to perfect a balanced run of gathering speed and a smooth action of seamless grace. After a breakneck sprint, Akram barrelled through the crease, front foot pointing down the pitch, back foot toward the sightscreen, arm a blur. That he was able to repeat this almost 41,000 times in international cricket beggars belief. Add to this the burden that he bore as a batsman - he scored nearly 3000 Test runs to go with his 414 Test wickets - and one is compelled to consider another aspect of Akram's historical significance: his sheer durability.

 
 
Akram's technique was one of cricket's great wonders, defying all the usual injunctions of coaches. After a breakneck sprint, Akram barrelled through the crease, front foot pointing down the pitch, back foot toward the sightscreen, arm a blur. That he was able to repeat this almost 41,000 times in international cricket beggars beliefcaption:
 

The brunt of Akram's cricket was borne by his groin and shoulder. His groin was first operated on in 1988 and again two years later. The latter operation was complicated when an adductor muscle separated from his pelvis, leaving his left leg only half as strong as his right: it was restored only by intensive physiotherapy. He first experienced shoulder pain about eight years before he retired, while representing Lancashire, and delayed surgery, only to break down when he tried to bowl a bouncer during the Singer-Akai Cup final in Sharjah in April 1997. There were further operations, a six-month layoff and a regime of painkillers.

I could go on but it all grows a bit gruesome. We might think instead of Akram as embodying the impact of medical science on cricket, both in terms of prolonging careers and facilitating modern schedules. Once upon a time a single serious injury spelt more or less the end of a career. Players who recovered were hailed almost as miracles: think of Denis Compton's knee, Richie Benaud's shoulder and Lillee's back. Surgery today, by contrast, is almost as routine as the drinks break. There is far more discussion - some profound, some silly - about cricket being a game of "mental strength" (something Akram also has covered, having been married to a qualified psychotherapist).

Akram's ultimate place in his country's cricket history is hard to guess. His star waxed and waned. He was one of 10 Pakistan captains in a bizarre period between March 1992 and August 1995, out of which also arose the allegations that resulted in his being fined on the suspicion of involvement in match-fixing after the Qayyum Report. Political contacts kept Akram going as surely as surgeons.

Watching Akram in June 2002, blasting out Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting with the first three deliveries of a one-day match in Melbourne, then looting an unbeaten 49 from 32 balls at the Gabba , it was hard to escape the sad sensation that we in Australia might be seeing him for the last time. Then again, we'd had that feeling before.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. This article was first published, with minor differences, in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2002

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Posted by Dawer on (October 20, 2009, 14:53 GMT)

i think the Pakistani nation has a habit of ignoring/not appreciating their national heroes. I took particular interest in reading the comments from the indians (naturally) and it felt so nice to read paragraphs of praises. Having followed the entire 90s cricket, i can only remember one thing when i used to look at the team line-up in any given match, that is, is wasim playing. He is without doubt an all time great cricketer. By the way, one item the author missed, something which no statistic can show....his sheer presence on the field. God Bless!

Posted by Jaani_Depp on (October 20, 2009, 0:39 GMT)

Its an incredible disservice to Akram when he called one of the greatest "LEFT" arm bowlers of all time. Considering his overall statistics and achievements he should be considered as one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time without any reference to which arm he used to bowl.

Posted by hamz501 on (October 19, 2009, 17:54 GMT)

Wasim Akram was an amazing cricketer. Probably the most talented cricker to have played in the last 20 odd years IMO. I was reading some of the earlier coments about Wasim being compared to Waqar, and in all honesty if you have followed Pakistan cricket in the 90's, you should realize that there is no comparison. Waqar peaked early in his career when reverse swing was not understood by most teams but since that he was not as devestating. Waqar also did not perform against the 2 best batting line ups of his time(Aussies and India). Also its really odd to hear people talk about Waqar having more mastery on reverse swing when he could only reverse swing the ball in the batsman while Wasim could swing it in or away. Now dont get me wrong waqar was a great bowler but not in the class of Wasim.

Posted by PrinzPaulEugen on (October 19, 2009, 11:11 GMT)

Wasim was one of those bowlers that, when he was hurling down the pill, you couldn't look away. Being an Aussie, and having watched cricket for the last 25 years or more, I can only think of one another quick of the ilk - Malcolm Marshall. Shane Bond and Allan Donald as well. Tearaway quicks that would go through an Australian line up like a hot knife through butter. A wonderful bowler and it was a pleasure to have watched him.

Posted by ravi63 on (October 19, 2009, 11:06 GMT)

You forget to mention that Akram was an Insulin dependent diabetic .. he had to take his shots during the game and perform .. incredible endurance ....

Posted by Avid.Cricket.Watcher on (October 19, 2009, 10:26 GMT)

Wasim Akram was a real wizard of a cricketer! Coz he was one of those genius players who could conjure up cricketing magic! While Waqar and Akhtar may have been a little more destructive at their best, I don't think any fast bowler from Pakistan, or elsewhere in the world, had more bowling skill...the man could make the ball talk in so many different ways! One of the greatest talents of all time for sure. (PS: Many might disagree with me, but I really believe that the '90s gave us more cricketing genius / skill than the 2000s. And I attribute that to way too much cricket - leaving top players physically and mentally fatigued - and the proliferation of flatter pitches and more rules in favour of batsmen (in ODIs, T20s). While batsmen are far more proactive / positive / powerful today, and cricket is still exciting, the shortchanging of bowlers has definitely impaired both bowling and batting skills, in my view.)

Posted by unleashedtrojan1 on (October 19, 2009, 5:32 GMT)

Probably the best talent out of pakistan and the greatest of all time. No one had more control over the ball and the batsman than Wasim. The good old days of the 2W's will never come again. Shoaib excited for a couple of years but .........

Posted by MalikNadeemAwan on (October 19, 2009, 2:49 GMT)

Oh he was one of greats of all time and the greatest left arm fast bowler ever. He alongwith the other great Waqar Younis destroyed the most powerfull batting line of 1990 era by new and especially with old ball. The controversees in his career may affect on his record but he was legend a true legend.

Posted by boris6491 on (October 19, 2009, 0:42 GMT)

Genius cricketer. I only wish that we could be entertained once again by this man. I just admired his phenomenal control, he could move, seam, swing, reverse swing and pretty much do anything with the ball at will. I don't think at times he is given the accolades he deserves as one of the true greats of the game. Those days of Waqar/Wasim were some of Pakistan's best. They do have some good potential now, but those days are long gone. The likes of Aamer and Gul definitely have talent and ability, but they do not match up to their predecessors. I think Wasim's all round skills were also really underrated, he could be a really useful batsman as well. Fine cricketer and the world stage is missing these kind of impact swing bowlers. It seems that that type of bowler is slowly fading away.

Posted by JackJak on (October 18, 2009, 18:24 GMT)

Wasim Akram is one of the geniuses of bowling the cricket world will ever see. One cant even compare Wasim Akram to Waqar Younis because they were totally different kind of bowlers. Waqar when he was at the peak of his game for a few years was lovely to watch because of his pace and also the swing that he got at that pace. But still in terms of sheer genius and natural ability to do a 1000 things with a cricket ball..there is only one person i have ever seen and that has to be Wasim Akram. Imagine if he hadnt had diabetic and all those issues he would have been even more deadly than he was. He used to have such passion the way he bowled and each ball was like a creation and what it was exactly supposed it would actually end up doing. Certainly not like the mindless bowlers of today like RP Singh Ishant Sharma and the kind who just run and bowl..it looks like even they dont know or have a clue why they are bowling.

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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