Wasim Akram October 17, 2009

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

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