Wasim Akram: the gift that keeps on giving
If you're a pace bowler aspiring to make it big, it's hard to imagine a more incredible treat than being able to bowl under the watchful eye of Wasim Akram.
You mark out your run-up, get a grip on the seam, and launch into your delivery stride, while Akram stands a few paces behind and assesses your potential. After you've delivered the ball, he walks over and points out the areas where you could improve. Then he asks you to have another go, and the process gets repeated a few times.
For ten absorbing days last month, this is precisely what Akram did with a select group of Pakistan's promising youngsters. The disciples included those already in the national side as well as those knocking on its doors, plus four raw seamers picked from a countrywide talent hunt. The camp convened every morning from 9am to 1pm under Karachi's blazing April sun.
Akram is almost 47 and has diabetes but you couldn't really tell. He looks as fit as a panther and spent all those hours out there concentrating and critiquing, without showing any signs of hardship.
Occasionally he felt the need to turn his arm over. As far as he was concerned, this was simply a practical demonstration of his art, but the effect on everybody else was breathtaking. He only bowled off a couple of paces, but the ball still nipped and zipped. Once or twice he merely rolled his arm over from a dead stop. The ball still shot through and swung around. It was the equivalent of Picasso casually slapping paint on a canvas, or Mozart tapping on some piano keys in boredom.
Akram's talent and career were a gift to Pakistan, and as the years go by it is proving to be the kind of gift that keeps on giving. An intensive hands-on tutorial such as a training camp is but one example of his magic rubbing off. A much greater ripple effect is the flowering of left-arm seamers in Pakistan, which has witnessed a remarkable bloom in recent years.
Approximately 10% of Pakistan's general population is supposed to be left-handed, but since Akram's retirement in 2003 there have been far more left-arm seamers at the international level than this figure would predict. Sohail Tanvir, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Mohammad Irfan, and Rahat Ali - it has been a virtual explosion. There have also been few lesser-known names, including Mohammad Khalil, Samiullah Niazi, Kamran Hussain and Najaf Shah, who each played only a handful of games. If you examine Pakistan's entire 61-year Test cricket history, there have been 20 players (discounting Gul Mohammed and Ijaz Ahmed) bowling left-arm medium pace or faster ; astoundingly, half of them have appeared in the wake of Akram's career.
Comparison with other teams brings this phenomenon into even sharper focus. Left-arm seamers entering international cricket in the post-Akram era comprise 30% of Pakistan's pace-bowling crop, but in the other nine Test-playing teams their collective proportion is only 12%. This two-and-a-half-fold blip demonstrates the extent to which his younger compatriots have been bewitched by Akram's inspiring spell.
Akram's involvement with the Karachi camp was not limited to technical analysis. He also spent a good deal of face time with the boys, sharing meals and drinks, and telling stories.
One of his themes was the importance of physical training through running laps around the ground, which is imperative for building stamina and reserve. During Akram's early days in the Pakistan side, the pace-setter for the fast-bowling contingent's training routine was none other than Imran Khan, and it was unthinkable that the lads would stop running before Imran did. Imran taught them the value of toil and labour, and Akram tried to faithfully pass this lesson on to the attendees of his camp.
He also spoke to the boys about personal grooming, comportment, articulation, and looking the part. Speaking with ease and confidence, looking slim, and sporting trendy shirts and designer shades (not to mention once hobnobbing with a former Miss Universe), Akram is certainly a credible preacher of such advice. To drive the message home, he even had one of Karachi's leading fashion stylists - a chic beautician who goes by the solitary name Nabila - give pointers to the boys on culture and couture.
It may be early to say how much of Akram's instruction and wisdom the youngsters managed to absorb, but you can't deny the value of the exercise. The tradition of learning at the feet of grandmasters is timeless, and it has stood the test of time precisely because it has proved so effective. The Pakistan board deserves a great deal of credit for making it happen, and for assigning resources as a priority. Pakistan's full-time bowling coach Mohammad Akram was present throughout the duration of the camp, and head coach Dav Whatmore also came in for a couple of days. Chief selector Iqbal Qasim was also present at intervals.
Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi