Only the good die young
Wasim Raja died suddenly and unexpectedly yesterday, while playing cricket for Surrey with a team of seniors. The circumstances suggest a heart attack. He was only 54, yet his accomplishments had already covered a wide canvas - Test star, coach, ICC match referee, teacher, academic, and beloved family man.
His batting commanded something approaching a cult. The style is perhaps best described as relaxed attack - an oxymoron, but there you have it. He never looked troubled, never anything other than calm and carefree. Descending the pavilion steps as if he was going to fly a kite, he would casually stroll up to the wicket as if he was enjoying himself on holiday. The shirt would have its collar flung open, in the style of the 70s, and the buttons would be undone halfway down. Sleeves rolled up two folds, until just below the elbows. While taking guard and settling into his stance, he would head-flick a thick mop of hair several times.
The most obvious thing about Raja's batting was how much he enjoyed himself. The idea of tailoring your game to the situation was lost on him because to Raja every situation was the same - an opportunity to entertain and be entertained. His off-side strokeplay was legion. Combined with his informal, almost offhand demeanor, the esthetic splendor of his cuts and drives created a permanent memory in anyone who watched.
In 57 Tests for Pakistan, he made 2,821 runs at 36.16, with four hundreds and a highest score of 125. The figures don't say much (he is 19th on the list of Pakistani run-getters), but it is a measure of his skill that some of his best innings were played against one of the most feared pace attacks of all time. During Pakistan's tour of the West Indies in 1977, Raja made 517 runs at 57.44, topping the averages and outperforming the likes of Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal and Zaheer Abbas. In the opening match at Bridgetown, after an unbeaten 117 in the first innings, he put on 133 for the 10th wicket with Wasim Bari that helped his team save the Test by a whisker.
His other great series was the six-match rubber with India in 1979. While the rest of the top order fell around them, he and Javed Miandad were the only two who stood their ground. His run of scores included 97 and 61 on a Ferozshah Kotla greentop that created the only situation in that series from where Pakistan might have won.
The eldest of three boys, Raja came from a cricketing family. His brothers, Rameez and Zaeem, also played first-class cricket, as did their father, Raja Salim Akhtar, who was otherwise a career civil servant. Rameez followed him into the Pakistan Test side, coincidentally playing the same number of Tests. A cultured, educated man, Raja attended some of Pakistan's elite institutions and eventually graduated with a Master's degree in political science.
Raja's talents extended to spin bowling and even occasional slow medium. He bowled wrist spin with a flattish trajectory and delivered an excellent top-spinner and googly. His 51 wickets included the likes of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and Graham Gooch, and he had a solid reputation as a partnership breaker.
Something of a prodigy, his natural gifts had been obvious early, and the honors of his youth included captaincy of the national Under-19 side. In the Test side, he was made vice-captain during Pakistan's 1978 tour of England, but that turned out to be the kind of series you'd never want on your resume. Ultimately, it was probably the Raja in him - never diplomatic, always speaking his mind, always willing to go toe-to-toe with the board - that kept him from the captaincy of Pakistan. There was this bit of renegade in him, and you could see it in his eyes. The spirit of disdain and defiance with which he batted, with the same spirit he could and did clash with officials and officialdom.
After retirement from international cricket, he took a degree in education from Durham University and went on to teach geography and physical education. He also served as a coach for Pakistan Under-19 and an ICC match referee. He is survived by his wife, Anne, and his sons, Ali and Ahmed - all three fine cricketers themselves. He will be remembered as one of Pakistan cricket's most distinctive characters. Only the good die young, it is said. It was never more true.
Saad Shafqat is a cricket writer based in Karachi