The other Wasim

From early promise to early exit: Mohammad Wasim played cricket for Pakistan at a time when the team was short on professionalism but high on talent Getty Images

A famous Australian folk song recounts the tale of a young man sent to war in Vietnam, and the horrors and savagery he encountered. Close friends die and fellow soldiers lose their limbs as the protagonist slips towards incipient insanity. Despite the vivid and graphic retelling, the most poignant lyric is the song's eponymous and plaintive cry, simple and haunting: "I was only nineteen."

Opening a profile on a cricketer by referencing such terrors suggests a lack of perspective. But Mohammad Wasim, 19 at the time, might have understood a fraction of that fear when he went to bed on the third evening of his maiden Test, against New Zealand in the winter of 1996. Pakistan were 46 for 5 in the fourth innings, chasing 276, Wasim newly arrived at the crease to partner Saleem Malik. Having been dismissed for a duck in his first innings, he was condemned to spend the night on a pair.

"I didn't have nightmares," Wasim remembered over a coffee in Lahore recently, "but only because I was unable to sleep that night. I began to get telephone calls urging me not to emulate my captain in that game, Saeed Anwar. I had no idea what they meant, until I asked someone and found out that Saeed had made a pair on his Test debut."

"To try and measure Wasim by his numbers is a bit like evaluating Van Gogh by his bank account"

We were seated in the dining room of a hotel in Lahore where Wasim was staying as part of his media commitments during Pakistan's Test series against New Zealand last year. He had arrived from Islamabad, where he now lives, only a day earlier. His peripatetic lifestyle had clearly not ended on retirement; he had returned that week from a three-week trip of the Netherlands for "personal reasons". He seemed at ease, but as he began to speak of his anxiety the night before arguably his most famous knock more than 20 years ago, a nervous excitement appeared to light him up. I'm sure not all of it was down to the cappuccinos.

Wasim was never meant to be in that situation. He had been rewarded with a call-up after a breakthrough first-class season, in which he was averaging over 55 in domestic cricket. He was appointed 12th man for the Test, presumably to allow him a feel for the big time. Just minutes before the toss, however, the more famous Wasim - Akram - withdrew with a shoulder injury. With no other players in the squad and no time to send for replacements, the lesser-known Wasim found himself in the XI.

"It helped not knowing I was going to play till the last minute. If I'd known the previous day, it would have been a rough night to get through. Thankfully, I managed to escape that."

He laughed. "For all of three days, as it turned out."

Compounding his nervousness leading up to the fourth day was the unforgiving temperament of the Lahore crowd. "Since I had been dismissed for 0 in my first innings, the crowd would taunt me whenever I was fielding on the boundary. Going in to bat on a pair, I dreaded making the walk back if I got out early again."

That morning Wasim dug his heels in and tried to salvage a near-lost cause, running out of partners as more illustrious names like Malik and Moin Khan came, fought and went. He was determined to make amends, and even a blow to the head from a Chris Cairns delivery failed to shake him. When he reached his hundred, only the fourth Pakistani at the time to post three figures on debut, he didn't even look up until Waqar Younis, batting alongside him, came over.

"When I bat, I'm in my own bubble. But Vicky bhai gave me a pat on the back, and when I lifted my head up, I realised there was quite a large crowd gathering. That was the first time I felt pride in my performance."

All that evaporated quickly as Wasim watched the No. 11, Shahid Nazir, Wasim's team-mate from his Pakistan Under-19 days, dismissed by Dipak Patel, leaving Pakistan 44 runs short of an unlikely win. "That hurt me immensely," Wasim says. "Even in those days, I was a very good finisher. I liked that responsibility, I was captain of the U-19 side, and those were just the sort of situations I backed myself in."

It would be tempting, then, to view the career of Mohammad Wasim as a case of what might have been, had Pakistan somehow managed to eke out a win that day. He only managed one more international century and five half-centuries after that. "You never know in Pakistan," he says. "I played the next Test, then got dropped. I didn't play Test cricket for a whole year after that. Overall, I must have made six or seven comebacks in my short international career, which would damage anyone's confidence."

"There were factions and cliques, regular changes in captaincy - Wasim played under five captains in 18 Tests - and frequent and random rotation of players"

Pakistan cricket is not short of what-if stories, but the failure to extract the full potential of Wasim has always resonated. His figures are hardly remarkable, and there aren't too many memorable games to remember him by. Besides, the images conjured up by an ODI strike rate of 52 are not particularly stirring.

Throw it all out, though. To try and measure Wasim by his numbers is a bit like evaluating van Gogh by his bank account; it is how he did what he did, rather than what he had to show for it, that makes Wasim such an abiding memory. It is not so much the strokes he played on the field as those he produced in the mind, greeting the ball with such a straight bat that you wondered if he was even capable of playing square (he was).

I was watching old video clips of him batting, and one cover drive, so good I half considered making it my screensaver, had the commentator exclaiming, "That's gonna be four!" I couldn't help find the remark, as CLR James would say, somewhat vulgar. To describe the end result of the shot was to demean the shot itself; that would have been worth playing had half a dozen fielders been stationed in the covers to stop it. It is presumably the sort of thing that moved James to claim that cricket belonged "with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance".

That technique was on full display in Hobart, in that famous - or infamous, if you are Pakistani and remember Peter Parker - Test in 1999. Put in to bat on an overcast day by Steve Waugh, and having lost opening partner Anwar for a duck to Glenn McGrath, Wasim cut loose. He scored 91 in 122 deliveries while his partners at the other end struggled to reach double figures. No other batsman in the top nine even managed a strike rate above 45. Shane Warne, of all bowlers, bore the brunt of Wasim's belligerence, taken for four fours in his opening couple of overs, every delivery with even a hint of flight disappearing down the ground. Strong wrists made striking the ball against the spin appear risk-free, not once letting him down when his feet failed to get to the pitch of the ball. It is these memories that live on strongest.

The technique was, as with so many, homespun. "When I was about six or seven, my elder brother and I used to play cricket on the roof of our house. Towards the leg side were our neighbours' houses, and there was a large graveyard on the off side. So any shots we played had to be straight down the ground." Dead straight, that is.

There's more to it than just his batting. Wasim's breadth of cricketing experience is surprising and unusual for a Pakistani, particularly for a player considered not to have made the grade in international cricket. He spent three years in New Zealand playing domestic cricket, then represented the Dutch national team and has now embarked on a career as a television expert.

He doesn't believe he should have played the Test he's best known for. "I was too young, frankly. I don't want to be ungrateful, but I think if I played when I was in my mid-20s, people would see I was a complete batsman. Being thrust into international cricket at that young age exposes your weaknesses badly; you should still be working on improving your game so that when you are called up, you're the best player you can be."

Part of the reason for his international struggles came from confusion surrounding his role in the side, which was never made quite clear to him. Even though he opened the batting in eight of his 18 Tests, he found himself regularly jostled around the order. Moreover, his substantial innings when opening the batting for Pakistan can only be described as a baptism by fire.

"I was too young, frankly. I don't want to be ungrateful, but I think if I played when I was in my mid-20s, people would see I was a complete batsman"

"I must have batted every position from opener to No. 11," Wasim laughs. "I had never opened in first-class cricket in my life. But when we went to tour Australia in 1999, our captain, Wasim Akram, asked me to open the batting in the first Test, in Brisbane. So without any experience in that position at any level, I was suddenly facing Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming with the new ball. In that sense, I wish there was more cohesion and understanding of a player's strengths in Pakistan cricket. Even I've ended up a bit confused about my preferred batting position."

It is quite an extraordinary admission. In the season he broke through to the national team, he was batting consistently (and successfully) at No. 4, scoring back-to-back hundreds for Rawalpindi leading up to the New Zealand series. However, in his international career, he came in at No. 4 only four times: on three occasions in Tests, averaging 22.25, and in a solitary ODI where he didn't reach double figures. In later years he moved around the order for Rawalpindi too, anywhere between No. 3 and 6.

Neither was that team - the great, complicated '90s side - an easy bunch to be part of. There were factions and cliques, regular changes in captaincy - Wasim played under five captains in 18 Tests - and frequent and random rotation of players. Over it all hovered the shadow of match-fixing.

"When I played, I didn't see or hear anything that would give me reason to become suspicious. I was a young player, and definitely an outsider. We generally had a great record in the games I was involved in anyway, so I didn't experience the rumours and whispers that often seem to float around that team."

Less than four years after his debut, amid the tumult, Wasim played his final game for Pakistan. There were a few highs scattered in the debris: the debut hundred, Hobart 1999, an 82 in Barbados, and a solid contribution to a tri-series win in Australia in 1997. But there was little consistency and he was dropped after a string of low scores in 2000, never to return. He didn't know that then, of course, and was prepared to go to any lengths to make himself a better player - quite literally.

He signed for Otago in 2002, a world away from his native Rawalpindi, becoming the only Pakistan player besides Khalid "Billy" Ibadulla to play domestic cricket in New Zealand. (Ibadulla also played for Otago, and later settled in Dunedin, going on to become a cricket coach who mentored New Zealand greats such as Glenn Turner, Chris Cairns and, more recently, Brendon McCullum.) One year away from qualifying to play for New Zealand, however, a little tempter came from Pakistan.

"I had a wonderful time in New Zealand. Their domestic structure was very organised and professional, and the standards of coaching were exceptionally high. Our coach at Otago was Glenn Turner, and most of what I learned about batting post-2002 comes from him. I felt I improved my game a lot over there, which was the reason I went in the first place. When I came back to Pakistan in 2005, I met Iqbal Qasim [who was on Pakistan's selection committee at the time], and he asked me to return, promising I would be seriously considered."

Qasim was an advocate but he found himself outvoted on a committee that would also include captain and coach - Inzamam-ul-Haq and Bob Woolmer. "You need the captain's personal liking to be able to play for Pakistan. Inzamam never really let any senior player back into the side once he became captain. Perhaps he was insecure; he certainly was a bit of a control freak. I have great respect for him as a cricketer and as my senior, but his tenure certainly did me no favours."

"I come from an extremely humble and plain background, and I never imagined I would get to where I have, and with such a clean reputation"

It wasn't so straightforward. Pakistan had Inzamam, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan in the middle order. That realistically left one place in the side for a specialist batsman, and in the season Wasim returned, ostensibly a much better batsman, his domestic numbers weren't great. Faisal Iqbal, Misbah-ul-Haq and Fawad Alam all boasted higher averages; the first two had been knocking on doors for years. Besides, Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi, both averaging over 50 that domestic season, offered all-round ability and international pedigree. Pakistan weren't short of openers either - Imran Farhat, Salman Butt, Yasir Hameed, Taufeeq Umar and Imran Nazir were all in the mix. So it isn't that difficult to see Wasim not making it back in for cricketing reasons alone.

Regardless, after deep frustration at a perceived lack of fair opportunities, he let go of his Pakistan dream and accepted a domestic contract to play cricket in the Netherlands in 2007. He eventually qualified to play international cricket for them in 2014, making his debut in a 50-over game against Scotland the same year, but a lack of patriotic and financial motivation meant he was never going to stay too long. While reluctant to talk about his life in the Netherlands (or New Zealand, for that matter) Wasim was particularly censorious of the KNCB, the Netherlands cricket board, believing the administration to be mainly interested in their pay cheques, and too old-fashioned in their approach.

"They don't have a coherent plan to establish young cricketers at the age levels. They mainly look out for players around the world with Dutch passports, from New Zealand, South Africa or Australia mainly, and play them in world events. This is never going to work out long-term."

Looking back, there seems to be an unmistakeable, cruelly ironic pattern. For someone whose bread was buttered on the strength of his timing, bad timing seems to have plagued Wasim's career. His start came smack-bang in the middle of Pakistan's most turbulent years; his return from New Zealand coincided with a Pakistani middle order that contained Inzamam, Yousuf and Younis; he became eligible for Netherlands just as they lost ODI status, meaning he missed the chance to play the 2015 World Cup. Even so, Wasim refuses to look at his career as a tragedy.

"I suppose if you look upon it like that," he said pensively, "you could come to that conclusion. But I've never had regrets. The cricket I've played has given me a lot. I come from an extremely humble and plain background, and I never imagined I would get to where I have, and with such a clean reputation."

He is now a well respected TV pundit, outspoken without being bitter, both on and off screen. He has retained a self-deprecating wit, and an understanding of cricket that might transition from television to coaching; he has already set up a cricket academy in Rawalpindi.

"At the end of the day, cricketers are happiest when they're on the field, be it as players fine-tuning their game or helping youngsters hone theirs."

As we finished, I watched him get into his car and drive away into the bustling Lahore traffic: cricket's ultimate journeyman off for his next exploration.