Table tennis will never know what it let slip. Had Wasim Akram pursued the sport he was truly mad for in his youth, who knows what kind of legacy he would have kickstarted in a country where table tennis is fanatically played, albeit mostly in amateur environs. Fortunately the wrists were put to other use.
Akram was foremost a triumph for imagination. No bowler in the modern age - Shane Warne aside - so broadened the scope and possibility of what could be done in his art as much as Akram. To be sure there were no nincompoops in fast bowling before him, but had not some staleness and uni-dimensionality crept in?
In the decade preceding Akram's arrival, fast bowling, led by the Caribbean, had become a pursuit of violence, a tool of intimidation. Lengths were short and unrelenting; throats and heads were the target. Sure there were Marshalls, Hadlees or Imrans who operated differently, but even they had been poster boys for bouncer wars, and only circumstances had necessitated they evolved beyond those. The age wasn't brainless, just brutal and repetitive.
To Akram these things also mattered; the speed, the roughing up, the macho point-proving. But the greatest urge in him was to explore what a cricket ball can do. So his lengths were always fuller. So he took what could be done with the old ball, hitherto territory charted by two predecessors, to new worlds altogether.
To left-arm fast bowling - an anomaly till then - he gave a face and new dimensions, with new angles and attack lines. To dead pitches he gave life. Even deader ones, he simply bypassed. In his hand, a yorker became as dangerous as a bouncer. And in his time, the last 10 overs of an ODI innings became a momentum shift for the fielding side.
West Indian quicks were frightening but Akram was frightening in his range. When he won out against Patrick Patterson in 1989 to become Lancashire's sole overseas player, the triumph seemed loaded with bigger signs if you wanted to look for them.
It didn't all just come to him. He had a bit about him, admittedly, even when he debuted, a gawky whirl of mulleted-bouffant hair, a wormy moustache and angular run-up. (So coltish was he that when picked for his first tour he asked Javed Miandad how much money he should take, not knowing he would be paid to play). As great a bowler as he was to become, he was in equal parts a greater worker and learner.
"One remarkable delivery to Rahul Dravid in Chennai, did several things at once. So cruel and wicked was it, on its way to clipping off-bail, the edge of Dravid's bat must have heard a cackle, a subcontinental mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law, "Hah, you thought you had me covered?"
Imran, who believed Akram to be the most naturally gifted cricketer he had seen, was instrumental in developing both traits. On a seminal tour of England in 1987, Imran drove Akram around in his own car, telling him, among many things, "You have to work like a dog, Wasim." The advice became a career commandment, and for all the gawping at his ability, little was made about the many hours Akram spent in nets, the gym or training, his capacity, as Fred Trueman might have piped, to work bloody hard. To this day Akram, diabetic now, maintains a rigorous fitness regime.
And he picked up swiftly. Most of what he needed came from Imran. Standing at mid-on, like a kind but distant uncle, Imran was Mr Miyagi to Akram's Daniel, planning out overs, suggesting ideas and fields. After a couple of early last-over spankings by Jeremy Coney and Ashantha de Mel, mentor told pupil to learn bowling yorkers at will. Out went pupil under mentor's eye, bowling at one stump, aiming at the top of it, and hit the base four times in three overs. In the next ODI he picked up four, with three - including de Mel - yorked. In every net session thereafter, this routine was maintained. Malcolm Marshall's brain was picked, once when the inswinger wasn't working. Sir Richard Hadlee was often mined. From watching Franklyn Stephenson, Akram developed the slower ball. Even when, in the mid-90s, he began relying mostly on the old ball, he forced himself back to nets and county cricket to re-learn how to bowl the new ball.
Essentially, though he kept refining, adding and revisiting, by the early 90s he was as complete as anyone and more imaginative. Waqar Younis, opening partner, best friend, vice-captain, foe and rival, was a bomb waiting to go off; Akram, merely a sword slicing his way through with care and poise.
The run-up seemed random - especially when he was bowling no-ball after no-ball - but it was apparently measured to 17 paces. The action was over before you even sussed it, all wrist and shoulder, back foot pointing back at delivery: it was to tell on his groin, that strange position in his early years.
He could bowl anything and everything; Mark Taylor observed, in his prodigious days, that Akram could land four balls on the same spot in an over and do four different things with it. The holy grail of left-arm bowling - bringing it in to the right-hander - was his from the start. He could cut it in, out, over and round the wicket, swing it early, late, change pace, length; every kind of ball imaginable he had.
Some were beyond imagination. One remarkable delivery to Rahul Dravid in Chennai, did several things at once. So cruel and wicked was it, on its way to clipping the off bail, the edge of Dravid's bat must have heard a cackle, a subcontinental mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law, "Hah, you thought you had me covered?" Robert Croft survived such magic once, only because no one realised that Akram had made an in-ducking yorker from round the wicket curve so much so late that it went past Croft's outside edge to hit him in front of middle.
Despite his new-ageism, Akram could be old school. Sachin Tendulkar was rapped on the helmet once in Sharjah, with a ball that leapt up as unexpectedly - and gracefully - as a dolphin from the sea. And one of the "quickest, meanest spells" Steve Waugh ever faced - the sample is big - was Akram's second day post-lunch, short-ball battering of Waugh's body and mind in Rawalpindi, which is to fast bowling what the nuclear bomb is to humanity. Some days, Akram could be the nastiest bit of work; it is precisely the point that it was at his choosing.
The golden seal was in his nose for the occasion: The bigger the game, the bigger the game-changer was Akram. This cannot be priced, nor can it be taught. The fortunate can only channel it to become uber-beings on such days.
Hark back to the eyes when Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis were felled that night in Melbourne: they knew what was happening, but maybe not how it was done. Or the rare fist-pumping and self-geeing up in his 18-ball 33: this was Akram but an Akram detached, when for him cricket became, like table tennis, an individual pursuit.
This state descended upon him often. Normally he would listen to Imran but in the Nehru Cup final, having been ordered to chill and take a single when he came in with Pakistan needing three off two, he swung for six to win it. In Melbourne, incidentally, he had asked Imran to put him back on against Lamb. Lancashire buddy Neil Fairbrother never saw Akram as charged as in his first Lord's final, the 1990 B&H. Who knows what kind of scars he inflicted on Graeme Hick that day, collateral damage among three wickets and a quick momentum-shifting hand.
His batting wasn't rigorous enough, and it never fully rid itself of the instincts of street or village green. But tellingly, pressure brought out ability far greater than was usually apparent. His first Test hundred was, after all, in Australia, where the good and great of Pakistan batting have gone to be exposed. That Pakistan were effectively 6 for 5 when he walked in was only by the by.
"The bigger the game, the bigger the game-changer was Akram. This cannot be priced, nor can it be taught"
Probably his finest Test innings, to these eyes, was the unbeaten 45 to sneak Pakistan home at Lord's. Chasing 138, he came in at 62 for 5, to become 95 for 8 before long. Every ball carried the danger of an Akram implosion, a mis-swept mow to midwicket, a swished edge, yet each ball revealed unseen good sense and even technique. Somehow he held it together for two hours, before the shot that made him look most like a proper batsman, the cover drive that won the Test. Beautiful he looked in white, nearly on one knee, the parrot green helmet of the World Cup final controlling his mop and confirming unintentionally that he was a genius across formats.
So, so much else; the Australasia Cup final hat-trick and 49; three wickets in the second Carlton & United final; two wickets in the first over against India of a Sharjah final; four international hat-tricks - and I can't remember anyone who was on a hat-trick more often; four wickets in five balls in a Test, which should have been five had Imran not dropped a sitter to prevent another hat-trick. Had Andrew Flintoff actually even half a collection of bending occasions to his will - to use a tiresome English qualification - he would have replaced the Queen and been leader of the free world already.
Only leadership came to him slowly. His first stint was disaster, as all Pakistan's experiments with young captains are. Having been a rebel, he found himself rebelled against. Imran's strong ways were there, but not his maturity, worldliness or performance initially. Marriage to a psychotherapist helped him grow though, so that in his later stints he was a good leader in deed and example. Potentially difficult tours to England, in 1996, and India, in 1998-99, were handled with boundless goodwill, considerable dignity and pride, all difficult to mesh, more so in those environments.
Nineteen ninety-nine was the year in which he was most leader-like, no tactical master, but a man able to command respect and unity on performance alone. In the great Pakistan tradition of arch contradiction, however, he lay sullied just a year later with the publication of the Qayyum report. That mess stripped away a lot, foremost his credibility and reputation. Maybe a career in coaching too, which, going by his record as a roaming freelance guru to left-armers, he could have been good at.
But it never stripped away the beauty Akram brought while leaving fast bowling unrecognisable from what it was before him. A triumph for imagination and he did it without a wand, cape or top hat.