Dileep Premachandran

Cross-border hero

Dileep Premachandran remembers Wasim Raja

Wasim Raja played his cricket the way it should be played - with joy and imagination © International Cricket Council
After reading Gideon Haigh's evocative pen-portrait of Wasim Raja, a Pakistani reader wrote in to tell us: "For someone who's not of that generation, it makes me wish I had access to that form of cricket. When it was more like "club cricket" and not as it is now." After all the vitriol and piffle of the last few days, when a Test match has been equated to a nation's honour and matters of life-and-death in West Asia, it was such a relief to come across a sane voice that yearned for simpler times, a time before multi-million dollar endorsement deals, player contracts and slow-mo cameras.
It probably affected me deeply because Raja had always been my Odd Man In. Unlike Chris Ryan, a good friend who has Graeme Wood down as his favourite cricketer, or Gideon himself - who names Chris Tavare - my earliest pantheon of cricketing heroes had the usual suspects - Sunil Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, Imran Khan, Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding. And Viv. Above all, Viv. Amidst such legends, Wasim Hasan Raja seemed like an imposter, until you watched him play.
The great Bill Shankly once said: "You can only take out of the game what you put into it, and I put into it everything that I could." Gavaskar and Lillee, who nearly crippled himself in the process, did that game after game for well over a decade. Raja, by all accounts, didn't, playing the game with the spirit of the bon vivant at the park on a Sunday afternoon.
Though I only watched him on a handful of occasions, he seemed a thoroughly likeable man, far too refined to be drawn into the sort of harbour-bar slanging matches that sometimes pass for banter these days. Like the equally regal Imran, and unlike the occasionally obnoxious Javed (Miandad) - whose pugnacity we secretly admired even as we were disgusted by his coarser antics - Raja had plenty of admirers across the border, where panache and flair have often won more hearts that doughty resistance.
In many ways, Raja was a more accomplished version of Salim Durrani, India's stylist of the generation just before him. I have vivid memories of a Prudential Cup match in 1982 where, with defeat a certainty, he drove and cut his way to an exhilarating 60 off 61 balls. Like Azharuddin years later, he scarcely played an ugly shot, managing to look elegant even when he whiplashed one from outside the off stump past the leg-side field.
I next watched him in the final of the World Championship of Cricket, a game that would be his last in his nation's colours. The beard was flecked with grey, and the halcyon years were long in the past, but there was still enough of the competitor in him to lead a determined rearguard action that prevented Pakistan from being bowled out well before time. With the ball, he did little, and after he walked off the MCG turf, I saw and heard no more of him until the new millennium, when I read that he had been appointed an ICC match referee.
People often ask me to pick out the greatest perk of being a cricket writer. That's a no-brainer. Nothing can ever compare to the moment when you first meet, or shake hands with, a player who you strived to emulate during those backyard games all those years ago. I've been fortunate enough to meet everyone on the list that I first made when I was about eight years old, everyone except Raja. That won't happen now, and more's the pity. In these days of nauseating jingoism and over-reaction that would shame a tawdry theatre company, we could do worse than to observe a moment's silence and reflect on the life of a man who played his cricket with joy and imagination without forgetting its most profound truth - it's only a game.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo