In a few months, it'll be 20 years since Wasim Akram
played his last international game for Pakistan. It's a little past 38 years since he played his first international game. Apologies if this comes across as one of those sobering exercises where the realisation of time's creep is the splash of ice-cold water on the face first thing in the morning, but it's impossible not to wilt a little in the knowledge that 38 years before Akram's debut was just after the end of the Second World War.
The way to not let this make you feel old is to watch some of his bowling because that still feels fresh and modern. After all, we're still cooing at left-armers who can swing the ball into right-handers; still secretly wondering if the yorker is not as effective only because it's not bowled by Akram; still being struck by the possibilities of the angles he opened for left-armers. His bowling retains currency in a way that batting and fielding from his era simply do not.
Akram is now 56, in the whirl of a publicity blitz for his second memoir, Sultan. It is warmer, more expansive and less bitter than his first, Wasim. That's no surprise, given Wasim was published in 1998, a moment of peaking chaos and toxicity in Pakistan cricket such that it's a miracle Akram came out of it with diabetes and no other scars.
As with all autobiographies, Sultan is an exercise in legacy, Akram wanting to leave an accounting of his life and career behind for family and for the rest of us. To leave behind sounds too hopeful, though, because it assumes legacies are etched in stone once a player stops playing. It's much more complicated than that. Increasingly, they are fluid because great players like Akram no longer really exit the stage. Modern athletes live out post-career lives as public as during their careers. Some do so while actively depleting their legacy; others manage to enhance it; all are forever reshaping it in some way. Only a handful in recent memory - Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf - have left their legacies all but unchanged by stepping away entirely from public life, and naturally theirs have tended to feel somewhat overtaken by the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
Akram has never not been around over the last two decades. He's not always been a coach. He's not always been a wrist-whisperer to fast bowlers. He's not always been a commentator. He's not always been a sports news anchor (as he was, briefly, with ESPN-Star in the mid-2000s). He's not always hawking some product. He's not always hosting game shows with Shoaib Akhtar. He's not always introducing his own perfume range. He's not always on your social-media feeds as a doting father, grateful husband or - a favourite - plain grumpy citizen chiding the public into a greater sense of civic duty.
But by not always being one thing all the time he has become, somewhat benignly, omnipresent, his playing days receding in the distance, yet up ahead and not signposted, is the envelope of Akram as the horizon himself. The intensity of the public glare is a little weaker but it has not moved away.
Akram will likely never convince doubters of his innocence, though that funnels into a broader truth about him as a very human, very vulnerable - and so, very relatable - sort of hero
Modern day legacy-building can be quite a cynical exercise too, the mining of memories and nostalgia to trigger our dopamine, the entire idea of turning the human into a brand. Somehow it has not felt so acute with Akram, although no doubt we should be thankful that the surrounding PR machinery required for this is not quite as refined in Pakistan as elsewhere. To some extent, it's also because he never seems to dwell unduly on his own career, almost as if everything he worked more than half his life towards is only of passing import. In Sultan, as in Wasim, for example, there's little forensic recreation of his greatest (or worst) moments on the field, or of bowling itself, mostly cursory recollections.
It has always been odd, this side of him - for such an exact and exacting bowler to be so unexacting in recall, to celebrate so little his own greatest feats. It's endearing in a way that he wears his genius so lightly. Imagine not being fussed about that career? Maybe he understands he doesn't need to because that is what we're here for.
Alas, legacies are also more hotly contested than ever before. They are no longer the sole preserve of the legator. For instance, one of the motivations behind Sultan is to set the record straight as Akram sees it over the match-fixing allegations. In truth, it has never appeared like he was much in need of redemption. He had no bans to fight in court, was not barred from official positions, had no asterisk in front of his records. He's in both the ICC and PCB halls of fame. Work in cricket has been plentiful for him. And being the inspiration for the PSL logo - while still alive - is solid informal validation of his impact.
But clearly, it has gnawed away at him, amplified no doubt by social media. The toll of online trolling and abuse weighs heavy on all of us, but celebrities and public figures are at the sharpest end of it. And to read and hear Akram talk about it now is to also be reminded that in 20 years he has never really spoken about it - presumably out of choice - while everyone else has.
He hadn't even read the Qayyum report until he had to when Sultan
was being written. He is a significant presence through the report, the subject of four specific allegations, second to Salim Malik's five. He was fined and it was recommended he be removed from the captaincy (though by the time the report was published he had already stepped down). Unsurprisingly, he thinks dimly of the report. This much is true that the Qayyum report is comprehensive in documenting and giving order to the snaking rumours, half-truths and speculation of the time, but is not definitive, hamstrung by its own terms of reference and a fatal lack of hard evidence. Justice Qayyum's own confession years later that he went soft on Akram
did neither of the parties any favours. Ultimately even those who were not heavily sanctioned were left dangling in the perma-hellscape between innocence and guilt.
Akram will likely never convince doubters of his innocence, though that funnels into a broader truth about him as a very human, very vulnerable - and so, fairly relatable - sort of hero. More so by contrast to the man he was meant to be succeeding, Imran Khan
, whose God complex seems only to have grown since he left the game. Akram has always been more approachable, less prone to taking himself too seriously. If Imran strutted around as if he was Punjabi aristocracy (even when he wasn't), Akram lolled around with a warmer, earthier Punjabi charm. And it feels relevant to expand briefly that he is charming, rather than a charmer who deliberately uses that charm to manipulate and profit. His friends, he writes, call him paindoo
- a bumpkin misplaced in the big city - and he doesn't seem minded to dispute that description.
In this light, the revelations about his cocaine addiction
, the unsettled early childhood - an openness that is still rare in public figures from South Asia - are a welcome way into him. In some sense the candidness works to ease the burdens of legacy, that it must mean something, that it must be built upon, that it must inspire, that it must emulate and be emulated. Instead, what we are left with is what we have: a 56-year-old man simply coming to terms with the joys and traumas of an extraordinary life.
What we also have is the comfort of knowing Akram is still around, which, in a year in which Shane Warne was lost, is not something to undervalue. Life hasn't yet passed us by to the extent that Akram means nothing. Far from it. But it has passed us by enough so that if you YouTube his finest work - recent enough that we can still understand and appreciate it within the game around us - it hits this sweet spot in the thirst for nostalgia, the quenching of which is as much a part of growing old as reading glasses. It's sweet refuge, nostalgia, and who doesn't need refuge these days?
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo