Only a mighty talent can redefine an art. Waqar Younis, a softly-spoken warrior from Burewala in Pakistan's Punjab, did just that. West Indian fast bowlers invoked fear of broken ribs and outside edges, Waqar would shatter stumps and toes. More than Wasim Akram or Imran Khan, Waqar championed the simplest but deadliest cricket philosophy: You miss, I hit.
But Waqar's contribution was more than a reaffirmation of traditional skills. His near-perfect control of swing and length, all at high speed, was a combination imagined to be impossible. Was Waqar Younis the best ever? He was certainly the king of reverse swing.
Plucked from obscurity (as legend has it) by Imran watching domestic cricket on television while nursing an injury, Waqar was quickly into the rhythm of international cricket. A long, surging, balanced run-up culminated in a back-breaking delivery that was low and slinging but full and deadly. Flattered by many imitators, equalled by none, the proof of Waqar's brilliance was in his strike-rate -- the best of any bowler with over 200 Test wickets.
It could have been better still. Waqar's frame cracked under the strain of international and county cricket -- where he was simply unplayable. First a vertebral stress fracture robbed him of his prime and a place in the successful 1992 World Cup squad. Many tears were shed over that loss, and not just by Waqar. He was man enough to greet the victors on their return. But with Imran and Javed Miandad fading, Waqar's relationship with Wasim deteriorated from friendly rivalry to an open tussle for the soul of Pakistan cricket. They denied this rift of course. But the façade slipped too often for anyone to believe their protestations to be genuine, culminating in a dramatic denouement by Waqar that Wasim had ruined his career.
Wasim was a factor in this relative underachievement. More injuries, Pakistan's inept administrators, and a whiff of match-fixing were others. Nor was Waqar a saint. Coming from a country that bizarrely demands its cricketers to be more saintly than its politicians, Waqar's drugs skirmish in the West Indies was ill-received. Sometimes his natural aggression would turn into unnecessary intimidation. And he became the first player to be banned for tampering with the ball in an international match.
Yet through all this Waqar's hunger for success was not satiated. An immense will to succeed, a will to power, drove Waqar to prolong his career, ever hopeful of a recall. With fading speed came greater guile. He retained his wicket-taking potential through the use of a crafty outswinger and a defter turn of speed, although by the end he was a pale shadow of the stump-shattering, toe-crushing youth that took the world by storm as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.
That was a time when West Indies ruled the world and Richie Richardson was the coolest cat with a willow. On the dead earth of Sharjah, Waqar made Richardson hop like he was on a hot tin roof. This was not supposed to happen to West Indian batsmen. Pakistan knew that they had discovered a special talent.
Captaincy came late to Waqar, and fittingly in England, the scene of many of his successes in county cricket and for Pakistan. Tours to England in 1992 and 1996 had confirmed Wasim and Waqar as the premier exponents of reverse swing and as the most devastating opening partnership in world cricket. In 2001, Waqar inspired his side to level a Test series in England and then produced some of the best one-day bowling ever seen in the subsequent triangular tournament, that also included Australia. In truth there were many memorable bowling performances from Waqar, particularly at the death in one-day matches or defending a small total in a Test. Some players shrivel under pressure, Waqar was a giant.
In truth, too, the captaincy was a mistake. Other than that England tour, his selection was uncertain, and by the 2003 World Cup Waqar was an inspirational leader who could no longer lead by example--a fatal circumstance. Pakistan flopped and Waqar was gone. For a year he has clung on to the hope of a recall but the Pakistan selectors have sensibly prevented any further embarrassment to an ageing legend.
In fact, waiting for a year may have been a masterstroke. We do not say goodbye to the impotent leader of a year ago. We say goodbye to the fond memory of Waqar Younis, hurtling in to bowl, a standard bearer leading the charge into battle, eyes fixed on the enemy, every sinew strained in an explosion of energy, dust, and stumps, arms and voice raised in triumph. All those fans who had a tear in their eye when injury robbed Waqar of World Cup glory in 1992 will certainly have a few more now. Was Waqar Younis the best ever? For a few blissful years, perhaps he was.
Kamran Abbasi is deputy editor of the British Medical Journal.