Column | 'Sultan' disappoints on multiple fronts

Wasim Akram
Wasim Akram was a magician with the ball. FIle photo: AFP/Wen Humphreys

Who is the greatest left-arm fast bowler that world cricket has seen? Though it is difficult and even unfair to make comparisons over a period stretching for more than 145 years that international cricket has been in existence, there will be near consensus that Pakistan legend Wasim Akram stands head and shoulder above the other practitioners of this art. Though Alan Davidson, Zaheer Khan, Chaminda Vaas, Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc have been successful left-arm fast bowlers and the great Gary Sobers could bowl 'chinaman' and in addition to conventional medium-pace, none of them could match the sheer genius of Akram and his uncanny ability for producing unplayable balls almost at will. 

Akram would rank among the most complete fast bowlers of all times. He was genuinely fast and could bowl consistently at speeds exceeding 145 kms per hour. He  could swing the ball both ways and could get it to reverse once it became old. Besides, he possessed a wicked bouncer and a lethal yorker, both of which he used to good effect. Further, he was a workhorse who could bowl hours on end without compromising his pace or hostility. Above all, he was a big game player, one who could elevate his game to sublime heights when the stage and occasion demanded so. In short, he was the dream bowler every captain wanted on his side and the closest to perfection on a cricket field when it came to fast bowling.

The tally of 414 wickets in Test matches and 502 scalps in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) stand as proof for Akram’s greatness. The fact that he was a useful lower order batsman added to his utility. Though he never promoted his batting even while leading the side nor attempted to come higher in the batting order in the manner of Imran, he scored 2,898 runs in Test cricket and 3,717 in ODIs, with a double century to boot in the longer duration version of the game. He was the Player of the Match when Pakistan won the International Cricket Council (ICC)  World Cup in 1992. He also led the Pakistan side for a considerable period of time during the 1990s. He was inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame in 2009 and was also named by Wisden in an all-time great World XI in 2013.

The life story of a successful cricketer like Akram should make fascinating reading. Especially since he hailed from Pakistan, a nation that has produced many outstanding players, but who failed to get their act together and do justice to their potential collectively. There are also question marks over the structure of domestic cricket in Pakistan and the avenues available for talented cricketers to break out to the top level. The early years of a top sportsman are always interesting as it gives an insight into the circumstances that contributed to his making and the opportunities that came his way.

But in Akram’s case, there is another larger factor that made this book a much awaited one. Akram played his international cricket from the mid 1980s, when he burst onto the scene as a raw 18-year-old till 2003. This second half of 1980s was a period when Pakistan established themselves as one of the best teams in the world. They were ably led by Imran, who could control the infighting among the players and mould them into a fighting unit. This phase culminated with the victory in the 1992 ICC World Cup. The decade that followed saw Pakistan side being rocked by a series of allegations of match-fixing and relations with bookies. Akram was not spared as some of the muck that got thrown around was aimed at him. The numerous inquiry commissions set up by the Pakistan Cricket Board and the government in Islamabad did not succeed in throwing any light into the murky happenings. Pakistani bowlers were also accused of ball tampering to help facilitate reverse swing, an art that they developed and over which they soon acquired mastery. This was also a phase that saw the team showing external signs of “Islamisation”, with many cricketers growing beards and offering prayers publicly.  

Wasim Akram
Wasim Akram raised his performance in the big games. File photo: IANS

However, 'Sultan', the memoir of Akram that he has written with Gideon Haigh, disappoints on many fronts. The early years of the cricketer are etched in great detail, especially the manner in which he evolved from a boy playing street cricket with a tennis ball into a bowler who could trouble the best of batsmen in Pakistan. He was fortunate in being picked up from the streets of Lahore, where he was playing cricket with tennis ball, by a gentleman named Khalid Mahmood, who offered him a place in the Ludhiana Gymkhana side. His performances with the side helped to win selection to the camps organised by the PCB for teenaged players, the second of which was held at Karachi. While bowling there, he was sighted by Javed Miandad, “an avid talent spotter”. It was Miandad who recommended his name to the national selectors and, lo and behold, he was given a chance to play in a first-class match against the touring New Zealand side.

Akram confesses that he had not heard the word “yorker” when he bowled against the Kiwis in this game where he picked up seven wickets. This feat earned him a place in the Pakistan side, led by Miandad, that toured New Zealand and Australia in early 1985. His Test debut at Auckland was anything but spectacular as the host batsmen feasted on wayward bowling  on offer to pile up runs. He was not in the original playing eleven for the next game at Dunedin but when the visitors saw a green top on the morning of the first day, Miandad decided to include Akram.  And he grabbed the opportunity with both hands to pick up five wickets in both innings’ to return with match figure of 10/128. 

Imran returned to the side when the Pakistan side moved from New Zealand to Australia to take part in the World Championship of Cricket held there in February-March, 1985. Imran immediately realised the immense talent that Akram was blessed with and took the fledgling youngster under his wings and proceeded to teach him all the tricks of the craft of fast bowling. Imran was more than a friend, philosopher and guide for the raw teenager; he was the classic “guru” of the yore, who  nurtured his “shishya” and oversaw his development as a fast bowling great.  And the rest is history.

Till he retired from the game for the final time in 1992 Imran controlled Pakistan team with an iron fist. But after his departure, the team was riven by internal dissensions. Captaincy became a game of musical chairs, with Akram himself occupying that post on many occasions. He led the side in both 1996 and 1999 World Cups. In 1996, his decision not to play in the crucial quarterfinal tie against India came as a surprise even for his teammates. In 1999, the team reached the final but collapsed so badly against Australia that it became a one-sided contest.

Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram
Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram terrorised the batsmen with their pace and swing. File photo: AFP/Dave Chan

During this period, Pakistan side came under increased scrutiny world over due to allegations of match fixing. The sad part was that most of the accusations were made by team members against one another. Administrators also played their part in fanning them by holding long winded inquiries that seldom reached any conclusion. Akram's anger at his teammates for raising charges against him is understandable, but he has not stated or brought on record anything in this book that will help to either give a closure this sordid saga or clear his name conclusively.

The real surprise in this book comes in the part dealing with his life after his retirement from the game in 2003, when he entered the television circuit, both as a commentator and a celebrity host. Akram confesses that he picked up a drug habit during these years, which grew into a full-fledged addiction to cocaine. This started in an innocuous manner in the party circuits that he used to frequent and worsened with time. Finally he was forced to seek institutional care to get out of this habit and rehabilitation, which, unfortunately, did not prove to be successful. In the end, it took the sudden demise of his first wife Huma to shock him enough as to kick this habit. 

In the opinion of this columnist, this is the most important contribution of this book. Akram analyses that a sportsperson, so used to being the centre of attraction through his playing days, will yearn to remain a celebrity even after he hangs his boots. He postulates that the breaking down of the shackles of discipline and self control brought about by retirement, together with the intense craving for staying in the limelight, act as powerful catalysts that propel a former sportsperson towards bad habits. A contributory factor is the easy availability of party drugs and the permissive atmosphere that pervades the stratified circles that celebrities inhabit. All these combine to make a potent cocktail which only the strongest and the most determined ones can resist successfully.

Akram was a great fast bowler who will be remembered for his exploits with the cricket ball so long as the game is played. However, he stops short of being an ideal role model for up and coming youngsters due to the weaknesses of his personality. 'Sultan' lays bare some of the foibles that marked his life while attempting to brush under the carpet the remaining ones. 

As the saying goes, it may not be prudent to state the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth while penning one’s own life story. This principle appears to have guided Akram and Haigh while putting together this eminently readable book.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat) 

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