From his street cricket days to being world champions, Wasim Akram talks about his career, his favourite deliveries, intimidating batsmen and much more in an exclusive interview with Dawn.com.
Let us start from the beginning. Did tape-ball cricket have a part to play in your early days in the game?
I played a lot of tape-ball cricket, in addition to the plain tennis ball. I remember six-a-side (competitions) had just started in Lahore, in around 1983, when I was living with my grandmother in androon (inner) Lahore. At 15, I was a tape-ball ‘professional’ and would take ten rupees per game to win matches for different teams.
It was only after 1983 that I started playing with a cricket ball. Before that, everywhere I played, sarkoun pay, chhatoun pay ya school mein (be it on the roads, roof-tops or in school), it was with the tennis ball. In Ramazan, of course, we used to have a tournament every night.
Do you think tape-ball cricket is a stepping stone for budding fast bowlers?
I think the idea is really to just play cricket at that age, get your muscles going and get used to fast bowling. Once you hit the age of 14, you can make the transition to a cricket ball.
When I started bowling with a cricket ball, I was quite nippy, because I was already used to exerting more energy with the tape ball. So by the time I made the switch, I had already strengthened my shoulders.
A common theory doing the rounds is that since tape-ball cricket is very common in Pakistan, we produce a lot of fast bowlers. While in India, young cricketers play with the heavier MRF ball, which means not many young Indian fast bowlers are produced. Do you agree?
It is a good observation and could be one of the reasons, but I think the biggest factor is the difference in psyche. Fast bowlers, in India, arrive on the scene very quickly but they soon disappear (in a year or two), instead of going on to become quicker.
Look at the examples of Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Munaf Patel and so many others. They have now found another (fast bowler) in Umesh Yadav, let’s hope he can keep on going instead of fading away like the rest. They often lack the hunger and drive that is required to improve after hitting the big stage.
Growing up as a tape-ball fast bowler and then switching to hard ball – do you think there are any technical drawbacks involved?
No. You don’t make the switch suddenly. I went to a proper cricket net for the first time in my life in 1983, on the recommendation of a neighborhood friend, Khalid Mahmood (also a first-class cricketer) after he saw my tape-ball bowling on the streets. I was a tenth-grader at the time so didn’t really pay any attention to his advice. He wouldn’t have any of it and took me along to Ludhiana Gymkhana on his bike. That is when I slowly switched from tape-ball cricket to the real game.
You got your maiden five-wicket haul in your debut first-class match against New Zealand. Was it then that you realized you had made it?
No I didn’t. I thought while playing that game that if I don’t get any wickets I will be gone. I don’t know how I got those seven wickets.
After that match, I was lucky to be looked after by good mentors. Javed Miandad was my captain and he played a major role in grooming me, as well as Mudassar Nazar. And then, I met Imran Khan on the Australian tour (for the mini-World Cup).
So when did the feeling actually sink in?
When I took ten (wickets) in my second Test I realised, actually I was told by Javed bhai “you can play long for Pakistan.” Mudassar Nazar explained that I must work hard. “Tareeka bhi tou hota hai na mehnat karnay ka, paaglon ki tarah thori bhaagay jaatay hain (hard work must be done in a smart manner; you can’t just jump into it). I was lucky to be surrounded by these people at the beginning of my career.
Story goes that you were actually not going attend the open-net camp after not getting a turn in the nets…tell us a bit about that.
Yes. After not getting a chance, I complained to my coach Sabih Khan and fast bowler Saud Khan and told them I wasn’t going to attend the camp. They convinced me to give it a try and told me they would try to make sure I get my chance. So on the fifth day, I got a turn with an old ball late in the day. I looked good. Agha Saadat (former Test cricketer), who was the camp commandant, tossed a new ball to me and I have never looked back since that day.
You had a small bustling run-up, not common with fast bowlers at the time. How did you come up with that?
If I recall correctly, it was during the 1987 tour of England that I shortened my run-up after Imran told me to give it a go. “You will be able to play longer,” he said. But I was worried about my pace.
So Imran bhai took me along and measured out a run up. I ran in (from his mark) and bowled at the same pace.
Afterwards, he told me: “If you can bowl at the same speed with a shorter run-up, why run such a long distance?” And he was, obviously, right.
Did Malcolm Marshall also influence you?
Marshall shortened his run-up later in his career. I would talk to him and kept picking his brains whenever I could. I always thought (and still do) that Marshall was the most complete fast bowler cricket had ever seen.
Since we played against and with each other a lot, I would pester him with questions all the time and he always listened to me.
And then there was Imran. All the technicalities related to fast bowling, the mental grooming, reading batsmen’s mind, everything – I learned from him.
So Imran Khan was to you what Terry Jenner was to Warne?
Definitely. Especially when it came to fast bowling. Generally I had two mentors, him and Miandad.
Imran always stood at mid-on, whispering in your ear. Tell us about that and if you can recall specific instances following or not following his advice.
I always followed his advice because I needed somebody to guide me, give me confidence for the ball I was about to bowl…aur Imran say behtar to koi bowler tha hi nahi confidence bharanay kai liyay (and there was no better bowler than Imran when you needed a confidence boost).
With the new ball, we usually talked about bringing the ball in and with the old ball, he told me to change it up. Bring it in sometimes, then take it out, bowl a bouncer, and so on…
Did you ever think or do it any different than what Imran told you?
No. Never…because he was Imran Khan. By ’89, having played a few (English) county seasons, I had polished my game and knew what I was doing.
It was the same with Waqar. We usually stood at mid-off or mid-on when the other was bowling. We were constantly talking to each other and we also had several arguments but we still talked. What to do, what not to do…
It is very important for young and experienced fast bowlers to talk. You only have to look at the Indian bowlers (in Australia) to realise it. They get hit around, they are lost, but nobody talks to them. At least I had people telling me what fields to set.
Your action underwent a lot of modifications through the years. Who did you work with for that?
Mostly I just worked it out myself. Going around the wicket, going over, sometimes front-arm over, sometimes open-chested. The idea is to distract the batsman.
Several left-arm fast bowlers, like Chaminda Vaas and Zaheer Khan emulate your action while bowling the yorker, by going more round-arm before the action starts…
Yes the hand goes up and it’s a much higher release. The trajectory is better when the ball drops sharply to the base of the stumps.
How did you come up with that? Did you pick it from someone else?
I was inspired by the great West Indian fast bowler Joel Garner’s action. I gained confidence knowing I was emulating his action and eventually perfected the Yorker.
Unfortunately, I had to abandon that action later on as the cleverer batsmen were able to figure it out. Then, I started bowling bouncers with that change-up.
How often did you bowl the slower ball?
I learnt the slower ball in the post-1992 period after I saw Franklin Stevenson of the West Indies in the county circuit. I would practice in the nets, hit people on the head, have the ball fly over the nets. I got it right after a lot of practice.
Up until ’92, it was all about pace. After the World Cup, however, I realised that variations were necessary in the one-day game. In county cricket, we would play up to three limited-over competitions at a time, which was vital to giving me match practice with it (slower ball). It became really useful and I picked up a few wickets with it in the county tournaments.
You said you practiced with your slower bouncer towards the end of your county stint at Hampshire. Was no one else bowling it at that time?
Yes, it wasn’t being bowled back then. It was really at the end of my career that I started experimenting. I liked trying new things and I was the first person to use the left-arm around-the-wicket angle consistently as a wicket-taking ploy.
How important is the left arm angle?
Very important, since it is a difficult angle for batsmen. When a left-armer comes around the wicket to a right-hand batsman, he (the batsman) is fooled into thinking that the ball is going to tail-in. So he is bound to play at it. If it holds its line or even moves away, there will be a definite edge.
Later on, for some reason, the mindset of umpires changed a bit and leg-before decisions were not given from that angle. Earlier, I would even get lbw decisions in my favour with fuller-length deliveries.
When did you consider yourself at the top of your game?
After the 1989 Australian series until the end of my career, I always felt in control. The county experience had really worked its magic and even my batting had improved by that time. I felt I could compete.
Did you feel that no one could really stand up to you?
Yes. I felt like I could get any batsman. I told myself: daroon ga nahi kisi say, na darta tha (I won’t get intimidated by anyone, and I never did).
So was there no one you feared as a bowler?
I have had battles with several greats – like Sir Viv Richards, Martin Crowe, Allan Border, Mark Taylor – where at times they have won and sometimes I have won, but I was never intimidated by anyone. I have intimidated others, never got intimidated myself. I knew how to tackle them, where to bowl, what to bowl. By 1990, I knew how to get on top of a batsman.
Do you remember any particular ‘intimidating’ spell?
There are many, but where it started was in 1989-90 during the Australian tour and Melbourne, specifically. I picked up 11 wickets. Wickets with the new ball, then with the old ball, reverse swinging it both in and out... even bowling batsmen off low, swinging full-tosses.
You have said that you considered Sir Viv to be the greatest batsman you have bowled to. What was it like to face him as a bowler?
Viv was a different breed. It wasn’t just his batting, it was his aura. Over six feet tall; itnay itnay (these huge) muscles; no sign of any protection; forget arm or chest guards, not even a helmet. So that whole aura was intimidating for a young skinny bowler that I was back then.
However, I still got his wickets a few times. That, I should admit, was also because his greatest days were behind him. I am glad I faced him then and not earlier.
How do you rate him among the modern greats?
While his record is not the same (in terms of numbers), he was the most devastating batsman I have bowled to. It is hard to rate him and compare him with some of the batsmen who came after him. Still, I watched and admired him a lot. When I was growing up, there was only name and that was Vivian Richards.
Playing against the best always gave me inspiration. I would tell myself to prove a point against the big names. If (Ian) Botham was playing, I’d tell myself I must bring him down.
How would you rate Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Inzamam-ul-Haq or Rahul Dravid?
It is very difficult. All of these guys have such amazing records that it’s difficult to pick one out.
And who was the hardest to bowl at?
I got Ponting out on several occasions, without getting hit around much. As for Tendulkar, I didn’t play a Test against him for ten years at the peak of my career, I have also dismissed Lara but I think he was the most difficult. He seemed very unusual to a bowler’s eye, with the bat coming down from up high at an awkward angle. He would also jump here and there, so it made him a very different and difficult batsman to bowl to.
So no batsman worried or intimidated you ever?
If I had to pick someone it would have to be (Adam) Gilchrist in one-day internationals (ODIs).
But you do have some amazing dismissals against him (Gilchrist).
Yes, but he has hit me quite a bit as well, man. Gilchrist wasn’t an Afridi-type pinch-hitter. He was a proper batsman, who could hit you anytime, anywhere. Afridi sahib ka kya pata? 100 main say aik match main chalna hai baaqi ka pata nahi… (With Afridi, who knows? He’ll score in one match out of a hundred. The rest, you don’t know…)
You have also bowled to Virender Sehwag. Was he comparable?
I have bowled very little to Sehwag and no, I didn’t feel the same way. In 1998-99 he came down to bat at number five or six during the Pepsi Cup in India, when Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq got his wicket. The only other time (we faced each other) was the 2003 World Cup, where he got off to a great start thanks to our ‘premium’ fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar.
Pace is everything for a fast bowler, but there comes a time when you start losing it. When did it happen to you and what were your feelings at the time? Was there a sense of denial?
No denial for me. After 1997, I realised that I had lost a bit of pace. I was always nippy, but I had mastered the art of swing by then. See, there is no room for denial. One should know and admit it. There is a lot more to fast bowling than just pace.
Tell us how you and Waqar defended that 125-run total against New Zealand in 1992-93?
It was a long time ago, but we had decided that gaind haath say chorna nahi ha (we weren’t going to let go of the ball) because if we did, the match was gone.
Did you guys have a spat during that series?
No. Javed was captain and Waqar was new to the team. Javed bhai gave us the ball and said, “Whatever you can do will have to be with the new ball.”
We wouldn’t even tire of bowling at that time and it started to reverse a bit at the end, which gave us hope because New Zealand had never really learnt to tackle reverse swing. Apart from Martin Crowe, none of their batsmen had a clue about it.
While your ODI and Test records are equally special, as a viewer it seems like you enjoyed bowling with the white ball more than the red one. Is it true?
Yes, early on I did. They changed the rules later. The two new balls disappeared and bouncers were banned, which made it really difficult with one white ball. Despite this, I really enjoyed bowling during the death overs more than any thing else.
As much fun as it was, Test cricket was the ultimate challenge. In ODIs, you knew you will get wickets when the batsmen tried to hit you out at the end. Mazaa tau Test cricket ka hee hai na phir (Test cricket is the real fun, after all).
Does that mean you’re in favour of having two new balls back in the ODIs?
Yes. If you look at the game today, everything is in the batsman’s favour. On sub-continental tracks in particular, the ball deteriorates quickly and you lose sight of it after the twelfth over! I am glad the International Cricket Council (ICC) had the brains to make the changes.
Two deliveries: One, to Dravid in Chennai, where you take the top of off after a loud lbw shout was turned down; the other to Robert Croft in England, where it defies physics and hits him in front only to be turned down. Both have created quite a furore on YouTube amongst your fans. Can you tell us a bit about them?
I remember them both reverse swinging. With Croft, I went around the wicket and bowled with a lot of energy. I bowled really fast on the Oval pitch. This was in 1996. Someone gave me a picture of Alec Stewart ducking my delivery, with both his feet airborne and over the wickets, as he is sways out of the way.
With Dravid, I brought two balls into him earlier. In this day and age, he would have been given out but not then. Before it happened, I had worked on bringing it in and then I said: ab main iski laat say bahar nikaalta hoon (I will bring it out from his leg) and that is what I did. It happened exactly how I had visualised it: where I would pitch the ball and what result it would produce.
So you had complete control over those miraculous deliveries?
Definitely. Tukkay main aisee ball nahi ho sakti (you can’t fluke such deliveries). You can bowl a bouncer and get a top edge or the batsman gifts you a wicket off a fluke delivery, but you can’t get wickets.
Talk to us about the 1999 World Cup loss. Must be a low point in your career?
Very, very low. Forget the fact that we lost the final, the way we lost that match and the performance we gave…spineless!
How much did that hurt compared to 1996?
The feeling was very different. In 1996, it was more about the attitude of the players. We had players like Aamir Sohail. I was injured. They knew I was injured and couldn’t play the quarterfinal. Even before the match started, they (players) had started saying things like “we are going to lose the match.” Had we won, they knew it would make me a successful captain.
You see, these cricketers have spent their entire careers trying to bring me down instead of focussing on their game, which is why they were not able to perform well – they have always been distracted.
Back to 1999 then, tell us about the mood in the dressing room before the final. What was going through your mind?
We were very confident. We had performed well throughout the tournament, with an excellent bowling attack in Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq, Azhar Mahmood, Abdul Razzaq and me. We were batting down until number nine.
In hindsight, do you think batting first was right decision?
I have always thought it was the right decision. We had been batting first on seaming tracks throughout the tournament and it had been working for us.
We saw a lot of highs during your captaincy, but one thing that also came to the fore was the chasing problem. Why?
I think it was a psychological issue more than anything else. Pakistan, on most occasions, still falter while chasing totals. A sense of fear creeps in and they are confused about the approach instead of just trying to get there sensibly with strike-rotation.
Looking at the team we had in those days, this approach doesn’t seem to suit them. We had aggressive cricketers like you, Shoaib Akhtar, Waqar Younis, even Moin Khan. Why, then, were you guys so defensive in chasing?
It was always in the head. The fear of losing takes its toll. You start thinking of things like, how will people react if we lose? We did try to get rid of this mental stigma. In the end, it depends on the batsmen and how good they are as players, and most importantly, their mental strength.
It is said that Inzamam always shielded himself by batting at number five. Do you agree?
Of course. If Inzi had come at one or two down, he would have been a different player. He would have had over 10,000 Test runs to his name. Unfortunately, he was always on the back foot, because he didn’t believe in himself, which was his biggest problem.
The first five dismissals that come to your mind?
[Long pause] I will have to think about them.
What was it like to play under Waqar’s captaincy? What did you think of him as a bowler and as a captain?
As a bowler, he was great. A great sight to watch, he was one of the greatest bowlers of all time. I don’t think I saw or will see a bowler like him ever again.
As a captain, though, he had no brains, no strategy and was always on the back foot.
And, as a coach?
I think Waqar did well for Pakistan. However, he and others (in Pakistan) should realise that once you have stopped playing, that is it for you. It is the players who will remain in the limelight, not the coach. In our part of the world, coaches want the power first and then the job. Why do you need all the power? You are supposed to back the players and the captain, that’s it! Decision-making is the captain’s job and he has the final say.
I coach Kolkata Knight Riders and all I want is for the guys to listen to my advice and show up at the nets on time. Just make a strategy and give it to them and then it is up to them. Stay away from the limelight, like Gary Kirsten did. If anybody wants to know how a coach should behave, they should look at Kirsten’s model and how he remained in the shadow.
For the generation that grew up in the nineties, the sight of you running in at Sharjah is imprinted in memory. How do you rate Sharjah, and what are your other favourite venues?
Sharjah was fun. I loved playing there because of the crowd (half-Indian, half-Pakistani), the noise levels, and the attention we received. The facilities were nice too, but the tension and the pleasure of getting a wicket in that tension was what made that place so special.
If I had to pick a ground it will have to be Melbourne, because of the pace and bounce. Also because I got a lot of wickets every time I bowled there. In Pakistan, I would pick Karachi and bowling in the evenings, with the sea breeze coming in. It used to swing up to three feet sometimes.
If you could change your career with any other bowler, who would it be?
You will exchange it, just like that…
Haaaan! Araam say. (Yes! Just like that).
Not Imran Khan?
No. As a bowler Marshall, as a leader Imran Khan, of course.
When you played your last match in the 2003 World Cup, you were the tournament’s highest wicket-taker at the time. Do you think you could have gone on for longer?
Of course I could have played on. I would have liked to carry on in ODIs, at least. However, for some reason, PCB’s then chairman Tauqir Zia thought he knew more about cricket than me. After all, I have played 100 Tests and 400 ODIs, while he has played one club match, maybe. So it was more about ego than anything else.
When new chairmen take control of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), their egos go through the roof and they start thinking they are God. I am glad I retired because I didn’t even want to play under these guys. Waqar ka bhi kaafi satyanaas kia hai un sub nay (they went on to ruin Waqar’s career).
Since there are several fans, who still cling onto the hope of waking up to the news of a Wasim bhai comeback…we heard you bowled in the KKR nets recently and troubled the batsman?
Yes. Initially I got bored but then I bowled to all the batsmen. It was coming out fine and the batsmen were troubled. Swing ho rahi thi ball (It was still swinging).
Is a comeback on the cards, then?
No there is a time for everything and I have had my time. I am not like most cricketers in our part of the world, who have been holding on to the job of coach for the last 80 years and don’t give anyone else a chance. I am not taking any names but you know what I mean.
Your memory is unfortunately fading and you are allowed to have one ball, either the Alan Lamb one or the Chris Lewis one, remain intact. Which one will you pick?
The Alan Lamb one, definitely. It was an unplayable delivery which was planned for. I asked Imran what to do and he said do this. Neil Fairbrother, who I had played with at Lancashire, was at the crease and he told Lamb what I was going to do, i.e. go around the wicket. But Allan Lamb had no idea that someone could go around the wicket and bowl such a delivery…
The writer has been a player and junior coach in Auckland’s club cricket circuit, and has worked with the New Zealand Cricket Player’s Association. He is currently working as a freelance cricket journalist.