Much has been said about Usain Bolt’s admiration of Waqar Younis but it is a little-known fact that Younis himself was a sprinter and a javelin-thrower besides participating regularly in the high-jump and pole-vaulting events in his college days. It is no surprise then that the “Burewalla Express” had the long, rhythmic run up which was as much a terrifying sight for batsmen as were his trademark toe-crushing yorkers.
Here, Younis recalls everything from his penchant for leg-spin bowling, how television coverage aided his Pakistan call up and takes his pick for best bowler out of the current lot while revealing what exactly is wrong with Umar Gul.
Tell us about the early part of your career? How did you make it into the Pakistan side?
I remember I had played only six first class games when I got picked for the Pakistan camp out of the blue. I had done reasonably well, picking up around twenty-seven wickets in those first few matches. I remember Imran was not feeling well at the time, and was not present at the camp. Luckily the Super Wills Cup was going on, and there was a match between United Bank and Delhi XI. Saleem Jaffar got injured, and I got the opportunity to play that game. Imran watched me on TV, and actually came to the ground to watch the end of the game. The very next day, he met me and told me that I will be going to Sharjah next month. Just meeting Imran at the time was enough of an experience for me, but for him to notify me of my selection was just out of this world.
You had an extremely smooth run-up to the crease, an elegant gather, and a perfectly side-on action. Who did you model yourself against?
I don’ t think I tried to copy or emulate any one. I shared a lot of stuff with Wasim, Aqib and Imran but was myself when it came to bowling and my action. First of all, I never thought I would actually play cricket. I was more of an all-round athlete. I was a runner, a javelin thrower, a high jumper and a pole-vaulter in school, and was really into athletics. I used to bowl casual leg-spin, and it was only when somebody saw me bowl fast while living in Abu Dhabi, I was told to concentrate on fast bowling. So in college I bought spikes, and took it up more seriously, but remained true to who I was, and my natural action.
You see many of the modern day fast-bowlers who come on to the scene, with the slim & lanky build that you had, and take a few years to get to their maximum pace. You were fast from the outset though.
Yes. I wasn’t ever taught to bowl line and length though, and feel like coaching is sometimes bad for you as a budding fast bowler. Raw is always good. I remember I bowled extremely waywardly in my first few games, but Imran never told me to hold back, or asked me what I was doing. These days the captain will easily get frustrated and say “What are you doing?...I didn’t pick you for this.” But Imran told me “I picked you to bowl fast” and that’s what I did. It encouraged me a lot to stay true to myself at the beginning of my career.
So you would recommend doing it your way, instead of building your body up for the strains of fast bowling first and concentrating on the basics first?
Listen, you are what you are. Take Junaid Khan for instance, he is extremely raw but you can see that he is succeeding when he is being allowed to be the bowler that he naturally is. Time is the best teacher when it comes to fast bowling, and he will become more and more adept at what he does with the passage of time. You should try to keep away from the biomechanics and all the hassles that come with it. Why is Junaid Khan in the team in the first place? He is from an extremely small town, like me. If you look at my town, you would say “Cricket? Nobody plays cricket here.” But he is still in the team, and I was in the team, based on our natural talents. Which you have to keep with you since that is what you are actually good at, instead of cluttering your approach with other stuff.
You almost patent the reverse-swinging Yorker? Tell us how you perfected it?
The key was a lot of practice of course. But what made it much easier for me being aware of how to reverse swing the ball as a youngster. I knew what it was and practiced it even before coming into the Pakistan international side. This made life in the international side a lot easier, because at the time there were a lot of fast bowlers trying to make it into the team. And to stay ahead of them and to keep myself on track I had to make sure I had the yorker as part of my weaponry and knew how to execute it. To practice I used some thing very similar to the routine Malinga has (putting shoes in the nets and constantly bowling at them). His arm is more slingy, I was more high arm, but to practice for the yorker you have to aim at certain areas and keep repeating it in the nets.
Looking back do you think the injury early on in your career could have been avoided?
I don’t think so. We didn’t have the physiotherapists, the dietitians, and the nutritionists the current players have the luxury to access. And at the age, if you start playing international cricket at the tender age of seventeen, eighteen an injury is almost inevitable, as the bones haven’t developed properly yet. I was lucky that I got it early, and managed to come back strong. And by the time the second major injury came, I was much more experienced and knew how to handle it better.
You were extremely lethal prior to your injury, and had one of the best strike rates of all-time. Do you personally think you were a better bowler back then?
I was very wild, and used to concentrate a lot on pace. I think I matured a lot after the injury. I was more protective of my back, and went down on pace. But at the same time I knew how to utilize the old ball, and reverse swing better. There were so many fast bowlers back then, that I used to get the old ball, and really honed my skills with it. The record wasn’t bad after the injury either.
When do you think you were at the peak of your powers?
The 1992 World Cup when I missed out due to injury. I think I was extremely lethal at that time. Even after that when I came back after injury, the 92 tour to England, I felt like I was playing at the top of my game.
You formed the most successful fast-bowling partnership in the history of the game with Wasim Akram? Do you think him at the other end helped your bowling?
Most definitely. I think if you ask Wasim he will say the same thing. More so than the style of bowling, I think it was our attitudes that really complimented each other and egged the other person on. Both of us were determined to do well, to pick up wickets for Pakistan and to out do each other on the field. That helped both of us immensely I think.
The batsmen you found hardest to bowl at?
On his day any batsman could be devastating. If I had to pick, I would say Brian Lara in Tests. Also Mathew Hayden, especially in ODIs, was not a batsman I liked bowling to when he was in form.
Memories that stick out the most?
Playing internationally is a privilege itself, but again if I had to pick, I would say in tests I always remember the Lords Test match in 1992 very fondly. It was when Wasim and I won the match with the bat at the end. In ODIs, I think my performance in 1993 against South Africa in Durban when I picked up five wickets defending just 208, I remember very fondly.
Did you think you would end up in coaching?
I never thought I would get involved in coaching. But my whole life has just been cricket, and I have taken a lot from the game. I feel like I can give back through coaching now, which is why I decided to delve into it.
Of the current fast bowling lot you have coached quite a few. Who are you the biggest fan of, and who do you think deserves the longest run?
I am a fan of Junaid and Cheema. Umar Gul is also there. All these bowlers are those that I have helped in bringing up and coaching. They are all lovely boys, and are a hard working lot. I don’t think Pakistan Cricket should expect to find a Wasim Akram, or a Shoaib Akhtar, or a Waqar Younis all the time. It’s hard to find such people. Fast bowling is not a one-man show, and these guys can prove successful as a unit.
From the outside it looks like you have had quite an impact on Umar Gul as a bowler, your thoughts on that.
At this level you don’t really “coach” coach. But try to encourage the bowler on what he does best. I think Umar Gul is himself a smart and hard-working bowler, and he believed in my abilities to help him. I think that trust between us allowed his bowling to improve a lot under my coaching.
He has a problem fighting back once the batsmen start to get on top of him. How do you and bowlers in general tackle that mental battle?
I think he needs someone to bowl consistently well from the other end. You need a partner, like I had with Wasim. It helps the bowler at the other end a lot when the pressure is being maintained on the opposite end. I think Junaid will be able to fill that role if given a consistent run. Umar Gul must realize that it’s not going to get any easier, as his body starts to give way to his age, so he needs to understand his strength as well as his limitations both bowling wise and body wise.
We have heard you urging a push up in the batting order for Umar Akmal quite a few times on commentary, but when you were coach we didn’t see that. Why?
When I was coach he was too young. He had just arrived on to the scene, was very hyper and was really inexperienced. And I am not saying to put him in at number three in Test matches or some thing, that is not his place. I wanted him pushed up the order in T20s to number three, as its only twenty overs long and you need your best to face the maximum number of overs. In ODIs even, I think they need to look at the situation and push him up. I think once the openers, or top three have played out the first twenty overs, that is the best place to send him in. And then based on those performances you can start looking at tests.
How much do you think it’s a case of him being hot headed, and how much does it just come down to bad management?
I don’t actually think he is a problem. He is a smart cookie, and is a very talented youngster. I think it’s more of a problem of the expectations we have from him from the outset. The talent that he is carrying, we all expected him to just be great from the start. But he is extremely young and it takes time to get used to playing at the international level. I think he is doing fine, and will learn with the passage of time. We need to realize this and give him time. The hyper attitude and hot headiness needs to be channeled by the management into producing results for the team.
Looking back it turns out you were right in supporting Misbah-ul-Haq for the captaincy. Do you think it would have helped us in the 2011 World Cup also? And what is it that makes him a good leader?
I thought we played extremely well in the WC, and that every body chipped in. It was a special tournament for us, and I cannot say if it would have been better or not. We could have won the India match, but that is just how the game goes sometimes. So I wouldn’t say Misbah as the captain then would have brought a different result, but he definitely brings a calm influence to the team. He understands that game really well, and I think a team that is rebuilding, like the current Pakistan side is, needs a leader who is a little conservative, can bring an order to the affairs, and instill confidence in his team to win at the same time.
What about Mohammad Hafeez as a future leader?
It is very early days still. I think he did reasonably well in his first test, even though Pakistan ended up on the losing side, I think he lead the side well. I cannot say he is the future leader, and it would be unfair to start judging him right now, as captaincy requires its time. The T20 WC will be a good test for him.
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.